Exploring the Historic Churches of Rio

By Levi Michaels, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – With the 2013 World Youth Day (WYD) arriving on July 23rd, some of Rio’s fantastic religious architecture will be must-sees for many visitors. Neighborhoods like Centro and Penha offer a glimpse at some of the grandest churches in the world, many of which are off the usual tourist path.

Mass at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News

Christmas Mass at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, photo by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

Located on historic Rua Dom Gerardo in Centro, the Mosteiro de São Bento (Monastery of Saint Benedict) is one of Rio’s first monasteries, almost as old as the city itself. Founded in 1590 by two monks from Bahia, construction was completed in 1671 under the direction of military engineer Francisco de Frias da Mesquita.

Despite its simple facade, the interior of the chapel is an impressive monument to the talho dourado (gilded) style of architecture imported by the Portuguese during the 17th century, wrought with Portuguese tile and ornate wood carvings covered in gold.

Sunlight illuminates the sanctuary through a skylight, and monks fill the golden halls with Gregorian chants during morning and evening services, which are open to the public and performed in Portuguese.

“If I was a peregrine coming to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, I would definitely go to Mosteiro de São Bento. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the city,” said 24 year-old Renata Palhares, a Catholic resident in Rio who works in film.

Sitting atop Morro do Cariri in Penha, Nossa Senhora da Penha (Our Lady of Penha), popularly known as Igreja da Penha (Penha Church), may be difficult to reach, but it certainly is worth the trip. Visitors who brave the steps or take the cable car are rewarded with a stunning view of the city and a chance to explore the 17th century sanctuary.

Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Penha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News

Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Penha, photo by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

At the foot of the stairs is a souvenir shop where worshipers can buy wax body parts to leave in a museum room upstairs as a tribute to Nossa Senhora da Penha, who is said to have first revealed herself in 1434 to a French monk on a mountain called Penha da França in northern Spain.

The museum features an interesting collection of religious and historical items, including slavery artifacts from the quilombo (community of escaped slaves), that once inhabited Penha.

After two years of construction, Santuário e Convento do Santo Antônio, located near Largo da Carioca in Centro, recently reopened its doors in celebration of Dia do Santo Antônio on Friday, June 14th.

Besides being known for its talho dourado decor and beautiful 18th century sacristy, considered by some to be the best in the city, the sanctuary and convent are revered by worshipers of Saint Anthony, who pray to the patron saint of marriage to find a spouse, pay off debts, buy a house, land a job, or pass the concurso (public service exam).

In fact, the governor of Rio de Janeiro once prayed to the saint for protection in 1710 when the city was sieged by French pirates, and, following the victory of the Brazilian forces, promoted a statue of Saint Anthony to the rank of captain of infantry, complete with soldier’s pay to be donated to the convent. The statue was placed at the entrance to the Convento do Santo Antônio in 1781, where it can still be seen today.

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