Sunday, April 21, 2019

South American Diary #11: The church at Nercón


     Happy Easter! 

     I've got a holiday treat for readers of all denominations: a visit to the Our Lady of Grace Church—Nuestra Señora de Gracia—in the town of Nercón, Chile. Made of local cypress and larch about 1890, it is one of 14 distinctive wooden churches on the island of Chiloé which, together were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The official citation reads:
The 14 churches of Chiloé represent the only example in Latin America of a rare form of ecclesiastical wooden architecture. They were built on the initiative of the Jesuit Peripatetic Mission in the 17th and 18th centuries and bear testimony to a successful fusion of indigenous and European culture and technical expertise. 
     I've only seen one of the other 13 — the lemon yellow Church of San Francisco De Castro, beautiful too, though on a larger scale, and painted, on the outside, so its grandeur seemed a little forced after the stunning simplicity of the church at Nercón.  UNESCO produced a video featuring a few of the other churches. 
     Makes me wish I could return and see them all, though it's hard to imagine how any of them could be sweeter than this imposing-yet-humble wooden structure, built by seafaring missionaries on this island, which historian Renato Cárdenas called “a distinct enclave, linked more to the sea than the continent."
     That would explain the sailing ships suspended from the ceiling, a practice found in Scandinavian churches honoring the vessels so important to parishioners' lives, though in the New World it's thought they also symbolize the ships that conveyed them to their new homes. Something I had only seen once before, in a small ornate stone church in Quebec City: Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.
     The colors inside, particularly the intense blue of the side altars, were particularly affecting, as were the folk art figures, the bare wood, the careful carpentry: while it is not true the church is built without nails, there are not as many as you'd expect.

    I was so focused on taking photographs of the place, I neglected to quiz the woman who opened the church for us. That was  a mistake. I assumed I'd find background online, but I there isn't a lot. Someone should write a book on these churches.  I'd do it, in a heartbeat.
     People purporting to be faithful talk about humility a lot, but often that ideal gets lost in the gold-leaf grandeur that religious leaders feel obligated to plaster over themselves and their surroundings. 
     Our Lady of Grace Church reminds us that there is beauty in simplicity, in minimalism—and few things are simpler than a cross—in natural materials in their natural state. Just to put a coat of paint on this church would be a desecration. It achieves a harmony with the nature buffeting it, very much like a ship itself, a tight vessel designed to be battered by the woes of the world and convey the souls sheltered within to a safe, snug harbor. 
    So here's hoping that this Easter—if you celebrate it—you can look beyond the grand  trappings, the lacy bonnets, if people still wear Easter bonnets, the overflowing candy baskets and dripping spiral hams, and connect with the basic message and suffering, redemption and rebirth that is at the heart of the Easter story, or so I've been led to believe. All who suffer are not redeemed, but the possibility is always waiting for those who seek redemption.



  1. Beautiful church; thank you for the Easter gift! The sky looks very cool, too.

    I haven't seen an Easter bonnet in years, but, although I and my fellow parishioners generally dress causally for church, I do enjoy seeing people dress up for Easter, especially little children.

  2. One of the joys of traveling for me is looking at, and occasionally visiting, the churches. I would never have the pleasure of seeing this one, though. A perfect Easter gift.

  3. I have poked into a number of churches in recent visits to Italy, and found most of them depressingly dark and cluttered. But every once in a while one comes on a simple sanctuary, usually of some antiquity, with vaulting arches and walls not hung with 19th Century religious art. There is indeed beauty in simplicity.



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