The Rich Jesuit Legacy in Cordoba Province

The main entrance of the Jesuit estancia in Jesus Maria, with the chapel to the left.

The main entrance of the Jesuit estancia in Jesus Maria, with the chapel to the left.

After visiting the German-themed town of Villa General Belgrano south of Cordoba, we decided to go back towards that city and then further north in order to visit some of the famous Estancias Jesuiticas in this region.

But first, a brief history: The Jesuits came to South America in the 16th Century. When Cordoba was founded in 1573, the king of Spain allocated some land to the Jesuits who accepted and set about developing the capital of the future Jesuit province of Paraguay (including parts of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile). To train the priests who wanted to work in the missions of this province, the Colegio Máximo de Córdoba was established. Later it became the first university in Argentina and the second in Latin America. Other students also attended the university, as education was always one of the key ways of evangelising for the Jesuits. [Source ]

In order to support the educational and spiritual work being carried out in Cordoba the Jesuits acquired large tracts of land that they farmed to produce food and financial resources; a system of large ranch-like farms – Estancias – was developed. The farms were worked by the Jesuits, supervising indigenous workers and African slaves. There were 6 of these Estancias in the countryside surrounding Cordoba – 5 of them can be visited today; the sixth, San Ignacio, no longer exists.

The remaining 5 estancias in Cordoba province are all in good repair, several housing museums, and are variously owned by the federal government, the Province of Córdoba, the Catholic Church, and private owners. They are well-protected on many legal levels, not least by the fact that in 2000 the buildings in Cordoba city and the 5 remaining Estancias were collectively recognised by UNESCO and included on the List of World Heritage Sites. [UNESCO Reference ]

Courtyard of the Estancia Alta Gracia.

Courtyard of the Estancia Alta Gracia.

We recently visited 3 of the Estancias – the first being Alta Gracia . Before the Jesuits acquired this property, the land had first been granted to Juan Nieto, one of the founders of Cordoba, in 1588. After he died it was inherited by his widow, who later married Alonso Nieto de Herrera. He then named the place Alta Gracia, in honour of the virgin of his home town in Spain. When his wife died in 1643, he joined the Jesuits and, in the process, donated all his worldly goods to them. Thus it became one of the Estancias Jesuíticas supporting the spiritual and educational work of the order in Cordoba. [Source ]

Estancia Caroya: outside the very simple chapel.

Estancia Caroya: outside the very simple small chapel.

After being so impressed by Alta Gracia, we decided to travel north of Cordoba to Jesus Maria, to visit two more Estancias. Estancia Caroya was the first rural facility developed by the Jesuits. It has been through many uses over the years – as well as supporting the work of the order in Cordoba during the time of the Jesuits, it was used as a place to manufacture cold steel weapons for the war of national independence, 1814-16, and in 1878 it provided accommodation for Italian immigrants from the Friuli region of Italy, who were the founders of the nearby Colonia Caroya. Today it houses a museum which reflects these uses, showing the history of the Estancia, the weapons building and also of the immigrants.

Estancia Caroya: courtyard with an old-fashioned well across from the main entrance gate.

Estancia Caroya: courtyard with an old-fashioned well across from the main entrance gate.

Estancia Caroya: inside the very plain chapel.

Estancia Caroya: inside the very plain chapel.


Estancia Jesus Maria was the second estancia to be developed. Among the other activities attributed to all estancias, this one also initiated grape growing and wine producing. It was the foundation of this industry which continues in the region today. Currently it houses the National Jesuit Museum. [Source ]

The Jesuits worked these estancias until they were expelled from South America in 1767. Their presence in Latin America spanned 150 years. The Jesuits were also responsible for a system of Missions in South America. We visited the ruins of one of these in Paraguay in 2008. It seems that all of the Missions fell to the same fate. [Source ]

Hohenau in Paraguay: ruins of the Trinidad mission

Hohenau in Paraguay: ruins of the Trinidad mission

All of this begs the question: Why did the Estancias survive and all the Missions of Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil are just ruins? I have been looking for an answer, but haven’t found a definitive one.

So then I asked the question: What is the difference between an Estancia and a mission or the ‘reducciones’, as they are known in Spanish? My hypothesis is that since the estancias were productive entities that were really worth taking over, they passed into private or public ownership when the Jesuits were expelled. The missions, on the other hand, had a unique Jesuit goal of converting the local indigenous community to Catholicism and protecting them from other European influence. Hence, with the expulsion of the Jesuits, no one saw a reason to continue with this doctrine.

Do you have other answers to my questions?
If so, please leave me a comment below.
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The Jesuit order performed unique missionary work, which leaves a strong legacy in today's Argentina. Cordoba was once the capital of the Jesuit Province of Paraguay. In the region you find remains of numerous former Jesuit reductions - each a little different from the neighbouring one. All are worthwhile seeing when you are visiting the Cordoba province of Argentina.

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We have since visited other Jesuit sights in South America: the Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis in Argentina & Brazil and the beautifully restored Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos in Bolivia . Read these two reports for the full picture.


dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Yasha, We have been to Santa Catalina on two separate visits to Cordoba. It is about half an hour to the north along a dirt road with a tiny sign. Because it is out of the way we got it almost to ourselves each time. I can highly recommend a visit if you are near Cordoba again. I put photos and a description of it on my blog after our second visit –

    • Yasha says:

      Hi Lyn, thanks for that. We would have liked to visit them all but we were on a bit of a schedule – not like us at all. We were given a booklet at the tourist info in Alta Gracia: ‘Camino de las Estancias Jesuiticas’. It’s written in Spanish, English and Portuguese. The photos of the Santa Catalina and La Candelaria look amazing. I can imagine you going back a second time. We never know where we will find ourselves, so maybe we’ll get to see them too.

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