The Church and Convent of Santa Clara do Desterro was founded in 1677, when four sisters of the Order of the Poor Clares, from Évora, Portugal, came to Brazil to implement religious education.
Next to the Tororó dyke, formerly called the Desterro dyke, there was a mud chapel with the invocation of Our Lady of the Desterro.
With alms from the people, the chapel was improved and turned into a chapel, with tiles in the chancel and side altars with gilded altarpieces and silver ornaments.
Next to this small church, the field master João de Araújo had built some houses with the intention of founding a retreat for women of “good life”, but he did not realise this project.
In 1644, with the aim of setting up the first convent for women in Brazil, a list of contributors was organised, including the most prosperous men in the city, while Sebastião de Brito e Castro was looking in the Metropolis for nuns who wanted to come to Bahia.
By Royal Provision of 7 February 1665, with Vasco de Mascarenhas, Count of Óbidos, as governor and captain-general, a licence was granted for the creation of a convent of black-robed nuns, up to 50, who were of the observance of Saint Francis.
They would be subject to the archbishopric of Bahia and could have a dowry of eight thousand cruzados of income from the land of houses, farms and cattle pens.
The petitioners, when they addressed the king, Dom Afonso VI, argued that there was no convent for women in Brazil to gather their daughters and that they lacked the financial means to send the girls to profess in convents in Portugal. They also mentioned the dangers of crossing the Atlantic.
Pope Clement IX’s bull of 13 May 1669, which granted permission for the establishment of a women’s convent in Bahia, recounted the story of some young women from Brazil who ended up captive to infidel pirates or who perished in shipwrecks.
The Senate of the Chamber, then formed by the good men of Bahian society, took responsibility for the first works, which were carried out from 1671.
The founding nuns of the convent of Desterro, from the convent of Santa Clara de Évora, arrived in Bahia on 29 April 1677, six years after the construction of the accommodation to house them had begun.
They were, however, obliged to remain on the ship in which they had come for ten days while their quarters were precariously prepared.
The new arrivals were Mothers Margaret of the Column, Jerome of the Crib, Louise of St Joseph and Mary of St Raymond.
In reference to the origin of the foundresses, the convent was named after St Clare of the Desterro of Bahia.
On 28 January 1678, a few months after the landing of the nuns from Évora, the first two girls from Bahia, Marta Borges da França and her sister Leonor, entered the convent.
In religious life, they received the names of Sora Marta de Cristo and Sora Leonor de Jesus, respectively.
On 1 September 1679, João de Couros Carneiro, life clerk of the City Council and administrator of the nuns’ works, ordered the construction of the convent to be restarted, which would have the capacity to house only 15 nuns, and the foundation stone was laid on 22 October 1679.
During this period, master masons Francisco Pinheiro and João da Costa Guimarães worked under the administration of Colonel Domingos Pires, who brought four daughters to the convent and was its treasurer.
Once authorisation for the construction had been given, the Senate of the Chamber, as we have seen, was obliged by deed to contribute funds.
However, the convent was built thanks to dowry donations from the nuns, as stated by the archbishop, Friar Dom Manoel da Ressurreição, in the Book of the Foundation, on 1 August 1689, explaining that the nuns supported themselves with the income resulting from the interest on the dowries of the nuns, being free of the royal patronage.
It must not have been very easy for these first nuns to live in the 17th century, in Bahia, at the end of the line that marked the second ridge, at the foot of the current Tororó and Baixa dos Sapateiros dykes.
The city then began to populate in this direction, due to the presence of convents and churches.
Following the custom established by the Tridentine Council and the institution of the patronage, the laity made donations that allowed the construction and ornamentation of the ensemble that has come to the present.
With the separation of Church and State in the Republic and the weakening of the Catholic Church in the 19th century, due to liberalism and the change of mentality, donations began to become rare.
However, donors began to use subterfuges to postpone the donations of so-called deceased property.
Many left a clause in their wills that allowed them to keep the usufruct of the donated property until their death.
Others donated property, especially real estate, to be passed on to the nuns one, two or even three generations later. For not having established a
control of their assets, the Poor Clares lost many properties.
Donations from the nuns themselves were frequent.
Thus, in 1683, Antônia de Góis, widow of Manoel Pereira Pinto, joined the convent and sponsored the construction of the choir for the nuns. She donated ten thousand cruzados for this purpose.
The construction of the dormitory cells was carried out as women, young and old, came to the convent and made donations, such as the daughters of Manoel de Oliveira Porto, who contributed 20,000 cruzados.
Domingos Pires de Carvalho, who administered the work of the convent, died in 1708. Since 1683, he dedicated himself to building the stone and lime building, accompanied by the master carpenter João Pereira de Souza, who made the floors of the dormitories and turned the corridors and railings.
Francisco Pinheiro and João da Costa Guimarães were the master masons who, around 1687, took charge of enlarging the convent’s cells, adding to the hospice that had been improvised to receive the first nuns.
Several additions were made later.
In 1695, the master carver began to fulfil the work agreed with the abbess, Sister Catarina do Sacramento, by executing the altarpiece in the chancel of the church.
The work was expected to be finalised during the “endoenças” of 1697. The convent’s procurator at the time was the licentiate Father Inácio de Souza.
In 1709, the stonemason Manoel Quaresma entered the work, who carried out various works from the windows to the roof and stonework.
After an initial boost, the construction of the convent, built around two cloisters or courtyards, proceeded slowly. Thus, in 1719 – 1721, work was being done on the belvedere, built by the master mason Manoel Antunes Lima, and it was up to the sergeant-major Inácio Teixeira Rangel to measure and evaluate the work.
The chaplain’s house was completed at this time.
The mason Manuel Antunes Lima and the master carpenter Artur da Silva Reis continued the work in 1726.
Silva Reis was especially dedicated to the floors, windows and doors, in short, to the final finishes, using various types of wood.
In the 18th century, the windows had turned balusters and the Mother Abbess’s cell had a balcony supported by eight rafters.
In a document by the Marquis of Angeja, Dom Pedro Antônio de Noronha (1714-1718), we find information that 50 religious women in black veils and 25 in veils were already living in the convent.
veil and 25 white-veiled nuns were already living in the convent, with the fourth wing still lacking to close the cloister.
By the mid-18th century, the church building had been largely completed and decorated.
In 1758, during the administration of the abbess Sora Damásia da Purificação, the carver André Ferreira de Andrade took care of the decoration of the doors and finials, as well as the two pulpits.
The following year, Eusébio da Costa Dourado, also a carver, made the window dressings in the chancel and fourteen carved and painted wooden candlesticks.
The cloister tower was only completed in 1774, when, in addition to laying the tiles, a clock from Lisbon was installed.
The piece, with tiled dials, had arrived at the convent with problems: the wheels of the machinery had too few teeth and the dial irons were missing.
That same year, the three bells of the new tower were installed, made by the blacksmith Aurélio Soares de Araújo.
The tower divides one of the wings of the cloister in half, forming an unusual composition. It has a square structure and two floors divided by projecting cornices.
It is crowned by a bulb-shaped roof. Vertically, it has an entrance door and an upper door to a small balcony with a simple pediment that reveals a rococo influence.
In the first part of the tower floor there is an oculus surrounded by projecting moulding and the clock. At the top are the openings for the bells.
The two-storey belvedere, located at one of the corners of the convent, is striking.
In the 19th century, the church’s internal appearance was greatly altered with the replacement of the baroque carvings on the altars. Work began on the chancel’s zimborum and ceiling between 1844 and 1847.
The masonry work was carried out by master Felipe Constanço and the carpentry work by master José Custódio da Purificação.
Luís Francisco da Silva began the altarpiece, tribunes and carving of the chancel ceiling. He was over 80 years old and died in 1850.
He was replaced by the master carver Cipriano Francisco de Souza, who, between 1851 and 1852, completed the work on the new chancel altarpiece, the four tribunes with their basins and executed two side altars, the crossing arch, two pulpits and four door frames.
In addition to these works, there were four vases for the chancel, 264 stars for the juniper and works in the sacristy.
The carving work done by Cipriano Francisco da Silva was supplemented by the painter and gilder Manoel Joaquim Lino from 1854 onwards. Lino painted and gilded all the new carving work inside the church, i.e. three altars, pulpits, choir rails, tribunes, door frames and the sacristy.
With these works, the baroque appearance of the church in particular disappeared and the whole acquired a neoclassical appearance.
The current floor of the church and presbytery was laid during this remodelling.
For this purpose, a large quantity of stone was received, mainly lioz from Lisbon and marble from Genoa.
The image of Our Lady of the Exile was made by the sculptor Domingos Pereira Baião between 1850 and 1854 and replaced the original. The same sculptor also restored the images of St Joseph and St Francis.
No part of the church was left without being retouched or having its parts replaced.
In 1862-63, the upper choir was repaired.
The ceiling of the choir, divided into panels, is painted by an unknown author.
In the 20th century, two tile panels dating from around 1750 were transferred from the baroque choir on the upper floor to the lower choir, where they were installed around 1950.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the choir also lost its stalls or chairs, which had been made when it was in the convent of Sora Catarina do Monte Sinai, one of the daughters of João de Couros Carneiro.
These stalls were moved to the chancel of the basilica cathedral, where they occupied the first rows, but they have since been removed.
The Order of Poor Clares died out at the beginning of the 20th century with the death of the last three nuns who comprised it.
The convent and the rest of its property were passed on to the Franciscan congregation of the Little Family of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it is currently the Franciscan nuns who administer the complex.
Location: R. Santa Clara, S/N – Nazaré, Salvador
History of the Church and Convent of Santa Clara do Desterro in Salvador