Like most colonial religious temples in São Luís, the Church of São José do Desterro was rebuilt several times, especially after the fighting between the Portuguese and the Dutch that marked the city’s history.
In the beginning it was a small chapel covered in straw with the main door facing the sea (where its main altar is today) and not towards Rua da Palma, as it is today.
The hermitage arose with St George as its patron saint, according to the Anais Históricos da Província do Maranhão (1849), and was later consecrated to Our Lady of Good Time.
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In 1641, when the Dutch invaders landed on Desterro beach with a squadron of more than a thousand men with the purpose of taking the city, the chapel had already been consecrated to Our Lady of Desterro.
The newcomers then desecrated it and destroyed the image of their patron saint. After the invaders were expelled, the church was rebuilt with its own brotherhood.
It was this same confraternity that, in 1654, embargoed the construction of a convent that the Mercedarian friars João Cerveira and Marcos Natividade intended to build on the site of the church and on the adjacent land.
The house (Convento das Mercês) was built in a nearby location, in the same neighbourhood of Desterro that at the time was home to Portinho, São Luís’ main port and of vital importance to the city.
The second building was erected, this time facing the square where Rua da Palma ends and the alleys of Precipício, Desterro and Caela begin.
It is believed that this second church lasted about a century and was the second most important church in the capital, given the records of processions leaving the cathedral under the command of Bishop Frei José Delgarte.
At the beginning of the 19th century the Church of Desterro was in complete abandonment and its structure ruined, until it collapsed in 1832. It was thanks to the devotion of a poor black man called José Lé that the church was rebuilt.
He used his own resources and searched the woods for wood, stone and lime. He was unable to see his work completed, but it was continued by the clerk José Antônio Furtado de Queixo and handed over to the population in 1839, now as the Church of São José do Desterro, in honour of the two men who built it, consecrated to Saint Joseph.
But this third chapel did not last long either. After the death of the clerk, it was again abandoned and gold and silver items were stolen from it, forming one of the city’s most precious religious collections.
The town council wanted to demolish what remained of the church to build a square and a fish market on the site.
But the devotees would not allow it. At the behest of the bishop and with financial support from society and sponsorship from the ladies of Maranhão, the new church was inaugurated with a mass on 21 November 1869.
A railing on the bell tower bears the inscription 1868, the date on which the work was completed.
Fifty years later, the church was closed again. The image of the patron saint was taken to the Cathedral and the other utensils to Our Lady of the Rosary.
The church of St Joseph was reopened in 1943, undergoing restorations in 1954, 1975, 1981 and 1994. That year, the four bells were blessed with the names of Saint Joseph, Saint Louis, Saint Barbara and Saint Jerome.
The Church of Desterro has a pentagonal floor plan, unlike other churches in the region.
The high altar has a stonework floor and the altarpiece has neoclassical features, surmounted by images of tools, alluding to Saint Joseph’s profession.
The image of the saint stands on six steps. However, the inspiration for the pediment, composed of four ogives, three smaller and one larger topped by a cross, is unknown.
Church of St Joseph of Desterro
Largo do Desterro, Rua da Palma
Tourism and Travel Guide to São Luís do Maranhão and the North-East