The oldest churches in Pernambuco and the first church in Brazil

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Church of Our Lady of the Mount in Olinda
Church of Our Lady of the Mount in Olinda

More than just expressions of faith, Pernambuco’s churches have kept traces of our history and culture since the 16th century.

The oldest religious buildings in Pernambuco date back to the 16th century. They were built between 1526 and 1580.

The first Brazilian church, located on Itamaracá Island, is the Church of Our Lady of the Conception of Vila Velha or Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Vila Velha, whose historical documents suggest that it already existed and received celebrations in the year 1526.

There are records that in 1540 the second oldest church in the country was built in the city, the Church of Our Lady of Light. Initially built as a chapel, and despite having undergone some renovations over the years, it still retains 16th-century architectural elements that delight observers and tourists.

The oldest churches in Pernambuco

1 Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Vila Velha on Itamaracá Island.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Vila Velha na Ilha de Itamaracá

The list includes what would be the first Brazilian church, located on Itamaracá Island: the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Vila Velha, whose historical documents suggest that it already existed and received celebrations in the year 1526.

The site on which the church stands corresponds to that occupied by a fort built in 1534 by Captain João Gonçalves. Seven years later, the settlement was elevated to the category of town, becoming the seat of the captaincy of Itamaracá, having been nominated to house the administration of Dutch Brazil, together with the town of Olinda and the island of António Vaz.

The initial appearance of the church was that of a chapel, completed in 1547 under the invocation of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, in honour of the patron saint of Portugal. It is the second-oldest church in Brazil, second only to that of São Cosme e Damião in Igarassu.

The building has undergone two significant renovations since its initial construction: enlargement of the central nave and construction of a chapel followed by a pulpit in 1729; and, in the 19th century, the addition of a sacristy, a new chapel and a cemetery.

The front façade dates from 1889 and its sides have battlements and arrowheads, signalling remnants of Dutch church fortification practices.

Since the transfer of its status as a parish church to that of Nossa Senhora do Pilar in 1866, situated on the shores of the sea to the north of the island, the former seat of Itamaracá has been called Vila Velha, as it is known to this day.

The church is recognised as a heritage site of Vila Velha, classified at state level in 1985, when it was restored, and the ruins of the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, the Santa Casa de Misericórdia and the Casa de Câmara e Cadeia, consolidated.

2. Igreja Matriz de São Cosme e Damião em Igarassu

Igreja Matriz de São Cosme e Damião em Igarassu

The Mother Church of São Cosme and São Damião in Igarassu is the oldest in operation in Brazil.

Its construction began in 1535 and was only finalised in the 17th century. The construction of the church is attributed to the victory of the Portuguese in 1530 over the Potiguara Indians and the French who were there.

Saints St Cosme and Damian are attributed with a miracle in 1685 when the cities of Recife, Olinda, Itamaracá and Goiana were ravaged by yellow fever, Igarassu escaped the plague unharmed.

The church is located on the historic site of Igarassu, also known as the Marcos site.

The site of the Church of São Cosme e Damião was marked by numerous struggles between Indians and Portuguese, whose efforts to populate the region would ensure the security of the northern limit of the captaincy of Pernambuco.

Two legends permeate the history of the church dedicated to the saints: the blinding of the Dutch when they tried to set fire to the building in the 17th century and, in the 18th century, the protection of the town of Igarassu against the plague that spread throughout the captaincy.

Built at the behest of the donee Duarte Coelho himself in 1535, it is one of the main buildings in the paintings by Frans Post depicting 17th-century Igarassu, appearing at that time as a simple chapel with a triangular pediment and a central door, an element that has withstood the renovations it has undergone over the centuries.

The current volume of the building dates from 1755 and also bears architectural and decorative elements from interventions during the 19th century.

Its interior is characterised by 18th-century paintings depicting scenes from the Dutch war and the city’s daily life, which decorate the sacristy and choir, and by the chancel arch, covered with carvings in the Joanine style.

Frans Post - The Church of Saints Cosme and Damian and the Franciscan Monastery of Igaraçu, Brazil - 1660.
Frans Post – The Church of Saints Cosme and Damian and the Franciscan Monastery of Igaraçu, Brazil – 1660.

In the 1950s, its Baroque features were replaced by the traces of Jesuit architecture, returning to the sober formal patterns of the Mannerist style. Carrying the title of parish church, the church was recognised as a monument by the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute in 1951.

See also Igarassu is a historic city in the Metropolitan Region of Recife PE.

3. São Lourenço de Tejucupapo Church in the municipality of Goiana.

Igreja São Lourenço de Tejucupapo no município de Goiana

One of the richest pieces of historical evidence is in the small São Lourenço de Tejucupapo Church, in the municipality of Goiana, in the northern Mata region of the state. “It was there that the Jesuits coordinated the construction of the work, with the help of local indigenous people. That’s when the story comes out.

Historical studies on the Church of São Lourenço are incipient due, among other things, to the lack of primary textual sources, especially those relating to the beginning of its construction, which has made reading the expressions of the building itself an important tool in the investigation of its origin.

The church bears formal aspects similar to those of most of the first religious buildings erected in Brazil, both in terms of façade composition and floor plan. The interior is rectangular and comprises a nave, choir, chancel and side chapels, with a sacristy on two levels.

It has a triangular pediment with an oculus in the centre and a central doorway leading to the nave, flanked by two slit windows at the level of the choir. Many of its compositional elements are in ashlar, such as the cornerstones, the crossing arch and the royal cymatium.

The church underwent a series of renovations that led to the modification of some internal elements, such as the staircase leading to the choir and the original altars, which were replaced, and one of the pulpits, which was removed.

Despite its apparent stylistic preservation, showing the volume and features of Jesuit architecture, the church, one of the oldest in the current state of Pernambuco, retains its main original features intact, standing out for the simplicity and austerity of its constructive lines. It was classified at state level in 1994.

4. Church of São Salvador do Mundo (Sé), 1535 (Alto da Sé, Olinda).

Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo (Sé), 1535 (Alto da Sé, Olinda)

The first parish formally constituted by the Catholic Church in the Northeast, the church has been the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife since 1676. It is one of the main postcards of the Historic Site of Olinda. It is open for visitation every day, always from 9am to 5pm.

Historical studies on the Church of São Lourenço are incipient, due, among other things, to the lack of primary textual sources, especially those relating to the beginning of its construction, which has made reading the expressions of the building itself an important tool in the investigation of its origin.

The church bears formal aspects similar to those of most of the earliest religious buildings installed in Brazil, both in terms of the composition of the façade and the plan.

Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo em Olinda PE

The interior is rectangular and comprises a nave, choir, chancel and side chapels, with a sacristy on two levels.

It has a triangular pediment with an oculus in the centre and a central doorway leading to the nave, flanked by two slit windows at the level of the choir. Many of its compositional elements are in ashlar, such as the cornerstones, the crossing arch and the royal cymatium.

The church underwent a series of renovations that led to the modification of some internal elements, such as the staircase leading to the choir and the original altars, which were replaced, and one of the pulpits, which was removed.

Despite its apparent stylistic preservation, showing the volume and features of Jesuit architecture, the church, one of the oldest in the current state of Pernambuco, retains its main original features intact, standing out for the simplicity and austerity of its constructive lines. It was classified at state level in 1994.

5. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte, 1537 (Amparo, Olinda).

Church of Our Lady of the Mount in Olinda
Church of Our Lady of the Mount in Olinda

One of the first churches built in Olinda, it escaped a fire caused by the Dutch during their invasion, as it was located on a remote hill. It houses the abbey of Benedictine nuns, who make handmade biscuits and liqueurs. The visit can include Gregorian chants and can take place from 8.30am to 11am and from 3pm to 4.50pm.

Originally built by order of Duarte Coelho in 1535, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is the oldest religious building in Olinda. The interior is rustic, consisting only of a simple high altar imitating a hill (made of wood), with the image of Our Lady on top.

It was the first church in Olinda to be dedicated to Our Lady.

To this day, it retains its original 17th-century style, with a simple but elegant façade, a low tower with small windows and a low wall around it, like a fortress.

It is believed that this church escaped the fire caused by the Dutch because it was too far from the town centre. In the 16th century, it was donated to the Benedictines and became the Monastery of São Bento. Currently, the Monastery of the Benedictine Nuns operates.

6. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Luz, 1540 Matriz da luz  (São Lourenço da Mata )

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Luz, 1540 – Matriz da luz (São Lourenço da Mata )

Church that represented the second district of the municipality of São Lourenço da Mata, is one of the oldest in Pernambuco and is an indication of the Catholic vocation of the town. It receives pilgrims devoted to the saint every 2 February. A landslide in 1998 destroyed part of its historical records.

The historical heritage of São Lourenço da Mata is quite rich, with mills, churches and mills from colonial times, such as the Mother Church of São Lourenço, the Capibaribe and Tiúma mills, several sugar cane mills, Bosque Pau-Brasil, Matriz da Luz (the 2nd oldest Catholic Church in Brazil), Tapacurá Dam.

History of the municipality

São Lourenço da Mata can be considered one of the oldest cities in Brazil.

Historical records refer to the presence of Tupinambás Indians who occupied lands along the Capibaribe and Beberibe Rivers around the year 1554. In this same period, the Indians disputed the lands they occupied with Portuguese colonisers, who excelled in the fight against the natives and managed to establish themselves in the region to exploit brazilwood.

There are records that in 1540 the second oldest church in the country was built in the city, the Church of Our Lady of Light. Initially built as a chapel, and despite having undergone some renovations over the years, it still retains 16th-century architectural elements that enchant observers and tourists.

Later, in 1621, the chapel that gave way to the current main church, which honours Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of the city, was built.

The initial occupation of São Lourenço da Mata was linked to the extraction of brazilwood. At the end of the 16th century, the first sugar cane mills began to emerge, which became the main source of income for many years. During the period of the Dutch invasion of Pernambuco (1630-1654), the municipality was also the scene of disputes.

Around 1635, the Portuguese who occupied the region managed to expel the Dutch who were lurking in the sugar cane plantations. Until 1775, São Lourenço was only a district subordinated to the municipalities of Recife and Paudalho.

7. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia, 1540 (Alto da Sé, Olinda).

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia in Olinda
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia in Olinda

Last representative of the first half of the 16th century, the church was sacked by the Dutch and burnt down in 1630. It was then rebuilt, keeping the façade, but already wrapped in the Baroque style. It is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday. Masses are held at 6.20am and at 7.30am on Sundays.

The Church of Our Lady of Light, the former Hospital of the Holy House of Mercy of Olinda, was built in 1540 by order of the Portuguese Crown. In 1630, the establishment was sacked by the Dutch and burnt down the following year.

After the departure of the Flemish in 1654, the church was rebuilt in the Baroque style, with reminiscences of the Portuguese Renaissance.
The Misericórdia Church has a churchyard with retaining walls and an asymmetrical access staircase. The façade’s frontispiece has two volutes that rise without support, above which is a royal coat of arms in relief.

The pulpit, in gilded wood carving, bears the insignia of the House of Austria. The ceiling is also carved and contains painted panels, one of which, the central one, depicts Our Lady of Mercy.

The buildings of the old hospital, adjacent to the Church of Santa Casa da Misericórdia, were demolished to make way for a nuns’ college formed by the nuns of the Benedictine Order.

8. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça, 1552 (Alto da Sé, Olinda)

Church of Our Lady of Grace in Olinda
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça in Olinda

Part of a Jesuit complex, which also included the former Royal College of the Jesuits, the site was home to the Archdiocese Seminary, the Faculty of Architecture, the Archdiocesan College and the School of Agronomy. It is open to visitors every day from 9am to 11.45am and from 2pm to 5pm.

In 1551, the priests of St Ignatius arrived in Olinda. A year earlier they had been in Bahia.

There were two Jesuits: Manuel da Nóbrega and António Pires. They received a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, which was to be for the Augustinian priests, who did not come to the town. Little was done because the number of priests was small.

In 1565, the church was replaced by another and in the 1970s it was completely built.

In 1595, when it was almost ready, the church was compared with the church of São Roque de Lisboa, its model. The Jesuit architect Francisco Dias is attributed with a project, kept in the Library of Paris, which may be for such a Jesuit house.

The church is a large hall with two chapels marking a false transept and confessionals in smaller arcades in the body of the wall.

The head of the church follows the traditional form of a shallow chancel and two collaterals in the same layout and shape. Arrived in Olinda in 1611, the images of Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier from the same factory, as well as that of Our Lady of Grace, are respectively the first two from the 17th century and the last from the previous century.

There are two beautiful altarpieces on the side altars, made of limestone in the late 16th century or early 20th century.

The church’s exterior, of great sobriety and rich composition, was modelled on the churches of São Roque in Lisbon and São Paulo in Braga.

The college behind the church was built in the 16th century and shows the changes resulting from a reconstruction after 1654.

In the sacristy of the church, one can see an excellently made Portuguese washbasin with its inlays. The church was entirely restored between 1972 and 1978 by the Historical and Artistic Heritage Foundation of Pernambuco – FUNDARPE.

9. Igreja Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres, 1565 (Jaboatão dos Guararapes)

Igreja Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres, Jaboatão dos Guararapes PE

Erected in honour of the battles at Monte dos Guararapes, now a historical park. It has baroque images and works of art from the 17th and 18th centuries. Inside, there are remains of André Vidal de Negreiros and João Fernandes Vieira. Open to visitors from Tuesday to Saturday, from 8am to 12pm and from 2pm to 5pm.

The oldest churches in Pernambuco – Tourism and Travel Guide of Pernambuco

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