Churches of Chiloé: architectural wealth in the southernmost part of the world

Apart from its flora and fauna, the southern archipelago has a wealth of wooden churches dating back as far as the 18th century, sixteen of which were declared world heritage sites by Unesco.

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The Chiloé archipelago is not only renowned for its magic and charm. Located 1,100 kilometers from Santiago in the southern part of Chile, dozens of islands have become a major tourism circuit thanks in part to their beautiful wooden churches built as of the 18th century. In 2001 these were recognized by Unesco as world heritage sites because of their great historic and architectural value.

The history of these Catholic churches goes back to the arrival of the first Jesuits to Chile in 1608. With the aim of evangelizing the indigenous peoples of the area (mainly Huilliches, southern kin of the Mapuches), priests of the Jesuit order traveled all over the archipelago and stayed for days or weeks in different localities. This prompted the community of the faithful to build chapels to welcome the priests and carry out religious festivals there.

Chiloé, with a surface area of almost 9,000 sq. km., and similar in size to Puerto Rico or Cyprus, has 60 churches that correspond to a typology called the Chiloé School of Religious Architecture in Wood. Sixteen of them –the most representative of this school– are considered national monuments in Chile as well as world heritage sites.

The easiest way to get to the island is via Puerto Montt, which can be reached by air or by road via Route 5. From Puerto Montt, 60 km to the south-west is Pargua, where ferries cross over the Chacao channel that separates Chiloé from the continent. The trip lasts around 25 minutes over the waters flowing from the south Pacific, leading to the beaches and green forests of the second largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego.

The Churches of Chiloé

Achao
This is the oldest of the churches that are still standing. It is situated facing an esplanade that was originally defined by woods and an uneven terrain that is now the town square. According to experts, it is the synthesis of all Chiloé churches. It was built without using a single nail, all its parts having been assembled by means of wooden pegs. It is located in the Achao plaza on the island of Quinchao. Its patron is Saint Mary of Loreto and its main feast day is on 10 December.

Quinchao
Located on the island of the same name, it is the largest of all the Chiloé churches. Its size does not correspond to that of the community, which is very small, but to the importance of the feast of its patroness, Our Lady of Grace, which every 8th December brings together thousands of people from all over the archipelago. The church building was completed in the 1880s, but it was preceded by another place of worship.

Castro
It was at this church that the evangelization of the indigenous populations of the Chiloé archipelago began. It was destroyed by a fire in 1902 but was rebuilt by Italian architect Eduardo Provasoli in the characteristic style. It is situated in the Castro plaza on the Isla Grande. Its patron is the apostle Saint James and its main feast day is on 4 October.

Rilán
In architectural terms, this church is a representative of the Chiloé school in its maturity. It was built starting on 12 December 1907, but was subject to construction and restoration works up till 1990. It is situated in the Rilán plaza on the Isla Grande. Its patroness is Our Lady of Lourdes and its main feast day is on 11 February.

Nercón
It stands out for the robust steeple of its façade and its main tutelary image, the archangel Michael with the fallen devil at his feet. Local lore has it that the devil was not part of the original figure but was carved by a local villager out of a trunk where its shape was already depicted. The church is located on the Isla Grande, its patron saint is Our Lady of Grace and its main feast day is on 8 September.

Aldachildo
This church was erected at the end of the 19th century and is known because it has not undergone any formal alteration or change of materials since it was built. It is located in the town of Aldachildo on Lemuy island. Its patron is Jesus the Nazarene and its main feast day is on 30 August.

Ichuac
This is one of the churches with the largest amount of religious activities and richness of tradition. One of its more notable peculiarities is the clock painted on its portico, set at 3:00 pm, signaling the hour of the death of Christ. It is located in the town of Ichuac, also on the island of Lemuy. Its patroness is Our Lady of Candelaria and its main feast day is on 2 February.

Detif
This is not one of the more majestic churches of Chiloé, but it represents a popular version of their typology, both in terms of its general conception and in the design of the architectural elements and quality of construction. It is located in the town of Detif on the island of Lemuy. Its patroness is Our Lady of Lourdes and its main feast day is on 25 March.

Vilupulli
This church was built at the beginning of the 20th century. It stands out for the elongated shape of its portico and the slenderness of its steeple. Its surroundings are evocative of the more harmonious settings in which the Chiloé churches were originally situated. It is located in the town of Vilupulli on the Isla Grande. Its patron is Saint Anthony and its main feast day is on 13 June.

Chonchi
It is located on the narrowest part of Isla Grande on the eastern coast and facing the island of Lemuy. The Jesuits chose this place, which the discoverers called “The end of Christianity”, to establish an outpost for their “circular mission” (itinerant annual visits to different localities on the islands) and to cover nearby sectors and the southernmost areas of the archipelago. It is located in the Chonchi plaza, its patron is Saint Charles Borromeo and its main feast day is on 4 November.

Tenaún
Tenaún means “three mountains” in the native language, and it is thought that the three steeples of the church symbolize this concept. Although the town was only founded in 1767, the first accounts about its church appear in the annals of the 1757 circular mission. It is located in the town of Tenaún on Isla Grande, its patroness is Our Lady of the Patrocinio (Patronage) and its main feast day is on 30 January.

Colo
Built in 1890, it features a main façade in which the portico is flanked by two half arches, giving it an appearance that differs from the usual typology of the Chiloé churches. This peculiarity is only seen in Colo and Quicaví. The church is in well-preserved conditions and is located on the Isla Grande. Its patron is Saint Anthony and its main feast day is on 13 June.

San Juan
It is situated parallel to the seashore, very close to the water at high tide. Its longitudinal position vis-à-vis  the coast allows the building to be clearly seen from the ocean. Its construction dates back to 1887 and it is located in the area of San Juan on the Isla Grande. Its patron is Saint John and its main feast day is on 24 June.

Dalcahue
This church was built at the end of the 19th century on the site where an old chapel of the Jesuit missions was formerly located. Its main feature is its deep spacious portico fronted by nine arches: six lancet, two Tudor-style and one semi-circular arch in the center. It is located in the Dalcahue plaza, its patron saint is Our Lady of Sorrows and its main feast day is on 15 September.

Caguach
This is where the most important religious feast of the Chiloé archipelago takes place, that of Jesus the Nazarene. The celebration was established in 1778, when five communities of neighboring islands committed themselves to venerate with special devotion an image made in Spain and taken to Caguach by the Franciscan missionary Friar Hilario Martínez. Since that time, every 30th August this multitudinous religious festivity takes place. Beginning a few years ago there is now a second version every third Sunday of the year. The church is located in the township of Caguach on the island of the same name.

Chelín
This dates back to approximately 1888 and was the 17th location visited by the mission. It stands out for its architectural quality and refined neo-Classic finishings. It is located in the township and island of Chelín, its patron saint is Our Lady of the Rosary and its main feast day is on 30 August.