It is impossible to visit Chiloé and not be struck by the sight of the archipelago’s incredible wooden churches. In the early nineteenth century these impressively large buildings would have been the heart of a Chilote village. Several of the churches have been declared national monuments, an honour crowned in 2001 when UNESCO accepted sixteen of them on its prestigious World Heritage list.
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The churches generally face the sea and are built near a beach with an open area, plaza or explanada in front of them. The outside of the churches is almost always bare, and the only thing that expresses anything but functionality is the three-tiered, hexagonal bell tower that rises up directly above an open-fronted portico. The facades, doors and windows are often brightly painted, and the walls clad with tejuelas (wooden tiles or shingles). All the churches have three naves separated by columns, which in the larger buildings are highly decorated, supporting barrel-vaulted ceilings. The ceilings are often painted, too, with allegorical panels or sometimes with golden constellations of stars painted on an electric blue background.
Only the pueblos with a priest had a main church, or iglesia parroquial. If there was no church, the missionaries used to visit once a year, as part of their so-called misión circular. Using only native canoes, they carried everything required to hold a mass with them. When the priest arrived, one of the eldest Chilotes would lead a procession carrying an image of Jesus, and behind him two youths would follow with depictions of San Juan and the Virgin. They would be followed by married men carrying a statue of San Isidro and married women carrying one of Santa Neoburga.
If the pueblo was important enough there would be a small capilla (bell tower) with altars to receive the statues. The building where the missionaries stayed was known as a residencia, villa, casa ermita or catecera, and was looked after by a local trustee called a fiscal, whose function was somewhere between that of a verger and lay preacher. This honorary position still exists and, in Chiloé’s remoter areas, the fiscal commands great respect in his community. For more information on Chiloé’s churches, check out the informative interpatagonia.com/iglesiaschiloe.