The Chiloé churches, both the ones declared world heritage by UNESCO in 2000, and others which are part of the Chiloé School of Architecture in Wood, have elements and characteristics that have earned them worldwide acclaim.
The churches were built using a superb architectural technique that stems from river carpentry and the influence of techniques contributed in the process of evangelization. The result is quite unique in America.
The construction process uses diverse techniques of assemblies, connections and wooden joints which are reinforced with dowels and very large nails.
The churches are centuries-old but are, in many cases, third or fourth generation buildings, because after having collapsed or burned down, they were rebuilt in the same place with the contribution of materials and communal work.
Currently, some of the weakest structures of these churches have been restored to avoid their collapse with the passage of time. The work has been taken on by the Friends of Chiloé Churches Foundation (Fundación Amigos de las Iglesias de Chiloé) at the same time respecting all the construction systems used by the Chiloé School of Architecture in Wood.
Each intervention uses the same original work methods with groups of carpenters from Chiloé and using old techniques and wood from the area.
The temples are still used today for the same purpose they were created, maintaining the ancient traditions. Thus, the churches are valued for what they represent as a living heritage, transcending their purely architectural value.
By the time Spanish settlers arrived in the archipelago, the territory was inhabited mainly by two peoples: the Chonos and the Veliches. Nomadic sea-farers, the Chonos lived in the northeastern sector of the archipelago. The Veliches, on the other hand, migrated from the continent, and it is thought that they are part of the Mapuche Huilliche cultural system; they inhabited the western part of the island, mainly dedicated to hunting, gathering, the cultivation of some vegetables and animal breeding.
Although the Spaniards knew of the existence of the Chiloé archipelago approximately in 1540, its occupation did not start until 1567. Emulating the pattern of settlement of the indigenous population, the Spaniards settled on the inland-most part of the coast, on the eastern side of the Big Island. From there, they carried out evangelization and colonization of the local population. In general, the Spaniards avoided concentrating in cities, a strategy that allowed them to better protect themselves from pirate and privateer attacks.
During the 18th century, the archipelago experienced an increase in logging activity, which explains the predominance of this material in local construction. In that same century, and because of its strategic importance, after the expulsion of the Jesuits from the continent in 1767, Chiloé was removed from the General Captaincy of Chile, becoming part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. For this reason, it became the last bastion of the Spanish Monarchy in the Kingdom of Chile.
The pastoral method by which Jesuits, and later Franciscan Missionaries evangelized a large part of the Chiloé archipelago is referred to as the Circular Mission. Each year, different locations were visited by priests who left from the city of Castro in late September or early December.
Despite the fact that the evangelization process of the Islands began with Mercedarians and Franciscans, it was the Jesuits who, at the beginning of the 17th century, successfully initiated the Circular Mission. It was initially lead by Melchor Venegas and Juan Bautista Ferrufino, who arrived in Chiloé in 1608. By 1611, the Jesuits had already extended their actions to the Chono archipelago and the Guaitecas and Guayaneco islands. To provide continuity to their missions, the Jesuits established small footholds, where they built chapels linked to the Castro dwellings. Initially, these points were Quinchao, Chonchi and Cailin.
In the mid-17th century, the mission was strengthened with the presence of Friar Jerónimo de Oré, who travelled along the archipelago baptizing and confirming those who had already been evangelized. In the same period, towards 1673, the Dulce Nombre de Jesús School in Castro was built, thus setting up a centralized structure which included several temples scattered along the island. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, the Bishop of Concepción ordered the Franciscans to take charge of their property and to re- establish the missions.
The Chiloé Heritage Churches that belong to the Chiloé School of Religious Architecture in Wood, stand out because an architectural technique comprising elements of ancestral knowledge and styles acquired in the process of evangelization. This school reflects the creativity and expertise of the carpenters that learnt their skills on the sea coast and the banks of rivers, specializing in shipbuilding. The construction is also the result of a refined technique of assemblies, joints and unions fixed with wooden dowels that dispense of or reduce the use of iron nails and fixtures.
In this sense we can talk about a type of architecture of the Chiloé churches as all of them share a basic outline,which presents five constituent elements:
1. The esplanade in front of the churches that can be delimited naturally by groves or uneven levels or artificially, converting them into plazas.
2. The basic form of the Chiloé missionary church is comprised of a large horizontal volume, which has a gabled roof assembled with a vertical body: the tower-façade.
3. The horizontal volume has different dimensions depending on its use as a pilgrimage temple and the number of worshippers who visit it.
4. The ornamentation is what makes each temple unique. 5. The structural-constructive model has remained unchanged to date.
One of the main features of the Chiloé religiosity is the important role played by the communities in the care and maintenance of their traditions and temples. This role remains alive in the Chiloé communities and, despite the fact that priests are not always present in the activities, local inhabitants are permanently trained in religious formation and chaplaincy, thus continually maintaining the unity of traditions and the Church doctrine. Its origin goes back to the characteristics of the evangelization process, embodied in what has been termed as the Circular Mission. As missionaries formed communities of believers among the indigenous populations, and in view of the sporadic visits to the Islands, they decided to appoint residents in each locality who would take on the role of preserving the order and the care of the churches, while others provided basic religious services to other believers.
Thus, from the very beginning a pattern was set: a man of good judgement who, in the absence of priests, would take on the responsibility for the churches.
Another important figure among the community members was the Prosecutor, a key person who acts as a mediator between the priest and the worshippers until today. The role is taken on by men who, with good will and religious training, take care of some of the major pastoral community needs and encourage Bible reading, set up evangelistic meetings and each community’s prayer sessions, the diverse novenas and the singing of sacred songs on Sundays. At the same time, they visit the sick and the dying to accompany them in the moment of need. When someone dies they organize their funeral prayers, accompany the entombment and recite the novena in their memory.
It is the communities as a whole that keep this religious tradition alive: they have built and rebuilt, repaired and restored temples; they have inhabited, decorated and embodied in them their vision of the world.
In addition to the geographic and climatic conditions of Chiloé that have led to the emergence of its traditional religiosity and architecture that goes with it, also providing the relevant materials, they have also imposed a certain condition: the ongoing need to maintain, restore and repair the temples.
Each such process was, in ancient times, driven by local communities,which got together, financed the process and took decisions the most relevant decisions. At the same time, and until the present, it is the community members who offer their free time to carry out all the work, given that, from generation to generation, they have been cultivating knowledge related to construction skills, woodworking and wood carving that permit them to restore these churches to their original state. They are called coastal carpenters because their knowledge arises both from the knowledge of local resources and of the possibilities of the different types of wood native to this territory, as well as of the wisdom that emerges from their links with the sea, the rivers and navigation that have, for centuries on end, marked the existence of the Chiloé inhabitants.
In recent decades, the communities have been supported in this task by the Foundation Amigos de las Iglesias de Chiloé (Friends of Chiloé Temples) which takes care of watching the churches and thus getting to know the deterioration, which then permits them to develop conservation, protection and also restoration projects of the most damaged heritage churches. Most of the churches have already been intervened with this support.