José de Anchieta, S.J.: Apostle of Brazil

Although it may not be so well-known, Brazil is the nation with the largest Catholic population in the world, about 123 million strong.  Nevertheless, this nation had very humble beginnings.  The Catholic foundations of this great nation were in large part laid by the sons of St. Ignatius.  Of the many great Jesuits who worked in the field of Brazil, two priests stand out head and shoulders above the rest, Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta.  Both men were instrumental in the founding of the great cities of São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro.  As the first provincial of the Brazilian Jesuits, Nóbrega worked closely with ecclesiastical and state officials to bring order to the colonial settlements of Brazil.  He oversaw the missionary strategy of the natives and he also established a number of Jesuit colleges and seminaries.  Anchieta, on the other hand, became a first rate linguist, the founder of Brazilian literature, but most importantly, the leading missionary to the Amerindian population of Brazil.  He is commonly known as the “Apostle of Brazil.” Although both men’s lives were very closely intertwined, my primary focus will be on Anchieta.

José de Anchieta was born at San Crisobal de la Laguna, capital of Tenerife of the Canary Islands on March 19, 1534.  Juan de Anchieta, his father, was a Basque immigrant who sought his fortune in the Canaries.  The Anchietas were closely tied to the Basque family of the Loyolas.  In fact, José’s grandfather was the first cousin of the father of St. Ignatius.  His mother, Mencia Diaz, was descended from one of the noble conquerors of Tenerife, but she also had native Guanche blood flowing in her veins.

jose-de-anchieta-circa-1965As an adolescent, José displayed the makings of a fine student.  At the age of seventeen, therefore, he was sent to the University of Coimbra.  While there, he exhibited his linguistic proficiency and fine literary skills.  Even though his native language was Castilian, he mastered Portuguese effortlessly.  Even more importantly, he made great spiritual progress.  Soon after arriving, he made a perpetual vow of chastity before a statue of the Virgin.  It was at Coimbra that he was attracted to the Society of Jesus, becoming a Jesuit on May 1, 1551.  As a novice, he became of man of deep prayer and a model of the virtues of humility and obedience.   He also chastised his body by fasting and self-flagellation.  As a novice, he had to give up more advanced philosophical studies, on account of serious illness.  He had developed a scoliotic condition that would plague him the remainder of his life.  As there were requests from Brazil for additional helpers and as the climate was thought to be salubrious, his superiors sent Anchieta there.  He arrived at colonial capital of Bahia on July 13, 1553.

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Before the arrival of the Jesuits in 1549, the moral level of society in the captaincies of Brazil was very low.  To a great degree, many of the secular priests lived scandalous lives.  As their own lives were so enmeshed with vice, they had no moral authority over the lay settlers.  Hence, many of them looked the other way as European practiced concubinage and the enslavement of the natives.  When the Jesuits came to Brazil in 1549, under their superior Fr. Nóbrega, they worked industriously by force of example to bring free-spirited Portuguese traders and planters back to a Christian lifestyle, often regularizing their marriages with native women, when possible.  The good example of the Jesuits also acted as a leaven on a number of the seculars.  Nevertheless, Nóbrega felt that a bishop should be sent to Brazil to institute a stable diocesan organization with parishes for the whites.

Upon Brother Anchieta’s arrival in Bahia, Nóbrega was in São Vincente, touring the southern captaincies with the newly appointed royal governor, Tomé de Sousa.  After hearing of the new arrivals, he directed some of them to come south.  Nóbrega wanted to establish a great missionary center in the south that would be a springboard for the evangelization of the natives throughout the whole region, even as far away as Paraguay.  After meeting the nineteen-year-old brother, Nóbrega quickly recognized Anchieta’s endowments.  From then on, he became the superior’s right hand man and interpreter.

While aspiring Jesuits and the young Portuguese might be educated in a coastal city like São Vincente, the missions had to be brought to the sertão or hinterland where the natives dwelt.  Nóbrega had decided to build a mission thirty miles inland from São Vincente, on the hill of Piratininga, set on a plateau.  On January 25, 1554, the feast of St. Paul, Anchieta with a number of other Jesuits attended a mass by the superior Fr. Manuel de Paiva in which he dedicated the place to St. Paul—this became the nucleus of the later great metropolis of São Paulo.  Eventually, in 1556 the school at São Paulo was raised to the level of a college.  This became Anchieta’s headquarters.  Throughout all his land-based missionary travels, Anchieta walked everywhere; he did not allow himself to be carried in nets or ride on a horse.  He saw walking as the apostolic mode of travel.  Later, when a newly constructed road was built leading from the coastal city of Santos to Piratininga, it became known as “Fr. José’s Road” from the frequency with which he was seen on it.

At the school of São Paulo de Piratininga, Anchieta taught Latin to his fellow Jesuits, worked with orphaned Portuguese children brought from São Vincente, and instructed the Indian children from the surrounding region.  He held his classes twice daily, teaching the native children to sing hymns and recite prayers both in Tupi and Portuguese.  Anchieta taught the little ones attractive songs to impart the faith in a pleasant way.  Moreover, he drew on the art form of drama as a means of inculcating Christian teachings as well.  Anchieta, like his fellow Jesuits realized that the missionary strategy for the future lay in the conversion and education of the native children before they were defiled by the execrable vices of the adults.  By working through the children they could get to the parents.

The Jesuits also encouraged the natives to give up their nomadic hunting lifestyle and settle down in aldeias or villages, pursuing a more rooted agricultural lifestyle where they could learn the virtues of a stable monogamous family life.  In addition to instructing them on how to grow various crops, the Jesuits also taught them trades such as carpentry, stonemasonry, and metallurgy.  The natives especially were fond of metal fishhooks.  Anchieta also learned the pharmacological use of various herbs and plants.  Regularly performing basic surgery on the Indians, he demonstrated that he was a good amateur physician.  In fact, he crossed swollen streams and murky forests swarming with beasts of prey to assist his charges.  Anchieta was too busy to think about his own hunger, exhaustion, and illnesses.  His goal was “to honor God and to save souls.”

Within a short time after his arrival, Anchieta put his astounding linguistic skills to work.  After only six months of learning Tupi-Guarani, the lingua franca of the Amerindians dwelling in coastal Brazil, he reduced the sounds of the language to Latin characters and had begun a draft of his famous grammar.  Eventually, this grammar would become the vademecum of the Brazilian missionaries.  The later Jesuit provincial, Luiz da Grã made the study of Anchieta’s grammar compulsory for one hour a day in the Jesuit classrooms.  It was said to be so well written that students could be speaking the language within a year.  Anchieta was equally at home in Latin, Portuguese, Castilian, and Tupi-Guarani.  He is also considered the father of Brazilian literature.  Composing a number of dramas for his young charges, they were often written in both Portuguese and Tupi.  Anchieta’s dramas are entertaining, but primarily catechetical, similar to the medieval mystery and morality plays.  In addition to being a poet, he was also a fine historian and observer.  He recounted some of the key episodes in early Brazilian colonial history, leaving us with a fine account of the attack on São Paulo by the Tamoya people on July 9, 1562.  He also is a remarkable ethnologist and a fine naturalist, writing respectively on the culture and customs of various Indians tribes and the flora and fauna of Brazil.  Because of his natural facility for languages, Anchieta was given the task of writing up the letters and relations to his superiors in Portugal and Rome.

Numerous adventurers, freed from the restraints of civilized Portuguese society, went native.  One, João Ramalho, with a wife still living in Portugal, married the daughter of the local Tupi chieftain, Tibiriçá.  Not far from Piratininga, Ramalho had founded the aldeia of Santo André da Borda do Campo with his numerous brood of mamelucos.  As the son-in-law of the chief, he had great clout among the Indians.  Although Ramalho knew the native language very well and was willing to help the governor-general, Tomé de Sousa, in his explorations, he made it clear that he was not willing to give up his permissive lifestyle.  For a while, there was tension between the aldeias of Santo André and São Paulo.  At various times natives from Ramalho’s settlement would successfully tempt the Christian natives to return to cannibalism and polygamy.  This recidivism could be very trying for Jesuits like Anchieta.  He had no illusions about fallen human nature, but he was patient and merciful.  He tried to win fallen natives back again, easily forgave their lapses, and tried to set them aright.

The greatest problem for the Jesuit missionaries in Brazil was cannibalism because it was so firmly entrenched in their culture of the Tupi.  It is true that polygamy, concubinage, drunkenness, etc. were problematic as well.  Nevertheless, the Tupi desire for human flesh was extremely difficult to eradicate.  According to Tupi traditions, after you defeated your enemy, you fattened him up, killed him, and ate him.  Often, the old women were the most avid anthropophagites.  There is the story of one aged women who, on the point of death, was asked if there was some delicacy that could be brought for her.  She intimated that she relished nothing more than the tender flesh of a child’s fingers.  Cannibalism was so deeply ingrained in their culture that even some Christian Indians lapsed back into this abomination after defeating their enemies.  The fathers also tried to build a stable family life by regularizing monogamous unions.

Nóbrega and Anchieta gave themselves up as hostages at Iperoig in 1563 so that a peace settlement could be negotiated by the enemy tribes of the Tamoyas and the Tupi.  On numerous occasions, Anchieta escaped the close calls of martyrdom.  This was the first step in the securing of firm Portuguese control over the southern part of Brazil.  Next they needed to drive the French Huguenots out of their settlement of France Antarctique in Guanabara Bay.  Also under the influence of Nóbrega and Anchieta, the nephew of the Governor-General, Estácio da Sá, drove the French out.  This would lead to the foundation of the great Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro in 1567.

In 1565 Brother Anchieta was sent north to Bahia to be ordained a priest.  Bishop Pedro Leitão ordained him in 1566.  Later in life, Anchieta was appointed the Provincial in Brazil.  He held that post from 1577 to 1587.  After he was removed from his duties as provincial, be became the superior at Espiritu Santo.  Exhausted by his labors, Anchieta died at Reritiba, now Anchieta, Brazil on June 9, 1597.  On hearing of his death, the Indians wept with great emotion.  They carried his casket from Reritiba to Espiritu Santo, a distance of 54 miles.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 22, 1980.  We can only hope that Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit and a South American, will take the final step and raise this great missionary to the altars.

Author’s note: Sources used for this column include Helen G. Dominian, Apostle of Brazil: The Biography of Padre José de Anchieta, S.J. (1534-1597) (New York: Exposition Press, 1958); J. Manuel Espinosa, “José de Anchieta: Apostle of Brazil,” Mid-America 25 (1943): 250-74 and 26 (1944): 40-61; Oscar Fernández, “José de Anchieta and Early Theater Activity in Brazil,” Luso-Brazilian Review 15, no. 1 (summer 1978): 26-43; and Donald W. Forsyth, “The Beginnings of Brazilian Anthropology: Jesuits and Tupinamba Cannibalism,” Journal of Anthropological Research 39, no. 2 (summer 1983): 147-178.


  • Joseph F. X. Sladky

    Joseph F. X. Sladky holds a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He teaches at Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Virginia.

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