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Admiring Argentina (1595)

Aug. 12 issue travel article

08/18/2012 Comment
Joy Wambeke

– Joy Wambeke

When my husband began championing a family trip to Argentina, I balked. Flying ourselves and our three small children to a very foreign country was not my idea of a vacation. Eventually, I caved. I began to think about how much history I didn’t know about Catholic Argentina. I had also been reading about the South American bishops’ recently renewed efforts toward the New Evangelization and thought I might like to see this in action. And it didn’t hurt that it would be summer down there while it was winter up here.

It was January when we landed in Cordoba, the second-largest city in Argentina after Buenos Aires, in central Argentina. As promised, it was hot enough for shorts and t-shirts. Feeling a bit dazed from the temperature change, jet lag and culture shock, we happily took refuge and got our bearings in Cordoba’s cathedral: Our Lady of the Assumption.

Located in the historic heart of Cordoba, Our Lady of the Assumption has been the longest continually-running parish since modern Argentina’s establishment in the 16th century. In 1658, Jesuit missionaries from Spain began building the cathedral, only to have the church collapse in 1677, devastating the entire structure. But, 10 years later, in 1687, the work was taken up again, and, although incomplete, the church was inaugurated in 1709, with many additions implemented over the course of the next 100 years. The cathedral’s exterior has been largely unchanged since 1804.

The facade is lavish and large, in Spanish Baroque style, complete with twin towers notable for their angels. A neoclassical portico lends it a regal, if formidable, appearance. But it’s the interior that stops the show. Frescoes depicting Our Lord and the saints, done in the early 20th century, cover the ceiling. A Peruvian sterling-silver altar and silver-and-gold votive candle holders are counted among its treasures.

When the thrill of the city wore off, we fled to the countryside and settled in for a few days near Alta Gracia, a town famous for having one of the best-preserved Jesuit estancias in South America. The UNESCO World Heritage site was a self-sufficient farm that housed monks and priests and produced food for the community members as well as the indigenous people who lived close by. It was also these indigenous whom the Jesuits employed to help build and work in the estancia.

We arrived on a cool morning. Refreshed, we looked forward to attending Mass at the parish: Our Lady of Mercy. However, we found that it was locked, with a sign indicating a complete restoration to the interior. Fortunately, the adjacent museum, housed in the living quarters of the estancia, was open. In the museum, we were able to view many of the rooms the Jesuits used, outfitted with the original tools and even some of the furnishings.

In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Argentina, and, consequently, the estancia was sold. Because of this, many of the other rooms are furnished according to the taste and needs of the subsequent secular owners. All the rooms, however, pay tribute to the history and faith of the province of Cordoba.

Once we had seen enough of the countryside, we decided it was time to explore the Argentine coast. We crossed the country and headed to the east coast on Peninsula Valdez, an area dominated by salt air, blowing sand and unique wildlife — an altogether different experience for our Midwestern sensibilities. In the midst of our stay, we drove to the nearest town, Puerto Madryn, to attend Mass.

Located in the center of town, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not a church of great architecture or beauty. But its parishioners are most faithful. We arrived at the church with plenty of time to spare, but we were still without a place to stand, much less a place to sit. Was I witnessing the Argentine New Evangelization?

We packed our car and headed across Argentina, arriving in the town of El Bolson, a small town situated in the midst of the Patagonian Andes. Here, we took a break from our hiking adventures to attend Mass at Our Lady of Lujan (the city of Lujan is about 42 miles north of Buenos Aires), a small and quiet church, filled mainly with vacationing mountaineers. What piqued my interest was the title "Our Lady of Lujan." After some investigation, I learned that it is the title of the Blessed Virgin as patroness of Argentina. According to tradition, a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin was being transported from Portugal to Cordoba in 1630. However, after an overnight stay at the ranch of a poor farmer, she refused to be moved, miraculously returning to the same ranch, even after being transported and kept under lock and key. The statue is now displayed in the beautiful basilica, which was built in 1904. Millions of Catholics make pilgrimages here every year, many walking from Buenos Aires — another example of great devotion. Sadly, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit. A second Argentine vacation to come?

Now that our trip is long over, South America no longer seems so foreign. I remember the devoted faces of the Massgoers with admiration. I consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ and remember them in prayer. And nothing is better than shorts in January. But it would make a wonderful late-summer pilgrimage as well.

Joy Wambeke writes from
Marshall, Minnesota.

If You Go
Our Lady of the Assumption, Cordoba
Our Lady of Mercy, Alta Gracia
Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Puerto Madryn
Our Lady of Lujan, El Bolson
National Basilica of Lujan, Luján

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