Argentine Abundance

One of the oldest churches in Argentina — indeed, in all South America — la Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar) is also one of the loveliest sights in Buenos Aires.

Built with its bell tower topped by a cupola, this colonial Baroque basilica rising over the La Plata River was built by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. Upon completion in 1732, it was devoted to the Virgin of the Pillar. The moniker comes from a Spanish tradition holding that the Blessed Mother appeared to St. James as he went about his missionary work in Spain. While standing on a jasper pillar, Mary encouraged the apostle to build a chapel in her honor.

It's been rebuilt several times since its initial construction, but it still has much of the same character

as the mother church it was modeled after the 1600s-era Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, Spain.

Upon entering the Buenos Aires basilica, you're greeted by a striking statue of a beloved Spanish Franciscan friar, St. Peter Alcantara. It was his community that founded this sanctuary. The Franciscans had custodianship of it until the 1820s, when it was designated a parish of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.

In 1936, Pope Pius XI elevated the church to a basilica. Then, in 1942, the Argentine government designated it a national historical monument.

Over the years, beginning about 50 years after the church was built, the city of Buenos Aires sprawled out along the river. As a result, the basilica is now located in the middle of the city. Its beauty attracts visitors from far and wide.

Then, too, many are drawn here by the cemetery. Built over the vegetable garden of the Franciscan missionaries, the burial ground is the final resting place of Eva Peron. She rose from poverty to become wife of the military dictator Juan Domingo Peron, commanding a huge political following as she virtually ran the ministries of health and labor before dying at 33 in 1952. Her story was immortalized in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and movie Evita. (Its most popular song was “Don't Cry For Me, Argentina.”) As a result, there is a constant stream of visitors to her tomb, which is rarely wanting for flowers.

To be sure, the basilica itself takes greater pride in other chapters of its colorful history. Not least among these was the Eucharistic congress in October 1934 that was attended by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. Less than five years later, he became Pope Pius XII.

Memorable Museum

Physically, the basilica is a simple structure with a nave and no side wings. On each of the two sidewalls, there are carved wood altars, which reflect both the Baroque period and the somewhat folksy Franciscan flair.

Looking to the right from the entrance, I was taken by a statue of Jesus in a sitting position — a rarity. This is the alcove of el Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia (Our Lord of Patience). Alongside is a statue of one of the greatest Franciscans, St. Anthony of Padua.

The second alcove on the right is dedicated to St. Ann. A third honors Our Lady of Solace. Next to this is a large crucifix. Across the church, along the left wall, are alcoves dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Joseph and Our Lady of Lujan— patron saint of Argentina.

Elsewhere are statues of St. Francis of Assisi holding a cross and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Alongside this is a painting of the Immaculate Conception. The Stations of the Cross lining the walls are especially ornate.

Dating from 1715, the Cloisters Museum, which is connected to the basilica, comprises three rooms in which the missionaries lived while their church and friary were under construction.

The first room, it is believed, housed five friars. The second room is where the friars kept their supply of food. The third room was for study and prayer. The original structure has been maintained, but now the three rooms house religious art from both South America and Europe.

I was attracted to a huge book of Gregorian chant. Because the chant books had to be painstakingly written by hand, all the friars sat around the one volume and read from the same book.

The entrance to the museum's second room, where foodstuffs were kept, has a conspicuous hole in the bottom of the door. I learned that this was for use by the cats that were brought in to keep the rat population in check. Those friars thought of everything!

Among other artifacts, including a number of carved wood statues, the museum features a Bible that was illustrated by Gustav Dore, who was known for his lithographs. Also on display are ancient vestments embroidered in silver and gold, along with monstrances and chalices, also in gold and silver, imported from Peru.

This is a fitting place to wind up your visit, as it will remind you of the constancy of the Mass in the face of so much change through the centuries— evidence of which is all around you here and throughout the city.

Would the original missionaries recognize this place as theirs if they could return today? Maybe, maybe not. But none would doubt that they would take to their knees, like St. Francis himself, when a modern-day celebrant takes the host and says, “This is my body.”

Joseph Albino writes from Syracuse, New York.