Nobrega's Jesuits Reached Brazil

May 03, 2010
Nobrega's Jesuits Reached Brazil

We do not have to look long at any country's customs or history to see the influence of its faith. Brazil is no exception. When Portuguese governor Thome de Sousa arrived in Bahia on this day, March 29, 1549, he was accompanied by the Jesuit Manoel da Nobrega, a member of a noble family. Nobrega had five companions. The strenuous efforts of the nobleman and his associates stamped the Portuguese colony with a stamp that remains to this day.

The Jesuit's instructions were to convert the Indians and educate the colonists. Many of the colonists were prisoners from the dregs of society. Believing that possession of firearms gave them the right to do as they pleased, they raped Indian women, mistreated Indian men and would have enslaved everyone had not the Jesuits lobbied for and obtained a decree forbidding slavery (1570). The Jesuits often stood as intercessors between colonists and natives. For their part, the Indians were no less savage. They killed and ate Pedro Fernandes Sardinha, the first bishop of Sao Salvadore, when he was shipwrecked on his way back to Iberia.

Despite all setbacks, the Jesuits won many converts. By the time the Carmelites, Benedictines and other other religious societies began arriving in Brazil (around 1580) the Jesuits had converted about 100,000 Indians. These religious leaders organized the native converts into villages where they could support one another. A province (branch) of the Jesuits was created with Nobrega as its head.

The society remained the major religious influence in Brazil for 210 years. The Jesuits constructed the first road from Bahia to Sao Paolo. They opened schools and seminaries. In one of the world's most novel experiments, they brought young orphans from Portugal in the hope they would be able to learn the Indian languages and act as translators. Some of these orphans joined the Jesuits as adults.

Meanwhile, the Jesuits accumulated libraries in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. They studied the Indian languages and wrote grammars and recorded details of the indigenous cultures in books. Brazil became overwhelmingly Catholic as it is to this day.

In the eighteenth century, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was perceived as so powerful and dangerous that many European nations suppressed it. The Jesuits of Brazil did not escape, either. In 1759, Marques do Pombal, the Portuguese chief minister, ousted the Jesuits from both Portugal and Brazil.


  1. Dussel, Enrique D. A History of the Church in Latin America: colonialism to liberation (1492 - 1979); translated and revised by Alan Neely. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1981.
  2. Fonseca, Faustino da. A Descoberta do Brazil. Lisboa, Bibliotheca Illustrada d’ao Seculo. 1900. Source of the image.
  3. LaTourette, Kenneth Scott. Three Centuries of Advance 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D. A History of the Expansion of Christianity, #3. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970; especially chapter 4, "Portuguese America."
  4. Macerlean, A. A. "São Salvador de Bahia de Todos os Santos." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  5. Manoel de Nobrega." Virtual American Biographies.
Last updated May, 2007.


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