La Salette in Rio de Janeiro

Editor: This article was written in November of 1935 by a La Salette Missionary serving in Rio. Therefore we have mostly used archival visuals from that time to enhance his reflections.

Untitled 1Statue of Christ the Redeemer standing in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city of Rio. Christ’s arms are open, serving as a symbol of peace.The following letter from a Missionary of our Lady of La Salette in Brazil affords some interesting side-lights on the life and customs of the people in that great South American republic. From it the reader may gather some idea of the life of a Missionary, with its light and shadow, in that vast and still undeveloped country where civilization in its noblest expressions and barbarity in its lowest form mingle in the strangest pattern. Our correspondent writes to us from Rio de Janeiro:

"From my window where I sit to pen these lines I can look but over the great and marvelous Bay of Guanabara, overcast now with a heavy shroud of black, ominous clouds; and as the mists rise and fall, the statue of "Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer)" on the mountain peak of Corcovado appears and disappears from behind the veil that hangs before its two thousand feet of rocky pedestal.

The rain patters on the tiles outside my window, but, defiant of the downpour, the peddlers bawl their wares through the streets, and urchins who found the weather too bad to go to school, fill the air with a never ending chorus of screams and laughter.

It is only recently that I have really come to know and appreciate this capitol city of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro. On my first arrival in the summer of 1932, I was delayed here a month before continuing my journey southward to our missions among the "gauchos" of Sao Paulo. But my experiences then were similar to those of the average tourist who comes here on a sightseeing visit.

The Glamorous Rio of Visitors and the Rich

Every day brings new travelers to this queen city of South America, but few of them ever see Rio de Janeiro in its real setting. Debarking from palatial ocean liners, they immediately register at the beautiful hotels in Botafogo or Copacabana where they speak and read their own language.

Untitled 2National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Rio de Janeneiro: Church facade; interior on a feast dayThe day's program includes long excursions in American Packards and Buicks along the beautiful waterfront, through the shady forest, and over the mountains that make Guanabara the gem that it is. But these eager tourists see only one side of the medal; they miss all the poverty and squalor, the sordid drudgery that is the lot of the common people. And they return to their own lands to write glowing accounts of the wealth, beauty and civilization of the great Republic of Brazil.

The Rio of the Poor

Having lived in Rio for a while now, and having tramped about in the streets and by-ways of this pretentious city, I have come to see the other, and less flattering side of the picture. Rio de Janeiro is a city made up of old wealthy and politically powerful families, together with an enormous population of poor folk who live in small, and often miserable quarters, eat simple, unsavory food, and gain a scant livelihood by working for the public, running small stores, driving taxis, washing clothes, many of them living precariously as professional beggars.

Untitled 3For the wealthy, living conditions are as good here as in any part of the world; but for the poor, the opposite is equally as true. To see the lovely stucco dwellings in Ipanema or Copacabana, with their intricately designed porcelain arches and mullions; the spacious boulevards that pass under arborways and archlights; the warm blue sea breaking gently on the sandy shoreline; one would conclude that Utopia was not altogether a fantastic dream.

But if you leave these tourist-trodden paths to climb up into the hills that characterize the uneven surface of this great city, the scene changes entirely. Here you will find thousands of people housed in mere shanties of mud and bamboo, roofed over with the ubiquitous Socony-oil cans retrieved from the refuse heaps of the city.

The same is true of the older and densely populated parts of the city where you will find families of ten and twelve with only a cellar room for a home to go to at night. Those who live in the hills are really the poorest of the poor, the outcasts of society. There, on government land, they have gone with a few boards, some makeshift kitchen utensils, and the scanty clothes they have on their backs, to make a home for themselves and their children.

Naturally such places prove a breeding place for all kinds of germs and malignant diseases Tuberculosis is widespread, especially among the children who are easy victims because of their undernourished condition.

A Sad Sick Call

A few days ago I was sent on a sick call to one of these miserable huts, clinging to the side of a wind-swept hill, and open on all sides to the inclemencies of the weather. Here I attended a girl of fourteen, dying of this white man's plague. No words of mine could adequately describe the squalor of that hovel, devoid of even the most primitive necessities of life.

Of a large family only the mother and a younger sister of ten years were left. Together we knelt by the dying girl and recited the prayers for the agonizing, and I could not help but think that death was a blessing undisguised for this poor creature.

Much of this suffering and misery is, of course, the normal lot of people living in a country that is still in the pioneer stage of its development. We cannot expect to find in this comparatively New World the same standards of living prevalent in countries favored with culture and civilization for many centuries past.

Education Can Lift the Poor Out of Their Poverty

Untitled 4Parish children in the neighborhood; Carnivale celebrations in Catumby (our parish area)The progress of Brazil will naturally be hastened by the more widespread development of her educational program. Until recent years schooling in Brazil was considered wholly a private matter; and the swarms of children in the streets even today indicate that learning is looked on by the poorer people as one of the superfluities of life.

There is, at present, a strong movement on foot for the education of the masses, and year by year public and private schools are becoming more numerous and better equipped. Unhappily as yet there is no such thing as obligatory school attendance, but doubtless that will come in time. In the interior of the country there is little attempt made to provide educational facilities, and on every side one is confronted with abysmal ignorance.

I have assisted frequently enough at marriage ceremonies where the contracting parties and the witnesses were not able to write their own names, and I had to be content with the letter X from each one as their contribution to the marriage records. It would be impossible to give an analysis of the religious condition of Rio within the compass of this hastily written letter, as there are complexities even to that question which make it a peculiar problem to handle.

Advancing the Catholic Faith

Untitled 5(from left) La Salette Rose Window in National Shrine Church; Priests gather in Rio: Front Row, from L: Fr. Etienne Cruveiller, M.S., La Salette Superior General; the local Cardinal; Fr. Simon Bacelli, M.S.; Back Row, from L: unknown; Fr. Etienne Groven; Fr. Pascal Rochedreux, M.S.; unknown; Fr. Raffaello. While the Catholic Faith has been held as a precious inheritance, there is still much to be desired as regards its daily practice. Lack of instruction and climatic conditions conducive to indolence slow the progress of the Church down to a snail's pace.

Rio de Janeiro is well provided with churches and chapels, but there is not that strong parochial organization found in the United States.

Parish lines here are mythical and the hundreds of special oratories and shrines only serve to confuse the situation. Many of these chapels are under the immediate control of lay organizations called Brotherhoods, and a chaplain is engaged on salary to carry on the spiritual functions according to their fanciful directions.

This is a vestige of an ancient custom, and, as in most cases, these men have built and financed the chapel, there is not much that can be done to remedy the situation. The best we can hope for is that gradually this custom may die out, and make way for effective parish organization on the American plan.

Most economic experts envision a future of dazzling brightness for the great Republic of Brazil, and their hopes are well founded, since many of the tremendous resources of this rich and fertile country are still awaiting development.

In your charity, say a prayer that the religious and spiritual evolution of the people may keep pace with their material progress and prosperity. Otherwise the latter would ultimately prove Brazil's greatest disaster".
Untitled 6A postcard panoramic view of Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay
(Reprinted from an article in “Our Lady’s Missionary, November, 1935, pgs. 180-181)

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