Tiradentes, Landfills and Presbyterians

]Rev and Mrs Simonton arrive in Rio Rev and Mrs Simonton arrive in Rio

By Peter Janos Kurz

Contrary to what many may have thought until recently,  the site of the execution of Tiradentes is likely to be a place other than what is today named  Praça Tiradentes, the old Largo do Rocio.   Some historians now believe that on April 21, 1792, the martyr of Brazilian Independence was paraded from the Paço Imperial, through Rua da Assembléia, crossed Avenida Rio Branco, and continued  in the same direction along Rua da Carioca.  Where today’s Praça Tiradentes  meets Rua da Carioca, Tiradentes was taken right on Rua da Lampadosa towards Avenida Passos.  One block from Praça Tiradentes, he stopped at the Igreja  de Nossa Senhora da Lampadosa and attended mass for the last time.  From the church, he was taken to the corner with Rua Senhor dos Passos and there he was hung.

Today, following the same route and stopping  at the same corner – Rua da Carioca with Praça Tiradentes –  turning  left will lead to Rua Silva Jardim.

Of course, in the  days of Tiradentes there was a very visible hill in that direction  – Morro do Santo Antônio – filling the open space framed today by Av. Republica do Chile, R. do Lavradio, R. dos Arcos and Av. Republica do Paraguai (site of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Petrobras building).   And, of course, Rua Silva Jardim was not yet called that; Antônio da Silva Jardim, the republican abolitionist  and journalist after whom the street is named, was born much later,  in 1860. He died at the age of 31 in Napoles,  apparently in an accident related to the local volcano, Mt. Vesuvius.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the cariocas moved the hill into the ocean to create the  Aterro do Flamengo…eventually, all the way to Botafogo.   As for  Rua Silva Jardim, just a few dozen yards from Praça Tiradentes, where it makes a sharp turn,  today one can see what was called until not too long ago the  Igreja Presbiteriana  do Rio de Janeiro.    Its role among Brazilian Presbyterian churches continues to grow.  With the reconstruction of its façade, the addition of two majestic  towers,  an  impressive growth in both influence  and size of membership (now more than 3,500), and the creation of two small statue-filled parks, the Igreja has become a Catedral.  At a recent Sunday service more than 500 filled the church to capacity, with another 50 or so in chairs rushed in as needed.

It’s a pleasant building, pleasing to the eye.  The façade, with the three grouped processional doors and pointed – perhaps lancet — arches, reminds one of Notre Dame, albeit on a much smaller scale.  The main portal is flanked by two smaller but equally arched and pointed doors.  Above is a tympanum and above that a large, round, stained glass window.   Inside,  the church follows  the classical gothic guidelines of a cruciform plan.   The long – somewhat narrow – nave is flanked by two rows of simple white marble Corinthian columns tinged with pink.  Six on each side, I believe, with aisles on both sides and a balcony in the back, above the atrium and the narthex  for the Canuto Régis Choir.   Perhaps there is a transept.   Until the turn of the millennium, the  two towers were missing , as shown in a 1951 pen-and-ink drawing;  this further enhanced the similarity with Notre Dame.  The recent addition of the spires has stretched the vertical and tipped  the previous balance.

The Presbyterian Church of Brazil was established  150 years ago and, on December 12, (2012) Brazilian Presbyterians concluded a string of events celebrating  this sesquicentennial.

The commemorations  began in 2009, marking the arrival from Baltimore, Maryland, of a 26-year-old  Princeton graduate.   After  56 days at sea on board the North American sailing vessel “Banshee,”  on  August 12, 1859, the Rev. Ashbel  Green Simonton arrived at Praça Mauá.   Seven years earlier he had earned his degree from The College of New Jersey – Princeton University’s predecessor – and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1859, having abandoned  law to enroll  in Princeton Theological Seminary and focus on theology and religious studies.    On August 29, 2009, more than 20,000 Brazilian evangelical Christians came together for a public thanksgiving (“Culto Público de Ação de Graças”) in downtown Rio’s Oscar Niemeyer designed Praça da Aposteose. Later,  a 2,000-person choir sang and a statue of the Rev. and Mrs. Simonton was unveiled at Praça Mauá.   Since then a string of major and minor events have succeeded one another with most held in or around  the beautiful Catedral  Presbiteriana do Rio de Janeiro, located at Rua Silva Jardim, 23, off Praça Tiradentes.

The Church was formally established on January 12, 1862, with the conversion and acceptance of its first two members – one from the United States, the other from Portugal.  To commemorate the “Sesquicentenário da Igreja Presbiteriana do Rio de Janeiro,” on January 12, 2012, the Brazilian post office issued a R$ 1.60 stamp and the Casa da Moeda  minted gold, silver and bronze coins.

But 150 years ago, the laws of Imperial Brazil prohibited the building of religious structures or houses of worship by anyone other than representatives of the Empire’s official religion, the Roman Catholic Church.   Article five of Brazil’s 1824 Constitution permitted the practice of other religions in private homes  and other buildings,  “em casas para isso destinadas, sem forma alguma exterior do Templo”  (…without external characteristics of a Temple).   During its initial years the church held its activities in rented locations but this changed in 1870, when  it purchased real estate by the foot of Morro do Santo Antonio – including at least one building suitable for regular religious services —  and began a series of improvements and construction.  Ultimately, this led to the building of the current neo-gothic church in the style of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Geneva (“a igreja de Calvino.”).

Unfortunately, the Rev. Simonton did not live to see this permanent location.   On June 28, 1864, Helen Murdoch Simonton died of complications following the birth of her daughter and was buried in the  Cemitério dos Ingleses.  Three years later The Rev. Simonton died of yellow fever.  During his eight years in Brazil he founded the Presbyterian Church in Brazil (now with a million members),  and created a newspaper (Imprensa Evangélica), a presbytery and a seminary.

The Church flourished with help from numerous congregations, missionaries and ministers from the United States, both North and South, many with degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University, and several others from Europe.  Before his death, the Rev. Simonton had already stopped all sermons in English and by the end of the century the leadership  of the church was almost exclusively Brazilian.   During the 20th Century, the congregation benefitted from exceptional  leaders such as the Rev. Amantino Adorno Vassão (1945 – 1980) and the Rev. Guilhermino Cunha (1981 to the present).

Peter Janos Kurz, November 2012.

Statue of Tiradentes in front of the old House of Representatives in Rio

Statue of Tiradentes in front of the old House of Representatives in Rio


1951 Pen-and-ink drawing by Janos Antal Kurz

1951 Pen-and-ink drawing by Janos Antal Kurz