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Sarayacú Mission

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The chief Franciscan mission of the Ucavali river country, Department of Loreto, north-east Peru, in the eighteenth century, and situated upon a small arm of the river, on the west side, about 6 deg. 45 min. south and 275 miles above its junction with the Amazon. The name signifies "River of the Wasp." The evangelization of the wild tribes of Eastern Peru, in the forests beyond the main Cordillera, was divided between the Jesuits and the Franciscans, the former having the territory immediately along the Maranyon (Amazon) and its northern affluents, directed from the college of Quito, while the Franciscans took under their care the territory along the middle and upper courses of the Huallaga and Ucayali, directed latterly from the Franciscan college of Ocopa, near Jauja, Central Peru, founded in 1712, especially for the education of missionaries. Sarayacú was established in 1791 by Father Narciso Girbal, his first colonists being some of the wild Setebo Indians. These were soon joined by bands from other tribes, and the population grew rapidly. In 1801 it was placed in charge of Fr. Manual Plaza, who remained with it nearly fifty years until his death and was succeeded by Fr. Vicente Calvo. In the half century during which Fr. Plaza with his three or four assistants thus governed their little community in the heart of a savage wilderness, they saw visitors from the outside world only twice, viz. Smyth and Lowe in 1835 and Castelnau in 1846. Under his direction a church and residence were built, and the grass-thatched houses laid out upon a regular town plan. The portico of the church, which called forth the admiration of these travelers, was designed and executed by one of the fathers, an Italian with architectural training.

With the opening of the revolutionary struggle in 1815 all governmental aid was withdrawn from the missions, most of which were abandoned, a part of the Indians, in some cases, joining these at Sarayacú, which continued to prosper through the tireless energy of Fr. Plaza. In 1835 it contained a population of about 2000 souls, representing many tribes — Pano, Omagua, Yameo, Conibo, Setebo, Sipibo, Sensi, Amahuaca, Remo, Campa, Mayoruna, and Capanahua, some of them from as far as the Huallaga and the Amazon. Each of the three principal tribes first named occupied a distinct section of the town. The Pano language was the medium of intercommunication. Besides the main town there were several other branch villages along the river, chief of which was Tierra Blanca. All of the few travellers who have left records of their visits to Sarayacú are full of praise for the hospitable kindness of the fathers and the good effect of their teaching upon the mission Indians as compared with the wild tribes of the forest, except as to the besetting sin of drunkenness, from the drinking of chicha, a sort of beer made from corn or plantains (bananas), in which both sexes constantly indulged, despite the protests and warnings of the missionaries.

Smyth, the English officer, who saw it at perhaps its best in 1835, gives an interesting account of the town, the various tribes, the routine of mission life, and the holiday celebrations. Ten years later a general epidemic wasted all the tribes of the Ucayali, and in 1846 Castelnau found only 1200 Indians at the mission. A large part of this decrease, however, was due to the removal of the men to engage with the rubber gatherers and the boat crews on the Amazon. In 1851 the American Lieutenant Herndon stopped there and was kindly received by Fr. Calvo, who was then in charge. "Father Calvo, meek and humble in personal concerns, yet full of zeal and spirit for his office, clad in his long serge gown, belted with a cord, with bare feet and accurate tonsure, habitual stoop and generally bearing upon his shoulder a beautiful and saucy bird of the parrot kind, was my beau ideal of a missionary monk. He is an Arragonese, and had served as a priest in the army of Don Carlos." Two other priests an Italian and a Catalan, with a lay brother, who did the cooking and as unwearied in his attentions, made up the household. He adds, "I was sick here, and think that I shall ever remember with gratitude the affectionate kindness of these pious and devoted friars of St. Francis."

The government was patriarchal, through Indian officers under supervision of the priest. The Indians were tractable and docile, but drunken, and although the location was healthy, and births exceeded deaths, the population constantly diminished from emigration down the river. From various industries they derived an annual income of about twelve hundred dollars, from which, with their garden, the four priests and lay brother supported themselves, bought vestments and supplies, and kept the church in repair and decoration. In 1856 the mission was visited by another epidemic. In 1859 the official geographer Raimondi found there 1030 inhabitants and a flourishing school, besides about 200 more at Tierra Blanca. In the same year Fr. Calvo established another branch station at Callaria, higher up the Ucayali, as a meeting-ground for the wild tribes in that direction. This has the effect of further drawing from the diminishing importance of Sarayacú, which was finally abandoned as a mission in 1863. It continues, however, as the chief port of the Ucayali, with a mixed Indian and Spanish population with the Quichua language as the medium. (See also PANO INDIANS; SETEBO INDIANS.)


CASTELNAU, Expedition dans les partes centrales de l'Amerique du Sud, IV (Paris, 1851); HERNDON, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, I (Washington, 1854); ORDINAIRE, Les Sauvages du Perou in Revue d'Ethnographie, VI (Paris, 1887); RAIMONDI, El Peru, III (Lima, 1879); IDEM, Apuntes sobre la Provincia litoral de Loreto (Lima, 1862); SMYTH AND LOWE, Narrative of a Journey from Lima to Para (London, 1836).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1912). Sarayacú Mission. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Sarayacú Mission." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of James Tiernan.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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