Brazil Church History

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Research procedures and genealogical sources are different for each religion. It is helpful to understand the historical events that led to the creation of records your ancestor is listed in, such as parish registers.

Roman Catholic[edit | edit source]

The Roman Catholic faith has been the predominant faith of Brazil since its earliest settlement by Europeans in the 1500s. Catholic clergy accompanied the first explorers and colonizers to Brazil. The Jesuits made significant missionary and educational efforts, especially among the Indians. From 1549 until their expulsion in 1759, the Jesuits dominated religious life in the colony. The Franciscan friars also played an important role in Brazil.

A few secular priests were brought to Brazil by the donatarios (land lords of large grants of land called captaincies) in the early 1500s to attend to the spiritual needs of the colonists. The colony was made a separate diocese in 1551. The following year the first bishop of Brazil reached Bahia. In 1676 Bahia became the seat of an archbishopric, and by the end of the colonial period there were bishoprics in Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Maranhão, Pará, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais.

The Catholic Church was directed by bishops, Catholic Orders, and the secular clergy. The Catholic Church was the most important cohesive force in Brazilian life.

In 1563 the Council of Trent formalized record-keeping practices that were already being followed in much of the Catholic world. Separate books were kept for baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths or burials.

Judaism[edit | edit source]

Jews immigrated quite early to Brazil. The marranos, Jews who were forced to become Christians but who continued to practice their religion secretly, lived in Brazil from the earliest settlements.

During the Dutch occupation of northern Brazil from 1648 to 1653, two Jewish congregations were formed: Zur Israel in Recife and Magan Abraham in Mauricia. After these communities were disbanded in Brazil, the people helped establish communities in Aruba, Curaçao, Barbados, Amsterdam, London, and New York. A list of the names of these people can be found in:

Wiznitzer, Arnold. The Record of the Earliest Jewish Community in the New World. New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1954. (FHL book 981.34/R1 F2w)

Although the colony was subject to the Inquisition in Lisbon, the Inquisition in Brazil was mild compared with how it was administered in Mexico and Peru. Those in Brazil who were accused of being Jewish were taken to Lisbon and tried there. Documents from their trials in Portugal are on microfilm at the Family History Library:

Inquisição de Lisboa (Inquisition of Lisbon). Lisboa: Laboratórios Fototécnicos, N.p., (1975). (On 77 FHL films, beginning with 078450)

Today the largest Jewish congregation in South America, Congregação Israelita Paulista, is in São Paulo, with 2,000 families. The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies is developing a database of all Jewish cemeteries and inscriptions in the world. It lists information about Jewish cemeteries in Brazil on its Internet site:

There is also a Jewish Genealogical Society in Brazil:

Sociedade Genealógica Judaica do Brasil 
Caixa Postal 1025
13001-970 Campinas - SP
Tel.: (5511) 36617585
Fax: (5511) 32736000 

Other Religions[edit | edit source]

Although the majority of the population is Roman Catholic, there is also a great deal of tolerance for other religions in Brazil. Among the minority religions in Brazil are Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Maronism, and Spiritualism. Many Brazilians have returned to religions of Africa, including Macumba near Rio, Umbanda in São Paulo, and Candomblé in the Bahia area.

Some of the earliest non-Roman Catholic Christian religions that were established in Brazil are listed below.

  • Presbyterians, 1859
  • Methodists, 1870
  • Baptists, 1871
  • Seventh-Day Adventists, 1892
  • Lutherans, about 1900
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1927

A history of the German Mennonites in Brazil can be found in:

Mennoniten in Brasilien: gedenkschrift zum 50 Jahr - Jubiläum ihrer Einwanderung, 1930–1980/ Documento histórico para o jubileu dos 50 anos de imigração menonita no Brasil (Mennonites in Brazil: Memorial at the 50 Year Anniversary of their Emigration, 1930–1980). Witmarsum, Brasil: Festkomitees für die Jubilaeeumsfeier, 1980. (FHL book 981.6 F2m)

Other books about the history of religious minorities in Brazil can be found in the "Locality Search" section of the Family History Library under the country, state, or city/town and the subjects "church history" or "minorities."