CHAPEL OF OUR LADY OF THE AFFLICTED TIMELINE
1775: The Cemetery of Our Lady of the Afflicted (Cemitério da Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos), also known as the Cemetery of Glory (Cemitério da Glória), is established in São Paulo, SP, Brazil.
1779 (June 27): The Chapel of Our Lady of the Afflicted (Capela da Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos), built on cemetery grounds, is consecrated.
1821 (September): Joaquim José Cotindiba and Francisco José das Chagas, better known as Chaguinahs, were hanged for inciting a rebellion among fellow soldiers over maltreatment and unpaid wages in the nearby port city of Santos. Soon after, he was venerated as a popular saint.
1858: Cemitério Consolação, São Paulo’s first truly municipal cemetery, was established. This rendered the Cemetery of the Afflicted obsolete, and its last burial took place on August 14.
1886 (November): The Diocese of São Paulo authorized partition of and sale of the Cemetery of the Afflicted’s grounds, leaving the Chapel of the Afflicted as the cemetery’s only remaining structure.
1978 (October 23): The Chapel of the Afflicted was designated a protected historical monument by CONDEPHAAT (the Counsel for the Defense of Historical, Archeological, Artistic and Touristic Patrimony of the State of São Paulo).
1991 (April): The Chapel of the Afflicted was given further protection by CONPRESP, the Municipal Council for the Preservation of Historical, Cultural, and Environmental Patrimony of the City of São Paulo.
Circa 1994: The chapel caught fire, causing lasting damage to altarpieces and revealing human remains from the old cemetery.
2011 (October): City and state historical societies approved a proposed renovation of the chapel at a cost of $1,500,000 reais (about $845,000 U.S. at the time). The renovation never happened.
2018 (March-June): Construction in a lot adjacent to the chapel causee cracks to open along the chapel’s walls, causing concern among devotees. Five gathered to form UNAMCA (União dos Amigos da Capela dos Aflitos), the Union of the Friends of the Chapel of the Afflicted.
2011 (June 27): UNAMCA published an open letter to cultural heritage organizations and the Catholic Church, lamenting the neglect of the chapel and warning of the danger of its collapse.
2018 (September 20): UNAMCA held a funeral cortege in honor of Chaguinhas. Modeled on the March for Racial Democracy, the procession passed by significant “sites of black memory in the central region of the city.”
2018 (December): Archaeologists from A Lasca announced the discovery of human remains in the lot adjacent to the chapel, which was formerly part of the Cemetery of the Afflicted. Later that month, City Councilman Paulo Batista dos Reis introduced legislation to officially protect the archaeological site.
2020 (January 28): São Paulo Mayor Bruno Covas signed Law 17.310, designating the creation of a Memorial of the Afflicted in the lot adjacent to the chapel, “dedicated to the preservation of the archaeological archive and memory of the black men and women who lived in this region during the period of slavery.”
The Chapel of Our Lady of the Afflicted (Capela da Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos), better known as the Chapel of the Afflicted, is a small Catholic chapel in the Liberdade neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil. Consecrated in 1779, it was once part of the Cemetery of Our Lady of the Afflicted, which was built four years earlier for “slaves [sic], victims of capital punishment, and the indigent” (Santos 1978:1). Church burials were the norm at the time, and the cemetery was the first in São Paulo, and one of the first in Brazil. Though under ecclesiastical authority, it was functionally a public cemetery, reserved for those unable to afford (or in some cases, prohibited from receiving), burial on church grounds. After the Diocese of São Paulo parceled and sold the cemetery in 1886, the Chapel of the Afflicted was its only remaining structure (Santos 1978:1). Today, the chapel sits at the end of a short, dead-end alley [Image at right] where it is flanked by tall buildings, restaurants, and shopping centers. With its old, worn façade and macabre name, the chapel recalls a bygone era, and has a reputation as haunted (See, e.g., Universo Lenda 2015).
The Chapel of the Afflicted is primarily a place of private devotion. Writing in 1858, one observer described how “believers of all races, especially simple creatures” had built a ramshackle structure on which to light candles “in intention for the souls” (in Loureiro 1977:51). This practice, which Brazilians refer to as the devotion to souls (devoção às almas) or cult of the souls (culto das almas), persists until today. Throughout the twentieth century, journalists and scholars marveled at the throngs of visitors who came to the church to petition the souls’ help with worldly affairs (See, e.g., Vilenha 2012). Similar to the cult of the dead in Naples, devotees at the Chapel of the Afflicted pray both for and to the souls, hoping not only to ease the souls’ suffering, but also their own. The practice can be traced to the purgatorial devotionalism that once flourished throughout the Catholic world, and was especially strong in the colonial Portuguese Atlantic (Campos 2013:96). But today, devotees do not always believe in purgatory, and some reject Catholic identity altogether, garnering the chapel a reputation as “heterodox” or “syncretic” (Vilenha 2013).
Of all those buried near the chapel’s grounds, one stands apart. In 1821, Francisco José das Chagas, better known as “Chaguinhas,” was sentenced to death for his role in a soldiers’ rebellion over unpaid wages. According to legend, when Chaguinhas was hanged on the night of September 20, the rope broke. The sympathetic crowd, seeing it as a sign from God, screamed “Liberdade!” (Freedom!) and pled for his release. But the authorities were unmoved, and Chaguinhas was sent back up the gallows. On the second attempt, the rope broke again, and stunned spectators declared it a miracle. Some say he was finally executed on the third attempt, when the hangman swapped a fiber rope for one of leather. Others say it took four tries, or even that the exasperated executioner had to carry out his task by decapitating Chaguinhas or beating him to death (Amoruso 2014:11–12; Menezes 1954:153–59; Silva 2008:284–86; Vilenha 2013).
In the wake of Chaguinhas’s death, two laymen, Olegário Pedro Gonçalves and Chico Gago, erected a wooden cross and small table near the hill on which the gallows stood. It became known as the Holy Cross of the Hanged, and devotees visited to light candles to Chaguinhas and the gallows’ other victims. Within a few decades, devotees built a small structure to protect offerings of candles and flowers from the elements and to better serve the growing number of visitors. Sometime between 1887 and 1891, the Diocese of São Paulo built a small chapel to accommodate the growing devotion, which they reformed and expanded just four years later. Placing the humble wooden cross behind the altar, it was consecrated the Church of the Holy Cross of the Souls of the Hanged. The devotion continued to grow, and by the mid-twentieth century, journalists marveled at the throngs of visitors that packed the church’s candle rooms. [Image at right] A lay brotherhood helped maintain the church and promote the devotions to Chaguinhas and the souls, and in the early twentieth century, held regular funerary Masses on the anniversary of Chaguinhas’s hanging (Menezes 1954:153–59; Santos 1977:9).
Like the gallows’ other victims, Chaguinhas probably buried at the Cemetery of the Afflicted. Though there is no record of his burial in the archdiocese’s records, sources from the late nineteenth century say that shortly after his death, the faithful lit candles for him at the cemetery’s gates (Almanach 1879:201; Santos 1978:1). Today, devotees pray to him at the Chapel of the Afflicted, where they say he was held on the eve of his execution. There they knock on a large wooden door three times to symbolize how Chaguinhas met his end, before making a request or giving thanks for favors received. The door’s cracks and crevices are typically jammed full of folded petitions written on Mass intention forms. Though Chaguinhas is said to be especially effective with legal issues or redressing injustice, practitioners seek his help for all kinds of issues, including problems with money, health, and love (Field notes, September 2018; Soares Dias 2020; Vilenha 2013).
In contrast to the certainty of devotees’ faith, the details of Chaguinhas’s death and life are likely lost to time. Some of these, like the number of times the rope broke, are of little consequence to devotees today. Others, like the politician Martim Francisco’s role in authorizing Chaguinhas’s execution, have implications for whether Chaguinhas should be celebrated as a martyred forebear of Brazilian independence, which came a year after his death (Silva 2008:284–86). But among contemporary devotees, perhaps the most vibrant debate about Chaguinhas is over the color of his skin. Why have so few historians said anything about Chaguinhas’s race? Was it because he was Black, like most of those hanged at the gallows? The answers to these questions are implicated in contemporary struggles over urban memory and ethnic identity in São Paulo.
Paulistanos today typically know Liberdade as “the Japanese neighborhood,” and it is easy to see why. The neighborhood is marked by Japanese-style lanterns, a large torii (a gate traditionally found at the entrance to Shinto shrines), and building façades intended to evoke Japanese architecture. The aesthetic is partly a testament to the neighborhood’s history as a popular destination among Japanese immigrants, hundreds of thousands of whom came to Brazil over the twentieth century. But it is also the result of a “Program of Orientalization,” which the city implemented in the 1970s to promote Liberdade as a tourist destination (Guimarães 1979:127–29). The city’s embrace of Japanese immigration has resulted in the obfuscation of other histories, like Korean and Chinese immigration in the later twentieth century, or the neighborhood’s even longer history as a center of Black life and culture. That is part of what makes the Chapel of the Afflicted so relevant today; for journalists, scholars, and activists alike, it acts as a “site of memory” that recalls Liberdade’s lesser-known Black past (Ferreira 2018; Soares Dias 2018).
Throughout the twentieth century, journalists periodically rediscovered the Chapel of the Afflicted and Church of the Hanged, which they wrote about as bulwarks of “tradition” against the onslaught of rapid modernization characteristic of São Paulo (see, e.g., Diario Nacional 1938; A Gazeta 1931). In 1978, the Chapel of the Afflicted was designated a protected historical site by CONDEPHAAT, the São Paulo state heritage organization, which stipulated the structure “could not be destroyed, demolished, mutilated or altered,” or even “repaired, painted, or restored” without prior authorization. Later, in 1991, the newly-established municipal heritage council (CONPRESP) further protected the structure, in part by requiring all new construction in a given radius to undergo a special approval process.
Questions of historical preservation came to the fore in early 2018, when construction in an adjacent lot shook the chapel so violently that cracks opened along its walls. Worried the chapel would collapse, a group of five devotees decided to take action. In June of that year they founded UNAMCA (União dos Amigos da Capela dos Aflitos), the Union of the Friends of the Chapel of the Afflicted, to organize efforts to save the chapel and, eventually, secure funds for a much-needed renovation. They inaugurated their efforts with an open letter addressed to the Archdiocese of São Paulo relevant heritage counsels in which they warned of the threat facing the chapel and lamented its persistent state of disrepair. Soon, UNAMCA began attracting press attention and growing its membership to include devotees, Black activists, and laypeople interested in cultural patrimony, and the group began to broaden its aims accordingly (Soares Dias 2018).
On September 20, the 197th anniversary of Chaguinhas’s death, UNAMCA held its first annual funeral procession in honor of Chaguinhas. As solemn, candlelit vigil in Liberdade, the procession integrated elements of Catholic devotionalism with the symbolic repertoire of a tradition of Black protest in São Paulo. In particular, the cortege was designed to gesture toward the annual Night March for Racial Democracy (Marcha Noturna Pela Democracia Racial), which traditionally began at the Church of Our Lady of the Good Death. One of São Paulo’s oldest churches, Chaguinhas and others condemned to death are said to have prayed there before their march to the gallows. By departing from the same site, the procession in honor of Chaguinhas not only offered his devotees an opportunity to commemorate his death, but also highlighted significant sites of Black historical memory in São Paulo (Soares Dias 2018).
A pivotal moment in the Chapel of the Afflicted’s recent history came in December 2018, human remains from the old cemetery were discovered at the construction site next to the chapel. While archaeologists were unable to determine the ancestry or cause of death of those buried, they discovered a glass bead necklace, indicating the owner “belonged to an African-inspired religion” (Reis 2018). The discovery added urgency to activists’ calls to protect the chapel, and some of those who had been working to save it began to focus on a new campaign to expropriate the adjacent lot and secure its designation as a protected archaeological site. The city’s Department of Historical Patrimony was sympathetic to the project, and in January 2020, São Paulo Mayor Bruno Covas signed Law 17.310, which sanctioned the creation of the Memorial of the Afflicted, “dedicated to the preservation of the archaeological archive and memory of the black men and women who lived in this region during the period of slavery” (Bonilla 2020).
As of July 2020, activists are in the process of planning and fundraising for the memorial, as well as securing further legal protection for it. While the Memorial of the Afflicted already exists as a legal entity, the lot currently remains in private hands, and activists are petitioning the mayor’s office to declare it a “public utility” and to raise the funds necessary for its expropriation. In line with the language of Law 17.310, those working on the implementation of the memorial intend for it to safeguard and valorize the heritage of enslaved Black people and their descendants in São Paulo (Soares Dias 2020).
Suffering and death are central to belief at the Chapel of the Afflicted. Devotees primarily visit on Monday, which they know as the “day of the souls.” This temporal designation, like the broader practice of prayer to the suffering dead, is rooted in a long tradition of Catholic purgatorial devotionalism. Purgatorial devotions flourished in colonial Brazil, where they were promoted by Catholic lay brotherhoods, ecclesiastical authorities, and the crown (Campos 2013:96). While devotees today do not always believe in purgatory, this historical trajectory helps account for salient features of the contemporary practice. For instance, devotees today pray to souls like the almas aflitas (suffering souls) and almas penadas (wandering souls), which they treat as different kinds of dead. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, these phrases were common euphemisms for purgatorial souls in Iberian devotional literature (Amoruso 2018:14).
Spirit mediumship religions like Candomblé, Umbanda, and Kardecist Spiritism are widespread in Brazil, and practitioners of these religions (who may or may not also consider themselves Catholic) frequent the Chapel of the Afflicted. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is the structure of the place: not all churches in São Paulo have a place to light candles, and not all candle rooms are so easily accessible from the street. But devotees’ eclecticism is also related to the chapel’s history as the resting place of the least fortunate. Visitors know the chapel as the “place where slaves were buried,” and offerings to spirit entities like the pretos velhos (“old blacks,” or the spirits of generations of enslaved Africans) or Obaluaê, the Yoruba orixá associated with healing, death, and resurrection, are common at the chapel (Amoruso 2018:4–5).
The Chapel of the Afflicted is most known as a space of paraliturgical devotion. With rare exception, Mass is celebrated at the chapel once weekly, on Monday afternoon. Because it is not a parish church, baptisms, marriages, and funeral Masses are rarely celebrated there, and then only with special permission. The chapel tends to be busiest on Mondays, when devotees come to pray to the souls of the suffering dead (Amoruso 2018; Soares Dias 2019).
As a private practice, the devotion to souls can be idiosyncratic. In its most basic form, it consists of visiting an appropriate site (usually a church or cemetery) to light candles for, pray to, and thank the souls of the dead on Mondays. Devotees roundly agree that lighting candles for the dead at home is risky, as one might attract afflicted souls who “still need light.” As such, any church with a place to light candles is acceptable for practicing the devotion. But in São Paulo, the most popular sites for the practice have a special association with the death (Amoruso 2018:4). Some are churches that were built by institutional imperative, like the Sanctuary of the Souls in the Armênia neighborhood. Administered by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ritual life at the sanctuary draws from the missionary congregation’s longstanding concern for the souls in purgatory (Santuário das Almas). Others, like municipal cemeteries or the Chapel of the Afflicted, have a more intimate relationship (both historically and spatially) with the city’s dead. The historical traumas that make the Chapel of the Afflicted such a potent devotional site also make it rich in spectral lore, and a favored destination of ghost hunters, artists, and television producers. The Netflix series Spectros (Specters), for instance, opens with a scene set at the Chapel of the Afflicted in 1858, the year of the final burial at its cemetery.
The Chapel of the Afflicted is under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of São Paulo. Because it is not a parish church, different priests have been assigned to celebrate mass there over the past few years, and some have introduced modest innovations. For instance, sometimes around 2018, one priest began celebrating a Charismatic Catholic mass, and making explicit reference to Chaguinhas in sermons to build the congregation (Field notes, September 2018; Soares Dias 2019).
Still, while the chapel is under the authority of the archdiocese, there is no formal leadership to the private devotional life at the chapel. A lay brotherhood briefly maintained the church from around 1857–1878, but historians know little about their organization or practices (Dos Santos 1978). The chapel is typically staffed by a single administrator, with the occasional help of a janitor. At times, the chapel’s administrators posted signs prohibiting the use of colored candles (which are associated with Afro-Brazilian religious devotions), or even by scolding visitors who leave such offerings. Prayer groups have sometimes frequented the chapel, such as a group that gathers on Mondays to recite the Mil misericórdias (Thousand Mercies), a prayer cycle similar to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. More recently, in 2019, devotees working with UNAMCA inaugurated a new practice, the Terço do Chaguinhas, that links the group’s activist work with veneration of Chaguinhas.
As of mid-2020, the most pronounced challenges facing the Chapel of the Afflicted concern its preservation and renovation, as well as the construction of the Memorial of the Afflicted. With the passage of Law 17.310, the previous construction in the lot adjacent to the chapel has been halted, and the chapel’s structural integrity is probably not immediate risk. Even so, the chapel is in dire need of reform (Soares Dias 2020). It smells faintly of mold, and its plaster walls are worn and cracking. Many of the chapel’s retablos are crumbling from termite damage, and some are still partly covered in soot from the mid-1990s fire that tore through the nave.
The January 2020 law that designated the creation of a Memorial of the Afflicted estimated costs of R$4,000,000 to purchase the relevant land and another R$2,000,000 for the construction of the physical memorial. Currently, the memorial exists only as a legal entity, and those working on its development have organized a series of working groups responsible for project management, architectural planning, communications, and legal issues. Because the planning, fundraising, and construction of the memorial will likely take years, the group is discussing the possibility of creating a virtual memorial, and is in the process of collecting archival materials and scholarly work about the Chapel and Cemetery of the Afflicted (Field notes, June 2020).
Image #1: Entrance to the Chapel of the Afflicted.
Image #2: Devotional space inside the Chapel of the Afflicted.
** Original research in this article is from the author’s manuscript, Moved By the Dead: Haunting, Devotion, and Cultural Heritage in Urban Brazil, which is forthcoming in 2022 with the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
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