The Parish church known as "La Matriz" was founded 452 years ago at the time the city of Valparaiso, Chile, was just a small cove called Quintil frequented by the Changos, a now extinct aboriginal group of nomadic fishermen.
The original church was built of mud and straw in 1559 by Rodrigo Gonzalez Marmolejo, a Dominican priest who came to Chile as part of the military and religious contingent of conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. Gonzalez’ primary mission was to develop the main Catholic Church in Santiago, the capital of the new Kingdom of Chile.
The legend tells that following the arrival of the Spanish ship to Quintil Cove, the priests brought to land the wood-carved figure of the Christ in Agony, reputedly carved by a skillful Japanese sculptor, which would be the main religious image in the new Cathedral of Santiago. However the wheels of the oxcart carrying the figure got stuck deep in the mud and it was unable to move further. After numerous failed attempts, which included adding several bullock teams, the priests decided to consider this setback as a divine mandate and opted to leave the Christ where it has got stuck. A small chapel built of mud and straw to shelter the image became the first church of Valparaiso and one of the first religious buildings in Chile.
Located near the port, at the foot of Cerro Santo Domingo (St. Dominic Hill), the little church served not only to evangelize the Changos fishermen but it was also used for many years as a refuge for missionaries of several religious orders who came to Chile during the 16th and 17th centuries to support the military missions of the conquerors and to spread Catholicism among the Indians. The grounds around the church also served as the burial place for the prominent figures of the emerging community.
Right nave of "La Matriz" Parish with the XVI Century wood-carved statue of "The Christ in Agony"
The homes and shops of the early Spanish settlers were installed around the church and the original Cove of Quintil slowly developed into the town of Valparaiso, now a port city with about 310.000 inhabitants.
The new village and its modest church had a difficult time. The town was recurrently raided and destroyed by British and Dutch corsairs who wrecked the town and pillaged the little Catholic parish. They set the houses on fire and took with them not just the wine for the mass but the gold chalice as well. Firstly, in 1578, came Sir Francis Drake. Then, Olivier van Noort attacked in 1600, and later on, Joris van Spilbergen came in 1615.
"Christ of the Agony" at "La Matriz" Parish in Valparaiso, Chile. People from all over the world visit the historic building and the beautiful religious statue. Donations received at the parish fund meals for the homeless.
Detail of the image of "Christ of the Agony". The wood-carved statue came from Spain in the XVI century and has resisted almost intact several earthquakes that have damaged or destroyed the Parish.
The original precarious building did not last long. A second more elaborate parish church was erected. In 1730, a strong earthquake and tsunami flattened the town and destroyed the church. It was rebuilt and finished by 1749.
Parish Church "La Matriz" in 1822. Watercolor by British artist and writer of travel books Maria Graham painted shortly before the earthquake of 1822 that destroyed the building.
The new church was large and sturdy and had two towers. Nonetheless, in 1751 it was severely affected by another strong earthquake and lost one of its towers. Still, the single-tower building (watercolor painted by British artist and writer Maria Graham) lasted for another 87 years until 1822 when another quake completed the destruction of the old parish. No one was prepared to give up on the old La Matriz Parish. The construction of the current building, fourth in the series, started in 1837 and finished in 1842. In 1971, the building was declared a National Monument. Earthquakes in 1906, 1971 and 1985 caused damages which were repaired. The leaning tower is a permanent remainder of the eventful history of the earthquake-ridden old church.
The image of the Christ in Agony, with his head leaning heavily towards the chest leaves the legendary parish each year and is paraded by the faithful around the neighborhood during the celebration of Good Friday.