These sixteen churches, mostly overlooking the sea, are an example of a type of ecclesiastical wooden architecture that is unique to Chiloé.
The Chiloé archipelago, off the coast of southern Chile, is home to some 70 wooden churches. They are the legacy of a “circular mission” system – initiated by the Jesuits in the 17th century and continued by the Franciscans in the 18th and 19th centuries – under which a group of missionaries made an annual evangelization visit to the archipelago, staying a few days in each place and encouraging local communities to build their own place of worship.
Sixteen of these churches located mostly in the more sheltered part of the archipelago that looks across to mainland Chile - Achao, Quinchao, Castro, Rilán, Nercón, Aldachildo, Ichuac, Detif, Vilupulli, Chonchi, Tenaún, Colo, San Juan, Dalcahue, Chellín and Caguach – have been Unesco World Heritage Sites since 2000. With their simple basilican layout, vaulted ceiling and tower, the churches are witness to a unique fusion of European Jesuit culture and the skills and traditions of the local indigenous community.
Adapting to the resources available locally, the churches were built entirely in native timber, with extensive use of wood shingles, and their characteristic style owes much to the boat-building skills of the archipelago’s indigenous inhabitants. These are particularly apparent in the forms and jointing of the tower and roof structures.
The sites chosen for the churches and their orientation are also a product of the indigenous community’s relationship with the sea. Mostly close to it, they were often built on higher ground so as to be visible to sailors and to prevent flooding.
The churches also stand out for the traditional colors in which they were painted, their interior decoration and, in a further demonstration of local carpentry skills, their religious images. An esplanade in front of the churches, used for traditional religious festivals, further emphasizes their communication with the sea.