Byzantine Italy, Calabrian emmigration to Brazil, the African diaspora and the hybrid culture of the Bixiga district (also spelled Bexiga, part of Bela Vista) come together at Our Lady Achiropita Church in São Paulo.
It is said that only two churches in the world are dedicated to Our Lady Achiropita: the main cathedral in Rossano, Italy, from which Calabrian immigrants starting a new life in early 20th-century São Paulo brought over a devotion with a miraculous background; and the parish in Bixiga, under the care of the Orionine Order.
Bixiga (the name is a colloquial term for smallpox, of which several epidemics hit São Paulo in its first centuries of existence) has had strong African heritage from its earliest, pre-European immigration history, starting with quilombos, or communities of escaped slaves - a history often neglected in favor of a more European vision of São Paulo's ethnic and cultural make-up. The district has had an active Afro pastoral at Achiropita for a quarter of a century, with several celebrations through the year.
The most famous festivity hosted by the parish is still the Feast of Our Lady Achiropita, a blend of religious and secular celebrations revolving around much Italian food and music which takes place every year in August and spreads over the church street - Rua Treze de Maio, or May 13 Street, named after the date of the Abolition of Slavery in 1888.
Fatta non da man umana
The devotion to Our Lady Achiropita comes from Rossano, a town with about 35,000 inhabitants and a history of about 3,000 years in the Cosenza province in Calabria. The town was one of the centers of the Byzantine Empire in Italy.
Maurice, who would become the Byzantine Emperor in 582, is said to have had his ship blown off course to a village in Calabria in 580 and told by the hermit Ephrem that the Virgin Mary wanted him to build a temple in her honor at that site - which he did, as emperor.
Centuries later, during restoration of the church, an image of Mary holding her Holy Infant on her left arm was painted during the day on an inside wall, only to disappear at night. One night, a beautiful woman asked the watchman to be let into the church. As time passed and she didn't come out, the man walked in to look for her. She had disappeared, but on the wall there was a beautiful image of Mary with the child Jesus - achiropita, a term from Old Greek meaning "not created by human hands" - creata (or fatta) non da man umana, in Italian.
The image of Our Lady Achiropita brought to São Paulo from Calabria used to be kept at a home. The celebrations in her honor first held in 1910 and meant to gather funds for construction of the church later evolved into the feast which now draws up to 30,000 visitors every night.
Immigrants from Cerignola in the Puglia region, also in Southern Italy, brought over to Bixiga their devotion to the Madonna di Ripalta, but a predominance of Calabrians in the neighborhood resulted in Our Lady of Achiropita as patron of the church. She occupies the altar beyond the cupula bearing the first lines of the "Tota Pulchra es" prayer. An image of the Madonna di Ripalta is in a side niche.
Bixiga's African Soul at Achiropita
The black population of Bixiga lived first in quilombos, and later, after Abolition in 1888 and the neighborhood settlement, in small houses on the banks of the Saracura Creek, tenements (cortiços) and basements.
In Bexiga: Um bairro afro-italiano (Bexiga: An Afro-Italian Neighborhood), a 2009 book published by Annablume, which stems from a Master's dissertation, author Márcio Sampaio de Castro tells of how Afro-Brazilian heritage thrived in the area, despite exclusion and prejudice, in cultural and spiritual expressions such as samba and Carnival and the Afro Pastoral at Our Lady of Achiropita.
In the area known as Saracura, mainly inhabited by blacks, there was samba de bumbo, batuque, choro - and in 1931, a cordão, or Carnival group, called Vai-Vai was founded. Today one of the top samba schools in São Paulo Carnival, Vai-Vai still has the saracura, or rail, as one of its symbols - a derogatory term turned into a banner of pride.
The history of the Afro pastoral at Our Lady of Achiropita Church, told in detail the book Axé, Madona Achiropita by Rosangela Borges (Pulsar, 2001), follows the Progressive Catholic movements started in the 1960s. Rites and festivities with elements of African syncretism held at the church include Mass, baptism, weddings, and the feast of St. Benedictus in April, with lively congadas.
The most important events of the Afro pastoral are posted on their website, in Portuguese, under "Calendário" and "Notícias".
Our Lady of Achiropita Festival 2012Weekends of Aug.4 to Sep.2, 2012
Rua Treze de Maio, Bixiga, São Paulo
Church Address & Contact Information:
Rua Treze de Maio 478
Bixiga (also spelled Bexiga)/Bela Vista