SÃO PAULO – With dozens of churches and other ecclesiastic buildings designated as historic landmarks in the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro, the archdiocese has to deal with various legal hurdles to try and fix the buildings in disrepair.

Most of the churches in bad shape are owned by ancient brotherhoods which over the years have seen their numbers go down and are not able to properly manage their properties.

Even though the archdiocese is not directly responsible for such buildings, it is expected to deal with church properties. That was when the archdiocese’s legal director, Claudine Milione Dutra, came up with the idea of creating a committee to monitor and take care of the restoration of the centuries-old churches.

“Every time prosecutors approached us in regard to endangered churches, we would not have the funds to do anything. So, I asked Cardinal Orani Tempesta to gather a group of experts that could work on such situations before it was too late,” Dutra told Crux.

Our Lady of Lapa of Merchants. (Credit: Iphan/Caio Reisewitz.)

Tempesta promptly answered the request and established the Commission for the Preservation of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro’s Historical and Cultural Heritage, which since 2018 has been working side by side with governmental agencies to identify the churches in most urgent need of intervention.

Besides Dutra, the committee gathers historians, experts in historical buildings, and other clergy members. One of its greatest efforts is to raise money for restoration projects. The commission is headed by Tempesta.

“The Church has funds, but they must be used with churchgoers and social services. So, we have been applying for grants conceded by the government and raising funds with private donors,” said Daisy Ketzer, a lawyer and an expert in cultural heritage management.

The whole process is demanding, she continued. All engineering and architectural projects must be completed before the grant applications. The government’s historical and cultural heritage agencies have to approve the planned intervention.

“And the workforce involved in the restoration must be highly qualified. It is a process that takes much time and much money,” Ketzer said.

Ceiling of the Church of Our Lady of Lapa of the Merchants. (Credit : Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro.)

When it comes to churches owned by fraternities, there are additional challenges. Dutra explained that some time ago a prosecutor called her to talk about the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Benedict of the Black Men, a church built by a brotherhood of African Brazilian men in the 18th century.

The church, which was a central building in the history of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century and housed the Museum of Black People, had to be shut down due to fire risks – most of it had already been impacted by a fire in 1967. The fraternity in charge of it no longer had funds to administer it.

“I told the prosecutor the archdiocese could not intervene because the church is owned by a fraternity. We had to file a lawsuit in order to assume the management of the building,” Dutra said.

In that case, the archdiocese had to use its own funds to pay for the initial restoration. The church could be reopened within six months. A project for a comprehensive restoration is currently being produced.

Altar – Our Lady of Lapa of the Merchants. (Credit: Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro.)

The brotherhood also kept centuries-old archives, which are now being catalogued and studied by university researchers who volunteered to take part in the project.

At times, fraternities that are struggling with financial and management difficulties are the ones that ask for the archdiocese’s intervention.

“The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Lapa of the Merchants, which administered a church under the same name, required the cardinal to interfere. A commissary was appointed and is now in charge of the brotherhood and of the building,” Ketzer said.

The church was built in 1750 by shopkeepers who formed a fraternity. It was closed by the authorities in 2020, when the façade began to break apart and fall on the ground. Since the archdiocese took over the church, several repairs – including in the bells – were completed. In May, the church will be reopened.

“Many fraternities are well managed. But some face difficulties, such as the lack of new members and lack of money. A number of brotherhoods were not able to renew its membership over time,” Father André Sampaio de Oliveira, the archdiocese’s vicar for the fraternities, told Crux.

While most of those associations carry out significant pastoral works and continually attract young participants, some of them failed to update their practices and became small, self-centered entities.

“There are fraternities that have even failed to renovate their statutes – which, in some cases, forbid the participation of women, for instance. It is obviously necessary to revise such elements,” he said.

Some of those groups own several buildings in central areas of Rio de Janeiro and have money to keep the churches well preserved. Others gradually lost their patrimony due to bad administration and misappropriation of funds.

The archdiocese committee is inspecting all cases in order to identify the churches that need its assistance.

“Most of the city’s temples are not in calamitous condition. But there are churches built at the beginning of the 17th century that need to be repaired. We still have much work to do,” Ketzer said.