Published On: January 24, 2019

The Chapel of Wine

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In Rio Grande do Sul lies the Vale dos Vinhedos. With its landscape of rolling green hillsides dotted with family farms, the vista could easily be mistaken for Tuscany. The state produces 90 percent of Brazil’s wine with more than 30 wineries in the Vale dos Vinhedos alone.

At the heart of this community stands a chapel called the Capela Nossa Senhora das Neves. Though small and unassuming, this building is distinguished in a particularly appropriate way – it was constructed with wine.

The church’s origin is detailed in its century-old decor. The tiny chapel features an altar made with wine barrels, and the exterior is outlined with wine-red paint. Additionally, the very mortar holding the bricks of the church’s walls together was made with wine – a testament to the creativity of the local Italian immigrants when faced with a debilitating drought.

Altar

Long before the construction of the wine chapel a century ago, the land was originally occupied by the Tupí-Guaraní and other indigenous people. Jesuit missionaries from Europe arrived in the 17th century, intent on evangelizing and moving them into missions. In the 19th century, Italian immigrants settled in the valley, the majority from the northern regions of Veneto and Trentino.

These Italian immigrants were mostly peasants drawn to southern Brazil by the promise of their own farms. The imperial government of Brazil played a part in luring many to the area. According to Walter Comassetto, a descendant of Italian immigrants who arrived in Rio Grande do Sul in 1878, “The government made the decision to occupy the lands with no legal ownership.”

At the time, there was still slavery in Brazil, which would last until 1888. However, the government knew that the abolition of slavery was certain. To resolve the looming lack of labor, their racially charged solution was “to invite, or to bring, or to hire,” Europeans. “White Europeans, preferably,” Comassetto says.

Immigrants from Italy, Portugal, and Spain were especially ideal because they were Catholic. The government created agencies authorized to invite people to settle in Brazil. Starting in Germany, they soon moved on to other European countries. With fliers, the agents immediately began spreading lies, boasting that new immigrants could own castles in Brazil and that there was plenty of land for everyone.

 

Vale dos Vinhedos

Vale dos Vinhedos

 

Often, the promised land was referred to as America. “Andiamo a fare America, let’s go to America, let’s be successful. This is what they said,” Comassetto says. The agents came to his great-grandfather’s church in Italy. With little local land left to farm, his family decided to take a chance and move.

As Italians landed at the port city of Porto Alegre, they were given parcels of land to settle in the unruly region of Serra Gaúcha, an area with steep hills and rocky terrain in Rio Grande do Sul.

Life in the future Vale dos Vinhedos was dire. Disease ran rampant, and instead of their promised castles, families lived off the land in the harshest of conditions, often with nothing to eat. But many survived, and after a four-year wait, the immigrants were granted the papers of their designated land.

Wanting to recreate the comforts of their homeland, the settlers raised livestock to provide themselves with meat and cheese and grew fruits and vegetables. More important, they began planting grape vines from seedlings brought by the Germans. Soon, they threw themselves into making wine just as they had in Italy. In the fertile soil and hot sun of Serra Gaúcha, their vineyards thrived.

Religion was always an important aspect of their lives. As Italian immigrants across Brazil established themselves in their new country, many soon turned to the construction of a local church or chapel. “The church became the point of entry, the point for them to get together,” Comassetto says. “People congregated there for everything — for business, for worship, to play, to have some fun during the weekend.”

 

Wine-colored stained glass

Wine-colored stained glass

 

In the new Serra Gaúcha town of Bento Gonçalves, the construction of Nossa Senhora das Neves was spearheaded by Marco Valduga, a member of one of the first Italian families in the Vale dos Vinhedos region.

In 1904, soon after moving to the area, the Valdugas and 20 other families began construction. They cut stones and made mortar out of clay and water. But then disaster struck. A period of intense drought overtook the land for two years and there was not enough water to continue the work. The drought was punishing, wilting crops as it spread throughout the region. Finally, a brilliant solution was arrived at – they would use their wine instead of water to make the mortar for the unfinished church.

The construction began a second time. Each local family donated 300 liters of their own wine supply. After kneading clay with the wine and adding wheat straw for stability, there was enough mortar to cement their bricks together. Everyone in the community had a hand in the construction, and the chapel was completed in 1907.

A plaque memorializing the church’s unique construction

A plaque memorializing the church’s unique construction

After more than 100 years of wear and tear, the chapel is now being professionally restored. According to Rui Stefani, a building restorer from the area, “The wheat or straw mixed with wine was never dry enough or cooked enough because they were not technicians.” Some of the interior walls have large cracks, and brickwork peeks through the plaster. Stefani is patching up these cracks and working on other restoration plans.

The story of Capela Nossa Senhora das Neves has been passed down to each generation, and Stefani, along with other local painters, is adding a mural depicting the chapel’s history on one of the interior walls.

According to Daniele Pistoia Araujo, the executive secretary of the Bento Convention Bureau, “The church is only used as a tourist and visitation place nowadays.” She notes that in the last year, the town of Bento Gonçalves received more than 150,000 visitors, many drawn by the town’s status as a home of Brazilian wine.

The chapel is thought of fondly by locals, not just as a symbol of their faith, but as a reflection of the ideals at the time it was built and the labor of the people who settled there. To many, the church mirrors the determination to build community with hard work and faith — not to mention wine.

[This article appeared originally in slightly different form on the Atlas Obscura website. The photos are by Danielle Bauter]

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