The Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat (Portuguese: Abadia de Nossa Senhora do Monserrate), more commonly known as the Mosteiro de São Bento (Monastery of St. Benedict), is a Benedictine abbey located on the Morro de São Bento (St. Benedict Hill) in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Mannerist style church is a primary example of Portuguese colonial architecture in Rio and the country.
The abbey was founded by Benedictine monks who came from the state of Bahia in 1590. It is still operational today, along with the Colégio de São Bento (St. Benedict College) nearby. The college, established in 1858, is one of the most important traditional educational establishments in Brazil and claims many famous alumni. The abbey includes the Faculdade de São Bento (St. Benedict Seminary), with courses in theology and philosophy that are recognized by the Ministry of Education. Theological studies at the monastery are also affiliated with the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome.
The work on the São Bento Monastery started in 1633 on the basis of a 1617 project, and important modifications and expansions were carried out at the end of the 17th century. The monastery still functions as such, alongside one of the most important and traditional educational establishments in Brazil: the Colégio de São Bento, founded in 1858, which formed a considerable number of Brazilian personalities, such as Pixinguinha, Benjamin Constant, Noel Rosa, Antônio Silva Jardim, Villa-Lobos, among others. The Monastery also has the Faculty of São Bento, with Philosophy and Theology courses, both recognized by the Ministry of Education. The Theology Course is affiliated with Rome’s Pontifical Athenaeum Anselm.
The history of the monastery began in 1586, when it was donated, by the noble Manoel de Brito and his son Diogo de Brito de Lacerda, to the Benedictine monks Pedro Ferraz and João Porcalho, a vast piece of land in the city center of Rio de Janeiro that included the current Morro de São Bento. At the time, the monks resided, as Rio historian Vivaldo Coaracy explains on page 145 of “Rio de Janeiro in the 17th Century”, in a “cramped hospice” next to the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, hermitage of clay that had been erected by Aleixo Manuel in the current Morro da Conceição, which is located next to the Morro de São Bento.
Due to this fact, the monastery then created adopted, as patron saint, Nossa Senhora da Conceição. In 1596, a decision by the General Board of the Portuguese Congregation ordered that all Benedictine monasteries in Brazil should have, as patron, São Bento. The monastery then added the name “São Bento” to its denomination. In 1602, the then “Monastery of São Bento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição” changed its name to “Monastery of Nossa Senhora de Montserrat “, to honor the saint of devotion of the then Governor of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, Dom Francisco de Souza. The financial resources necessary for the construction of the current building came from the income obtained from the production of sugar cane in the countless properties that the monks received, through donations, within the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, especially in the regions of Nova Iguaçu and Campos dos Goytacazes.
The manual work on the construction of the monastery was carried out by slaves. The stones used as raw material came from Morro da Viúva, in the current neighborhood of Flamengo. The plans for the new building were drawn up in 1617 by the Portuguese military engineer Francisco Frias de Mesquita, according to the stripped mannerist aesthetic (“chã”) prevailing in Portugal at that time. The works of the church only started in 1633, by the chanceland, when Friar Francisco da Madalena was abbot, around 1651, they proceeded with an emphasis to finish in approximately 1671. The original project was altered, during construction, by the architect Frei Bernardo de São Bento Correia de Souza and the church went from a to have three ships. The monastery attached to the church was only completed in 1755, with the construction of the cloister, designed by military engineer José Fernandes Pinto Alpoim.
The Abacial Church is one of the most beautiful churches in Rio de Janeiro – if not the most beautiful – and one of the main monuments of the Portuguese-Brazilian Baroque. The construction of the church began in 1633 and lasted for over a hundred years, with the works being completed in 1798 – minor changes occurred later. The facade of the church is very simple, contrasting with the richness of the interior. The work of the gilded wood carving was carried out between 1694 and 1734.
The church and the monastery building are the works of four 17th century monks: Friar Leandro de São Bento and Friar Bernardo de São Bento Corrêa de Souza, architects, Friar Domingos da Conceição da Silva, sculptor and Friar Ricardo do Pilar, painter. It is also worth mentioning Mestre Inácio Ferreira Pinto, a great carver and sculptor of the chancel in the second half of the 18th century. The Abacial Church comprises especially a central nave, in front of which is the main chapel, integrated by the main altar, the choir (where the monks are in their moments of prayer) and the throne where, on the top step, is the image of the patron saint of the Monastery, Nossa Senhora de Monserrate.
To the left of those looking at the main altar is the Chapel of the Santíssimo Sacramento and, in sequence, the altars of São Mauro, Nossa Senhora do Pilar and São Caetano. To the right are the altars of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, São Lourenço, Santa Gertrudes and São Brás. Next to the entrance door are the “false chapels” to Beata Ida de Louvain (to the left of those who leave) and Santa Francisca Romana (on the opposite side).
Many details deserve to be observed in the church: the windbreaker topped by the coat of arms of the Benedictine Congregation of Portugal and also of the Benedictine Congregation of Brazil, its heiress; the two large silver lamps, which flank the central altar, completed in 1795; the crown organ (1773), in the center of the upper choir; all the beautiful carving of the church’s body, seeing here and there many angels and birds; the two great torch angels at the entrance to the chancel; the twelve images in the central nave, representing four Popes, four bishops and four Kings, saints of the Benedictine Order. The baptistery in the current location, at the back of the church, is from 1977, being the eighteenth century soapstone font from Minas Gerais. Inside is an image of São Cristóvão from the 18th century.
In the chancel you can see the beautiful marble floor and the 14 paintings by Frei Ricardo do Pilar (oil on wood) representing especially apparitions of Our Lady to Benedictine saints. In the background, flanking Nossa Senhora da Monserrate, are the images of São Bento and his sister Santa Escolástica. The sacristy (inside the cloister and closed to visitors), was built between 1670 and 1673 and it houses the altar of Senhor dos Martírios, topped by the most important painting of the time (1690) in Brazil, by Frei Ricardo do Pilar.
Noteworthy are the three cast iron gates, which came from England in 1880 and contain references to the saints represented inside the church; and the twelve bells of the towers, restored in 2007, six of which came from Germany in 1953: the “Cristo Rei” is the largest, weighing 5,750 kilos, located in the tower on the left (facing the facade), the the rest are consecrated to Our Lady, the Holy Angels, Saint Joseph, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and Saint Benedict. There are also six small bells, from the 17th century (hammered), played for the Angelus.
The façade is the original Mannerist project, with a central body with three entrance arches and a triangular pediment. The entrance is flanked by two towers crowned by pyramidal pinnacles. Passing the entrance arches is a galilee with tiles and 19th century iron gates.
The interior of the church is very rich, completely lined with carving that goes from the Baroque style from the end of the 17th century to the Rococo of the second half of the 18th century. The first active sculptor in the church was the Portuguese monk Frei Domingos da Conceição (c. 1643 – 1718) who designed and sculpted part of the nave and chancel (the chapel was later replaced). The magnificent statues of São Bento and Santa Escolástica are yours and, on the main altar of the church, Nossa Senhora do Monte Serreado(church owner), in addition to other works. From 1714, his project was followed by the carvers Alexandre Machado Pereira, Simão da Cunha and José da Conceição e Silva, who carved most of the nave’s carving and several images.
Between 1789 and 1800, he worked in the church, one of the great sculptors of the Rococo of Rio de Janeiro, Inácio Ferreira Pinto. Mestre Inácio remade the chancel (1787 – 1794), preserving, however, previous details, such as the canvases on the life of Benedictine saints, which had been painted between 1676 and 1684 by the German monk Frei Ricardo do Pilar. The beautiful rococo chapel of Santíssimo Sacramento (1795 – 1800) is also the work of Mestre Inácio. The lamps next to the chancel were designed and executed between 1781 and 1783 by Mestre Valentim. In the monastery sacristy, there is the masterpiece of the painter Frei Ricardo, a canvas representing the Lord of Martyrs, painted around 1690.
Within the church, there are also seven side chapels of brotherhood: Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, Chapel of São Lourenço, Chapel of Santa Gertrudes, Chapel of São Brás, Chapel of São Caetano, Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Pilar and Chapel of Santo Amaro.
Currently, there are monitored visits to the church, where works, images, carvings and architectural styles are presented and explained, among others.
The abbey was one of the few remaining territorial abbeys in the world until 2003, when it was incorporated into the Archdiocese of St. Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro.
The current Abbot of the Monastery of Rio de Janeiro is Dom Filipe da Silva, appointed to the position by the Holy See on November 3, 2012 and installed on December 1 of the same year. The Monastery has two emeritus Abbots: Dom José Palmeiro Mendes, who was the last Territorial Abbot of the Monastery (1992-2003) and Dom Roberto Lopes (2004-2010).
Monks (solemnly professed)
– Dom Filipe da Silva (abbot) – Dom José Palmeiro Mendes (abbot emeritus) – Dom Roberto Lopes (abbot emeritus) – Dom Anselmo Chagas de Paiva – Dom Basílio Silva – Dom Eduardo de Souza Schulz – Dom Emanuel Oliveira de Almeida – Dom Gregório Pereira Lima – Dom Henrique de Gouvêa Coelho – Dom Justino de Almeida Bueno – Dom Matias Fonseca de Medeiros – Dom Paulo Soares de Azevedo Coutinho – Dom Plácido Lopes de Oliveira – Dom João Batista Estevo Ferreira (deacon)
– Brother Adalberto Chalub – Dom Agostinho de Oliveira Martins – Dom Bento de Aviz – Dom Cassiano Capelli Gastaldi – Brother Daniel Rodrigues Marques – Dom Gabriel Ferreira da Silva – Dom João Evangelista Martins Afonso de Paiva – Dom Mauro Victor Murilo Maia Fragoso – Dom Policarpo Nascimento da Luz – Dom Simeão Martins Santos
The monastery is open daily from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm.
Adequate attire is required to enter the temple.
The cloister of the monastery is not open to visitors. On some liturgical dates, such as on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2), on Palm Sunday, in Corpus Christi and on All Souls Day (November 2), monks promote a procession that passes through the cloister of the Monastery. On these occasions, the faithful who participate in the Mass are invited to take part in the procession – which cannot be confused with a tourist visit (photos and filming are prohibited).
The traditional Sunday mass at the Monastery of São Bento, at 10 am, celebrated with Gregorian organ and chant, unique in the state capital, attracts many visitors. It is an event that is part of the city’s tourist itinerary; so crowded that it is recommended to arrive about thirty minutes in advance. Orchestras and chamber music groups are also regularly performed at the monastery.