Atlantic Archive: Brazil’s Black Spiritual Sisterhood

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Another pandemic year impacts the traditional August festival season in Northeast Brazil. In the small town of Cachoeira, two hours outside of Salvador, August festivals are centered around a very rare, Catholic (contra) fraternal tradition. 

The unique sect is called “Irmandade da Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte” or The Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death. It is one of a very few, Black sisterhoods in the West. and they have only a couple of dozen members. The members are all over 50 years old. 

The history of the sisterhood begins like most Brazilian institutions, with the largest enslavement of Africans to the sugarcane lands of the Reconcavo region of Northeast Bahia. Specifically, the sisterhood found a permanent home in the city of Cachoeira, the second in economic importance in the state of Bahia for three centuries.

The sisterhood was created in the 19th century after the Haitian Revolution echoed through the diaspora. Black women, mostly free and some enslaved, used this opportunity to take advantage of whites’ fear by creating a syncretic Afro-Catholic order. 

The group was composed of many African ethnic groups, including many Yoruba. Cleverly, using a Catholic framework and baroque rituals, they were able to institutionalize a space for traditional African spiritual practices. 

The Sisterhood was also greatly influenced by the Muslim slave revolts happening around the same time, evidenced in the wearing of white and the covering of the head. 

The Irmanadade has maintained its secret rituals, which are linked to African orixás since 1820.

What is viewable and popularized is the Afro-Brazilian appropriation of Catholic symbolism. Each August, visitors from around the world travel to witness a week of public and private rites.

An extensive series of meals, masses, dances, and processions are practiced by a small group of 30-40 women. 

The final day of the festival itself includes the confession by the members in the Main Church, a procession representing the sacred death of the Virgin Mary, an all-white, meatless dinner dedicated to the supreme Orixa, Oxalá, creator of the Universe.

The celebration is followed by a mass held at the sisterhood’s headquarters. The end of the Mass symbolizes a start of a week of community celebrations with lots of fireworks, colors, food, music, and dance which last for several days, depending on the donations collected. 

The festivals attract lots of media, especially photographers. The sisters eventually moved many of their private rites into the public sphere in order to survive off of the tourist economy.

They are not directly associated with the Catholic Church which means they depend on donations and selling access to various ritualistic spaces. It is difficult to watch at times as photographers and journalists scramble to collect photos of the Black elder women dressed in all white. 

An example of this can be seen below. 

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