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La Capilla de Sepulturas

Side View Showing Bell Tower to the Left and Santa Barbara's Tower to the Right

Side View Showing Bell Tower to the Left and Santa Barbara’s Tower to the Right

The Church of Sepulturas, officially “Señor de San Salvador de Sepulturas,” makes a nice stop on the road from Oruro to Cala Cala.  The town is named for the chullpas (Incan and pre-Incan tombs) which were common in the area, but which are pretty much gone now.  It is now probably best known for the chapel, which was declared a national monument in 1967.

In Iglesias Rurales, Ambassador Philipp Schauer states that the church dates from 1785, which date is on the side portal.  Ambassador Schauer is probably right, though the caretaker of the church claimed it was built about 100 years earlier.

Front View

Front View

The church is built mostly of adobe, with walls about three feet thick and takes the form of a Latin Cross.  The roof is thatched, and according to the caretaker, is double.  The large, square bell tower stands to the right side of the main entryway.  At the right-rear corner of the wall surrounding the church stands another tower, unique to this church, and connected to the patron saint of the town (see below).



This church is quite deteriorated.  In 2006, the company Complejo Metalúrgico Vinto S. A., which operates a tin smelter nearby and was then owned by Swiss multinational Glencore through its Bolivian subsidiary Sinchi Wayra, agreed to finance the full restoration of the church.  Unfortunately for the church and the community, the smelter was nationalized in 2007, and only the repair of the roof was completed.  The community continues to seek a sponsor to help with completion of the restoration.

One unique feature of this chapel is its permanent inhabitant.  You will likely see the owl resting on a rafter in a daytime visit.


A gate in that right wall leads to a large processional square, surrounded by its own wall and with small chapels in the corners and another small structure, apparently a “capilla miserere” in the center.  Also near the center is a large pillar.  While the local corregidor suggested that the pillar may have had other purposes, Ambassador Schauer reports that it was a “rollo,” used for binding criminals as a way of shaming them publicly.

Santa Barbara (without her sword and tower)

Santa Barbara (without her sword and tower)

Inside is a statue of Santa Barbara, the patron saint of Sepulturas.  Two major, original silver pieces belong with the statue, but are generally kept safe elsewhere.  One is a sword, which she holds in her right hand, pointing up at heaven.  The other is a tower, which she holds in her left.  Together with a small tower outside the church, these two items hark back to the story of the Saint.

Santa Barbara was supposed to have lived in Nicodemia, present-day Turkey, in the third century.  She was the daughter of a a rich pagan, who shut her up in a tower to protect her from the world.  She was converted to Christianity and, after a series of miraculously failed attempts to kill her for her conversion, finally her father was successful in beheading her.  As punishment, he was struck by lighting on the road home after the beheading, and his body was consumed by fire.  According to the chapel caretakers, the sword held by the statue symbolizes the lighting which struck her father.  From the lightning story, Santa Barbara has become the patron saint for people working with explosives and fire, such as miners and artillerymen.  Her connection to mining and fire is likely the reason for her to have been chosen the patroness of Sepulturas, a mining and smelting town.

The "rollo"

The “rollo”

Santa Barbara has fallen out of favor with the Catholic Church in recent years (though she remains very popular with Orthodox Christians).  In 1969, Pope Paul VI ordered the traditional date of Santa Barbara’s martyrdom removed from the liturgical calendar on the grounds that there was little reason to believe that the story of her life and martyrdom had any basis in history.  That has had little impact on the faithful of Sepulturas, who continue to celebrate the Saint’s day as their most important local holiday, holding their “Gran Feria,” including a running of the bulls, every year on December 4.

Sepulturas is less than 10 miles from Oruro, on the road to Calacala.  Directions and a .gdb file for the whole trip, including the turnoff to Sepulturas, are covered in the post on the Rock Art at Calacala.


Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Cala Cala (Qillqata) Rock Art
Time February 12, 2013 at 6:51 am

[…] In just a few minutes, you begin to see the Iglesia de Sepulturas, on the other side of the river on your left, and almost three miles from the turnoff, you will want to turn left again to visit the Iglesia.  You do have to ford a stream (though you cross the river on a bridge), but we did that even after substantial rain had fallen, so it should not constitute a serious problem.  The chapel is only a half mile from the main road.  For details on the Iglesia, see La Capilla de Sepulturas. […]

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