The Ralph della Cava Gift on Padre Cícero and Popular Religion in Brazilian Northeast

The gift of Ralph della Cava to the University of Florida Libraries (henceforth designated as the RDC Collection) consists of varied holdings on the social, religious and political history of the Brazilian Northeast.

Among its more prized components and dimensions are hundreds of late 19th-century and early 20th-century archival and printed sources, many rare and unique, that deal with the life and times of Padre Cícero Romão Batista (1844-1934) and the popular religious movement he inspired. Among its more prized components and dimensions are hundreds of late 19th-century and early 20th-century archival and printed sources, many rare and unique, that deal with the life and times of Padre Cícero Romão Batista (1844-1934) and the popular religious movement he inspired.

A Roman Catholic priest, “defrocked” by church authorities, a sometime political office holder, and most oft-described as a “miracle-worker” by rich and poor alike, this controversial cleric has bequeathed a hotly contested life and legacy. For better than a century now, both partisans and scholars have studied, interpreted and debated them. Backland bards and artisans enshrine them in poetry, music and folk art. And each year, some two million pilgrims converge from all points of the compass on the one-time crossroad of Juazeiro do Norte, now the second largest and richest city in the State of Ceará. There the tomb and the church of this erstwhile nonagenarian, deceased for more than seven decades, hold out for many the hope of miracles. At the heart of the controversy was an alleged miracle. It took place for the first time in 1889: the consecrated host administered by Padre Cícero to a pious woman, Maria de Araújo, turned into blood. Declared to be the blood of Christ, shed once again to redeem the world; it recurred periodically for a decade.

Church authorities protractedly condemned the phenomenon and its interpretation as blasphemous and heretical; some branded it a hoax. Eventually, the Vatican itself intervened, suspending Padre Cícero from orders, rescinding his power to administer the sacraments and eventually threatening him outright with excommunication, conditions he struggled for the remainder of his life to reverse.

But, the poor and dispossessed of the Brazilian Northeast, subject (even today) to social and political exclusion and exploitation, condemned to eeking out a meager livelihood, and left abandoned to the destructiveness of recurrent drought, descended on Juazeiro in the tens of thousands in search of work, dignity and a better life, here and in the hereafter. Who better than Padre Cícero to redeem their hopes? During previous climatic crises, which claimed thousands of lives, he remained in place, succoring nature’s victims, while government leaders and foreign-born clergy fl ed to the safety of coastal cities. His reputation for selflessness preceded the notoriety of the miracles and so endowed them and its chief protagonist with credibility beyond any and all condemnation. It earned him, moreover, enduring admiration and the unswerving loyalty and affection of generations of admirers.

Within a decade, the influx of drought victims, economic migrants and pilgrims transformed the small hamlet into a thriving agricultural, artisan and commercial center. It also acquired the dubious reputation of a “New Jerusalem,” a holy city where work and prayer indeed predominated, but one in which holy men (beatos) also roamed the streets, dispensing “blessings” and cures, while other believers, in expectation of the last days, gathered in flagellant societies and “celestial courts.” During ensuing decades, real and alleged deviation from orthodoxy would compel two bishops and a string of parish priests assigned to Juazeiro to denounce the city as a den of fanatics and Padre Cícero their recalcitrant patron.

And yet within twenty years of the miracle, thanks to Juazeiro’s growing wealth and region-wide economic influence, the hamlet would achieve autonomy as a county (município), become embroiled in the vicissitudes of state and national politics, and see its celebrated cleric projected into secular controversies just as bitter, contentious and unresolved as any ecclesiastical.

For example, was not Padre Cícero – as political enemies contended – the author of the seizure at gunpoint of the area’s coveted copper deposits in 1908, the mastermind of the overthrow of Ceará’s state government in 1914, the protector of Lampião, the greatest of the Northeastern bandits that roamed and ravaged the backlands during the nineteen-twenties, and until his death in 1934 the “kingmaker” of Ceará’s governors?

Detractors knew no limits: they further suggested that Padre Cícero may have illicitly dispersed the generous offerings of his impoverished followers, personally profited from the construction of great dams and new railroad lines to which he, as the undisputed “labor czar” of a vast region, dispatched countless brigades of grateful workers, and had misused the extensive land holdings which he acquired through donation or purchase.

Of course, apologists were not wanting: they insisted Padre Cícero had become surrounded – indeed, exploited – by a coterie of self-seekers. There were, for example, Dr. Floro Bartholomeu da Costa, the adventurer-physician from Bahia in search of political power and who, in effect, became the cleric’s “alter-ego” and rose to the high office of federal deputy; the itinerant Franco-Belgian engineer and aristocrat, Conde Adolpho Van den Brule who crossed the Atlantic in search of riches; and last but not least, the beata “Mocinha” (Joana Tertuliano de Jesus), the protective major-domo of the cleric’s household who, especially during his last decades as his health faltered and sight failed, controlled the comings and goings of job seekers, politicos, foreigners and pilgrims.

Today, more than seventy years since Padre Cícero’s death, his devotees continue to honor him. The annual pilgrimages that until recently were vehemently attacked by church leaders grow in numbers and frequency, while a new bishop has seized the day to declare them a pastoral mission of capital importance. In contrast to his predecessors, the prelate even petitioned Rome in 2005 to “rehabilitate” Padre Cicero and submitted as proofs of his fidelity to the See of Peter the life-long service he rendered the poor and his long and arduous pursuit to have his priestly orders restored. Nor have scholars recoiled from reexamining past issues as well as taking on the larger questions of social transformation, which often transcend personalities. Since the late nineteen-seventies, they have gathered to do so most notably at three international conferences. Meanwhile they, myriads of graduate students and innumerable writers and journalists, have contributed to an annually expanding bibliography as they return again and again to the persistently controversial historical question that is “the Juazeiro of Padre Cícero.”


Ralph della Cava’s gift to our Libraries at UF include books, journals, newspaper issues, as well as critical archival materials such as Padre Cícero’s personal correspondence and that of diverse ecclesiastical authorities. There are also rare photographs, broadsides, taped interviews, and artifacts (such as medals, statues, and similar religious images).

The collection was assembled over the course of more than forty years, but especially from 1962 until 1975 when Dr. della Cava undertook his own major work on the life and legacy of Padre Cícero and of the religious and social movement that is inseparable from him. These resources also speak to the systematic effort and dedication of one historian to uncover the realities behind legend, error and partisanship and replace them with a new and truer account of a complex and controversial past.

Note: during the course of the last century the original name of the hamlet, Joaseiro, underwent several orthographic changes. Among the most recurrent are Juázeiro do Norte (to distinguish it from the eponymous city in the State of Bahia), and today’s official designation, Juazeiro do Norte. In the listing which follows, citations correspond to the spelling found in the original source.

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