Despite a checkered history, Our Lady of Pilar Basilica has survived as the second oldest church in Buenos Aires and looking none the worse for wear.
The initiative for building the church came from two local entrepreneurs. The first, Pedro de Bustinza, from Sante Fe, Argentina, secured authorization from the King Philip V of Spain in 1705 to build the church. King Philip authorized the construction with a crucial caveat: Bustinza would have to fund the full cost of the construction himself. Bustinza agreed, but died a year later, before he could see the funds raised. His cause was taken up by a local Spanish-born merchant, Juan de Narbona, who donated the first $20,000 (pesos). Two Jesuit architects who had overseen a number of other prominent Buenos Aires churches were recruited to build the church. It was Narbona who gave the church its name. Our Lady of Pilar was the patroness saint of Zaragoza, Spain, where he was born.
When the order of the Recollections (Recoletos) fell out of favor in the early 19th century, the complex was seized by the government and used as municipal property. By 1936 it was again back under church control, when Pope Pius XI declared it a basilica. And in 1942 it was declared a National Historical Monument.
The main nave is ornate in the Spanish-colonial style with a massive, ornate reredos behind the altar. Both the exterior and the interior are unusually well kept, suggesting that funding for upkeep has been secure in recent times (unlike many other churches).
But the real gem of Our Lady of Pilar Basilica is off through a small door at the left of the nave: access to the cloisters. These are the oldest part of the original church and date back to the period 1715 to 1720. These were originally off-limits to the public, but in 1997 they were opened up to visitors.
The cloisters now house a small, three-level museum devoted to religious art with artworks from the church as well as small carved and ornately dressed religious figurines, valuable silver, and a small exhibit on Gregorian chants.
The walls and arched ceilings are of brick painted with lime. Some hinges, door, and window fasteners as well as the alabaster used in those days instead of glass, are also the original ones.
The windows once looked out over the church’s orchard. Now they look directly into the lavishly decorated above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of Argentine notables: La Recoleta Cemetery.