The priest faltered a bit as he climbed the stairs to the museum, housed in an attic above a church in Itapé, Paraguay, a town founded as a Franciscan mission in 1672. My guide and I had roused him from his siesta by clapping our hands repeatedly — the Paraguayan equivalent of a knock on the door. Fumbling with multiple locks and a ring of too many keys, he finally got the doors open and led us through the neatly displayed, modest treasures. I had to read the signs; his eyesight wasn’t up to the task: A 1752 wooden figure of St. Bonaventure, arms outstretched. Nineteenth-century baptismal documents. Metal meal containers from the Chaco War against Bolivia in the 1930s. Then he stopped before a simple black frock hanging from a wooden beam. “First cassock of Father Severiano Nelson Vega,” I read, “blessed by the Monsignor on March 19, 1958.”
“Do you know him?” he asked me in Spanish, with a sudden sparkle in his eyes. Of course I did: he was standing in front of me, 55 years later.
Finding religious artifacts here was not a surprise; if Itapé is known for anything, it’s the pretty riverside shrine to the Virgen del Paso. But the village is also a perfect example of the modest, eclectic (and frugal) charms to be found in its home province of Guairá (pronounced gwa-ee-RAH), a relatively small area of about 1,500 square miles in the south of Paraguay, a landlocked country that is poor and mostly ignored by the outside world — but spirited and fascinating all the same.
“Paraguayans see themselves as the ultimate underdogs,” said Romy Natalia Goldberg, the half-Paraguayan, half-American author of the Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, a rare guidebook to the country. “They take pride in their country’s and culture’s survival in the face of constant conflict and isolation.”
Ms. Goldberg’s assessment resonated…