São Francisco Catacombs

Porto Catacombs and Ossuary

The Franciscan monastery in Porto dates back to the 13th century and although the monks are long gone and the site much diminished there is still plenty to see. Topping most people's list is a visit to the Igreja de São Francisco with its exuberant Baroque interior of gold and carved wood. However, a ticket to see the church also covers entry to one of Porto's most unusual and macabre visitor "attractions".

The catacombs of the "Third Order of St. Francis" lie in the basement of the Casa do Despacho (Dispatch House) which lies opposite the entrance to the church. If you ever wondered where the bodies of the dead monks went then this will answer that question in no uncertain terms.

Porto Catacombs

Catacombs - Tombs of the wealthy

Whilst I read in a lot of places that the catacombs lie under the church of São Francisco this is not the case. They are located in the basement of the Dispatch House with its vaulted stone ceilings and fine wooden floors. On closer inspection of those floors you will notice the numbers and the hole to allow pulling up the wood. Yes, you've been walking on tombs and if you look to the side you'll see tombs stacked up to the ceiling - unsurprisingly these catacombs are full of the dead!

The catacombs were created at the same time as the Dispatch House which was completed in 1752. They were intended primarily as cemetery for members of the Franciscan brotherhood but they soon became a place where the great and the good of Porto were interred and was expanded in 1802. Bodies continued to be interred here until 1845 when a law was introduced prohibiting burials in churches.

There was actually a two-tier system operated in the catacombs at São Francisco. Whilst wealthy nobles, merchants and their families were placed in the tombs at the side of the room the monks, and other assorted nobodies, had a less dignified resting place. If you were wondering who went under the floor, that was these less affluent folk. But that isn't the end of their journey; the spaces under the floor were only rented, and after an appropriately respectful amount of time (or they became a skeleton) their bodies were removed to make way for the next paying customer. What happened to the bodies after that is perhaps the macabre highlight of the catacombs.

Porto Catacombs Ossuary

The Ossuary

As you head deeper into the basement you will find a corridor and a door that apparently leads nowhere. In front of that door is a metal grill with a piece of reinforced glass above - this is a window to the dead. Below lie piles of bones, many are broken and charred and they are almost exclusively skulls and thigh bones.

The usual purpose of these fairly grim repositories of bones, such as the Chapel of Bones in Faro, is as a Memento Mori - a Latin phrase meaning "Remember you must die". Whether or not the Catacombs and ossuary achieve this is debatable. What this cemetery of two classes does illustrate is disparity between the ostentatious displays of wealth in the church contrasted with the austere lives of the monks.

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