Gabriel Garcia Moreno: Ecuador's Catholic Crusader

Gabriel Garcia Moreno
Gabriel Garcia Moreno.

Gabriel Garcia Moreno, President of Ecuador 1860-1865, 1869-1875:

Gabriel García Moreno (1821-1875) was an Ecuadorian lawyer and politician who served as President of Ecuador from 1860 to 1865 and again from 1869 to 1875. In between, he ruled through puppet administrations. He was a staunch conservative and Catholic who believed that Ecuador would only prosper when it had strong and direct ties to the Vatican. He was assassinated in Quito during his second term.

Early Life of Gabriel Garcia Moreno:

García was born in Guayaquil but moved to Quito at a young age, studying law and theology at Quito’s Central University. By the 1840’s he was making a name for himself as an intelligent, eloquent conservative who railed against the liberalism that was sweeping South America. He almost entered the priesthood, but was talked out of it by his friends. He took a trip to Europe in the late 1840’s, which served to further convince him that Ecuador needed to resist all liberal ideas in order to prosper. He returned to Ecuador in 1850 and attacked the ruling liberals with more invective than ever.

Early Political Career:

By then, he was a well known speaker and writer for the conservative cause. He was exiled to Europe, but returned and was elected Mayor of Quito and appointed Rector of the Central University. He also served in the senate, where he became the leading conservative in the nation. In 1860, with the help of Independence veteran Juan José Flores, García Moreno seized the presidency. This was ironic, as he had been a supporter of Flores’ political enemy Vicente Rocafuerte. García Moreno quickly pushed through a new constitution in 1861 which legitimized his rule and allowed him to start working on his pro-Catholic agenda.

García Moreno’s Unflagging Catholicism:

García Moreno believed that only by establishing very close ties to the church and the Vatican would Ecuador progress. Since the collapse of the Spanish colonial system, liberal politicians in Ecuador and elsewhere in South America had severely curtailed church power, taking away land and buildings, making the state responsible for education and in some cases evicting priests. García Moreno set out to reverse all of it: he invited Jesuits to Ecuador, put the church in charge of all education and restored ecclesiastical courts. Naturally, the 1861 constitution declared Roman Catholicism the official state religion.

A Step Too Far:

Had García Moreno stopped with a few reforms, his legacy may have been different. His religious fervor knew no bounds, however, and he did not stop there. His goal was a near-theocratic state ruled indirectly by the Vatican. He declared that only Roman Catholics were full citizens: everyone else had their rights stripped away. In 1873, he had the congress dedicate the Republic of Ecuador to “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” He convinced Congress to send state money to the Vatican. He felt that there was a direct link between civilization and Catholicism and intended to enforce that link in his home nation.

Gabriel Garcia Moreno, Dictator of Ecuador:

García Moreno was certainly a dictator, although one whose type had been unknown in Latin America before. He severely limited free speech and the press and wrote his constitutions to suit his agenda (and he ignored their restrictions when he wished). Congress was there only to approve his edicts. His staunchest critics left the country. Still, he was atypical in that he felt that he was acting for the best of his people and taking his cues from a higher power. His personal life was austere and he was a great foe of corruption.

Accomplishments of President Moreno's Administration:

García Moreno’s many accomplishments are often overshadowed by his religious fervor. He stabilized the economy by establishing an efficient treasury, introducing a new currency and improving Ecuador’s international credit. Foreign investment was encouraged. He provided good, low cost education by bringing in Jesuits. He modernized agriculture and built roads, including a decent wagon track from Quito to Guayaquil. He also added universities and increased student enrollment in higher education.

Foreign Affairs:

García Moreno was famous for meddling in the affairs of neighboring nations, with the goal of bringing them back to the church just as he had done with Ecuador. He twice went to war with neighboring Colombia, where President Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera had been curtailing church privileges. Both interventions ended in failure. He was outspoken in his support of Austrian transplant Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.

Death and Legacy of Gabriel García Moreno:

In spite of his accomplishments, the liberals (most of them in exile) loathed García Moreno with a passion. From safety in Colombia, his harshest critic, Juan Montalvo, wrote his famous tract “The Perpetual Dictatorship” attacking García Moreno. When García Moreno declared that he would not relinquish his office after his term expired in 1875, he began to get serious death threats. Among his enemies were the Freemasons, dedicated to ending any connection between church and state.

On August 6, 1875, he was killed by a small group of assassins wielding knives, machetes and revolvers. He died near the Presidential Palace in Quito: a marker can still be seen there. Upon learning the news, Pope Pius IX ordered a mass said in his memory.

García Moreno did not have an heir who could match his intelligence, skill and fervent conservative beliefs, and the government of Ecuador fell apart for a while as a series of short-lived dictators took charge. The people of Ecuador didn’t really want to live in a religious theocracy and in the chaotic years that followed García Moreno's death all of his favors to the church were taken away once again. When liberal firebrand Eloy Alfaro took office in 1895, he made sure to remove any and all vestiges of García Moreno’s administration.

Modern Ecuadorians consider García Moreno a fascinating and important historical figure. The religious man who accepted assassination as martyrdom today continues to be a popular topic for biographers and novelists: the latest literary work on his life is Sé que vienen a matarme (“I know they are coming to kill me”) a work that is half-biography and half-fiction written by acclaimed Ecuadorian writer Alicia Yañez Cossio.


Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

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Minster, Christopher. "Gabriel Garcia Moreno: Ecuador's Catholic Crusader." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 25). Gabriel Garcia Moreno: Ecuador's Catholic Crusader. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Gabriel Garcia Moreno: Ecuador's Catholic Crusader." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).