Rotary in Brazil: A Rich History of People in Action

Rotary in Brazil: A Rich History of People in Action


Rotary’s presence in South America extended to Brazil with the founding of the Rotary Club of Rio de Janeiro on February 28, 1923.

Herbert P. Coates, who oversaw the founding of the continent’s first Rotary club, also helped found new clubs in Brazil. Coates was aided by a number of people with Rotary knowledge and connections to Rio de Janeiro, which was the nation’s capital at the time.

Unofficial efforts by Richard Momsen, former United States Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, identified enough businessmen in the city to form a club in early 1921. However, his work was stopped because most potential members were American, and Rotary leaders felt that a new club would be more successful with more Brazilian members. Additionally, the task of overseeing the establishment of the club had been given to Coates.

The following year, American Henry Lichtwardt, executive secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (ACM) in Rio de Janeiro, visited Rotary headquarters during a trip to Chicago, USA. Lichtwardt had moved to Brazil around 1920 and was interested in helping form a Rotary club in the country. While visiting headquarters, he learned about Rotary and was encouraged to help Coates. After meeting in New York, Lichtwardt and Coates returned separately to South America and began making plans.

Under his leadership, local businessmen held a briefing in December 1922 and appointed the Brazilian Herbert Moses to preside over the organizing efforts. Unlike before, more than half of the club’s 18 members were Brazilian and the rest were a mix of Americans (including Lichtwardt), Britons, Canadians and Venezuelans. Momsen was not among those early members, but would join the club within a year.

It didn’t take long for Coates and the Brazilian associates to set their sights on São Paulo. Coates delegated responsibility for organizing Brazil’s second Rotary club to Roberto Shalders, who was assisted by fellow countryman Ismael de Oliveira Maia. As a result, the Rotary Club of São Paulo was founded on March 24, 1925 with 16 members.

Host the Convention

In 1931, the fledgling club in Rio de Janeiro offered to hold the 1933 Rotary International Convention in their city, but was unsuccessful. However, the club’s proposal was accepted for the 1948 Convention Rotary’s annual event in the southern hemisphere for the first time. Oswaldo Aranha, a Brazilian diplomat and former president of the United Nations General Assembly, called Rotary “the denominator of peace,” stressing that the organization should use its experience to unite people and prevent conflict.

São Paulo had the honor of hosting the 1981 Convention. Highlights of the event included the presence of Mother Teresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979; and football star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as Pelé. The Convention returned to São Paulo in 2015, attracting over 14,800 attendees.

Represent Rotary

To date, three Brazilian club members have served as presidents of Rotary International. Armando de Arruda Pereira, of the Rotary Club of São Paulo, was the first in 1940-41. In his speech to 1941 CongressPereira reflected on war and peace: the closure of clubs in war-torn areas, Rotary’s tradition of building friendship around the world, and the importance of promoting understanding and goodwill between people and the Nations.

Ernesto Imbassahy de Mello, a member of the Rotary Club of Niterói, was president of Rotary in 1975-76. He was among the Rotarians who hosted Rotary founder Paul Harris when he visited Rio de Janeiro in 1936.

Paulo Viriato Correa da Costa, a member of the Rotary Club of Santos, was president of RI in 1990-91. During his tenure, he made the environment one of his main causes, creating the Preserve Planet Earth program to encourage Rotary members to take environmental initiatives.

people in action

Throughout its history, Brazilian Rotarians have lived the motto of Rotary: “Give yourself before thinking of yourself.” In 1930, the Director General of Public Health recognized the Rio de Janeiro club for its work in the fight against yellow fever. In the 1940s, the Rotary Club of Santos provided orthopedic equipment for more than 20 children, and the Club of Belém contributed $500 toward the completion of a hospital. In the 1980s, Rotary members across Brazil raised nearly $4 million for the ambitious $120 million PolioPlus campaign.

In 2023, 100 years after the founding of the Rotary Club of Rio de Janeiro, more than 56,000 members continue to work to create lasting change in their communities and around the world. follow him Rotary Brazil on Facebook to see their impact stories.

Laura Davis

"Total troublemaker. Alcohol aficionado. Social media specialist. Friendly travel nerd."

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