Arequipa, Peru – The convent Santa Catalina: A true story in parts

After they strode through the archway, they had to zip their lips and spend their life in formal silence. The novices of the convent Santa Catalina spent four years before they took their vows or returned to their families, which undoubtedly would have brought disgrace on their families. During colonial times it was customary among upper-class families that the second born son or daughter entered ecclesiastical service. The Santa Catalina convent was founded 1580 by a rich widow who carefully choose her nuns. The came only from the best Spanish patrician families and had to pay a considerable dowry and yearly alimony.

Here the second part of the story begins: Normally this would have meant at least for the daughters a life in a convent’s chaste poverty. Not so in Santa Catalina. After taking their vows the poverty and silence rules weren’t applied that strict any more. Visitors were allowed, although separated by a grille. But behind the convent’s walls 150 privileged women lived it up. Each one of them had one to four mostly black servants or slaves, they lived in relatively magnificent rooms, equipped with kitchen and finest porcelain, according to the wealth of the nun. They invited musicians, made parties and lived their usual rich life.

Part three seems inevitable: After three centuries of hedonistic excesses pope Pius IX sent sister Josefa, a strict Dominican nun, to straighten things out. Like a tornado she swept through the convent in 1871, sent the party nuns home, and freed servants and slaves. Some of them stayed as nuns. The fourth episode of the Catalina saga on the other hand stays a secret of the Catholic Church. For a hundred years not a word leaked to the public until the convent was opened to the public in 1970 – not least because of the mayor’s pleading – and the fifth and temporary last phase began.

The 20.000 sq m big construction is a city in the city, a fortress with streets and squares, surrounded by an imposing wall. After the violent earthquakes of 1958 and 1960 the buildings weren’t completely restored, the rebuilding of the second stories was relinquished. Many of the partially comfortable cells are open for public viewing, as well as the kitchen and the bakery, the nuns’ bathtub, the laundry place, the lower choir where nuns could joint the mass unseen, the art gallery with numerous paintings, and the cloister. Today’s remaining nuns live in a small remote more modern part of the convent. Like ghosts they sometimes dart through the walks. They still bake sweets to sell and salacious sweet fatty tarts that are offered in the café belonging to the establishment. Joerg manages two pieces, I struggle with one.

The convent Santa Catalina is the attraction of Arequipa, although with 35 PEN admission (13 $) not very reasonable. To go without a visit would be a pity since the mood is mythic, the memory of the daring nuns vivid, and there are endless images for photographers to be taken. A guide (in different languages) is 20 PEN per group, the tour takes an hour. It skips many cells that can be visited later on individually. We prefer to go alone. At the ticket booth we received an exact map where each cell is marked that can be visited, and getting lost is nearly impossible. Plan two to three hours for your visit. The convent is opened Tuesdays and Thursdays until 8 p.m. and atmospherically illuminated by lanterns then.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.