We’re starting up a new feature here at WWY: Flashback Fridays. We’ve got so many wonderful photos and stories that never made it onto this blog at the time they happened. Every Friday (starting today), we’ll revisit a neglected place or story from our travels. First up, the Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa, Peru.
Imagine you are the second daughter of a wealthy Spanish family in the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries. There were very few choices for women in that time. You could get married to someone your family considered suitable (and most likely arranged for you), or you could become a nun. If you became a nun at Santa Catalina, your family would pay a rich dowry to the church and send you off to the monastery with all sorts of riches, from sculptures to fine clothing, china, furniture, and even servants to care for you. You would be given the opportunity to purchase your cell (and later resell it if you moved on to a better one). And, with input from Rome, you and the other women in this community would have the opportunity to be self governing and create an entire society, cloistered behind the walls of a beautiful compound in the middle of the city of Arequipa.
We spent a full day exploring the Santa Catalina Monastery when we were in Arequipa last July. Built of sillar (a white volcanic rock popular with buildings in Arequipa), Santa Catalina was founded as part of the Dominican order in 1579 and remained a secret, cloistered community until 1970. Originally founded by a wealthy Spanish patroness, who became the first nun to reside here, for centuries it was home to women from wealthy Spanish families who had become nuns. These wealthy women became nuns and brought with them much of the wealth of their families. It is said that these families paid rich dowries as high as 2,400 coins (about $150,000 USD by today’s standards), and provided many rich possessions to help their daughters begin this new life. Life at Santa Catalina was fairly luxurious by convent standards. And because of that, the numbers of nuns here grew rapidly. There were over 200 nuns living here in the early 19th century.
This all changed in 1871 when Pope Pius IX sent a Dominican nun named Josefa Cadena to reform the monastery and enforce many of the stricter rules of the Dominican church: that the nuns should live a more basic and strict lifestyle. She sent back much of the wealth that many of the nuns had brought with them, freed all the servants and slaves, and gave everyone a choice of either leaving the monastery, or living by the stricter Dominican rules, and fully devoting their lives to prayer and God. As you can imagine, the numbers dropped a bit. By 1970, there were only 40 nuns living here.
Santa Catalina Monastery covers an area of just over 20,000 square meters and contains a complete city, including beautiful cobblestone streets, parks, housing, kitchens and bakeries, churches, laundry, and a cemetery. It was a self-contained city within a city for almost 4 centuries, with little to no contact with the outside world. That all changed in 1970. Due to earthquakes in the 1960’s that severely damaged the monastery, the city of Arequipa and the two head nuns came to an agreement. The monastery opened itself up to the public and the city of Arequipa helped them rebuild, including building a new more modern section where the nuns still live a cloistered life today.
Though we are now allowed inside this impressive city within a city, the nuns here still live quite privately. They attend public mass, but are seated in an area cloistered away from the rest of the congregation. And if they have an outside visitor they speak to them through a window with double wooden bars, that allows for the people to see, but not touch, each other.
I have to say that wandering through this monastery was amazing. I can’t imagine making the sorts of sacrifices that these women made, giving up all contact with the outside world, and effectively saying goodbye to their families and friends. It was quite special to spend some time here visiting the colorful and beautiful city that these ladies created. To walk in their footsteps and see the spaces where they lived out their lives.