Monasterio de Santa Catalina
The Monasterios de Santa Catalina has had its highs and lows in its nearly 400 year existence. Less than 30 nuns LIVE at the convent today; however, it was once home to more than 450 residents, but only about one third of them were nuns. Instead of being exclusively a place of quiet contemplation, today the convent is a tourist attraction that gives visitors a peak into the lifestyle of its former residents.
For most of its 400 year existence, citizens of Arequipa conjured their own images of what was behind the towering walls of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Some of those images were dispelled while others were confirmed when the doors of the fortressed city within a city were finally opened to the public in 1970.
Those early visitors did not find streets paved with gold as some had heard. What they did find were priceless treasures such as artwork and china purchased with or included in the dowries of the young women who entered the convent. Many of those treasures and the nuns' living accommodations are still on exhibit for today’s visitors.
So how did this elite group of nuns come to be and what happened to them?
Most likely the tone of the convent setting was established by Dona Maria de Guzman, a rich young widow who provided the initial endowment and was the convent’s first prioress or the woman in charge of the house of nuns. Her vision for the convent was an exclusive and fashionable order of daughters from wealthy families. That vision along with the upper class family tradition led to the wealth and prosperity of the convent. When its excesses eventually collided with the teaching of the Catholic Church, the Pope responded with a firm hand that resulted in today’s convent of prayer and quiet contemplation.
Tradition at the time, called for the second daughter of upper-class families to enter religious service. Most of the nuns were the daughters of some of the wealthiest Spanish and European families and there appears to have been competition to gain the highest status. That status, indicated by wearing a black veil, could be “bought” for 2,400 silver coins, the equivalent of about US$50,000 today.
Among the 25 listed items new entrants were required to bring were a statute, a painting, a lamp and clothes. Since most of the entrants were from wealthy families, these items consisted of the finest English china and wonderful silk curtains and rugs as well as the servants they had become accustomed to when they were growing up.
Even though the young ladies were supposed to live in poverty and renounce the material world, the rules were enforced with great laxity. The young nuns were able to invite musicians to perform in the convent, have parties and generally live the cosseted lifestyle to which they were accustomed prior to entering the convent.
By the 18th century, more than 450 people lived within the sillar and ashlar walls of the Convent. Only one third of the residents were nuns; the rest were servants and slaves.
The residents never wandered outside the tall walls and, for the most part, the Convent was self supporting. It prospered and grew rapidly into a five acre complex which covered an entire block. It included 100 self-contained “houses”, three cloisters, 60 streets, vegetable gardens and cemeteries.
For more than three centuries, life was good at the Convent. Eventually though the Vatican heard about the luxurious and pampered lifestyle of the nuns at the Monastery of Santa Catalina. In 1871 Pope Pius IX sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a taskmaster and devout Dominican nun, to reform the order. Sister Josefa returned the rich dowries, freed the servants and slaves to leave the Convent or remain as nuns, and put the Convent on a strict path to austerity, prayer, fasting and self flagellation. She cut off all contact with the outside world.
With the drastic changes, the number of nuns declined and funds ran short. On the outside though, time moved on. When the mayor of Arequipa mandated in 1970 that the Convent be equipped with running water and electricity, the nuns were forced for the first time to open the Convent doors to the outside world in order to raise revenue for the modernization.
The remaining rarely seen sisters number less than 25 and range in age from 18 to 90. They are cloistered in a small section of the convent and continue to live a life of quiet contemplation. Their day starts at 5:00 a.m. and, according to a plaque mounted on the wall of one of the buildings, they pray and do “manual work in order to win our daily bread. In every single moment we pray for the world and with the world. In the Church we are the presence, not the visibility.”
Today, the Monastery of Santa Catalina is one of Arequipa’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors are free to wander the maze of Spanish named streets, peek into the once private quarters of the novitiates, appreciate the magnificent artwork and ornate chapel, admire the colonial architecture, marvel at the rustic, soot-blackened kitchen, peer into the confession booths, and absorb the atmosphere of the vividly painted buildings and archways.
If you go
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is located in the heart of Arequipa at Santa Catalina 301 in Arequipa. It is open to visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 pm daily. Guide services are available in Spanish, English, German, French, Italian and Portuguese. Tips are voluntary. The convent has a limited service cafeteria and souvenir shop. General admission is S/30.00 or about US$10.00.
Official website of the Monastery http://www.santacatalina.org.pe/