Santa Catalina Monastery
The Santa Catalina Monastery is located in Arequipa, Peru. It was built in 1580 and was enlarged
in the 17th century. The terms 'convent' and 'monastery' are used interchangeably. It is a large complex of rooms, picturesque plazas, ornate fountains and a maze of narrow,
cobblestone streets. The colors are absolutely stunning and the complex evokes feelings of true devotion.
The monastery is a city within a city and is a must see when you are in Arequipa.
The founder of the monastery was a rich widow, Maria de Guzman, who only accepted nuns from the best Spanish families. All the nuns had to pay a dowry.
Traditionally, the second daughter of upper-class families entered a nunnery, supposedly to live in poverty
and renounce the material world. In fact, each nun at Santa Catalina had between one and four servants or slaves,
and the nuns were able to invite musicians to perform in the convent, have parties and generally live the style
to which they had become accustomed while growing up.
The dowry that had to be given by the most important nuns, who wore black veils, was 2,400 silver coins, equivalent to US$50,000 today. The nuns also had to bring 25 listed items, including a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. In the case of the wealthiest nuns, these included the finest English china and wonderful silk curtains and rugs.
All these nuns entered because of the family tradition that the second son or daughter had to enter religious service. Although it was possible for poorer nuns to enter the convent without paying a dowry, it can be seen from the cells that most of the nuns were very wealthy.
After about three centuries of these goings-on, the pope complained that Santa Catalina was more like an exclusive social club than a convent, and he sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, to straighten things out. She arrived in 1871, sent all the rich dowries back to Europe, and freed all the servants and slaves, giving them the choice to stay on as nuns or leaving.
In addition to the stories of outrageous wealth, there are tales of nuns becoming pregnant, and amazingly of the skeleton of a baby being discovered encased in a wall. This, in fact, did not happen in Santa Catalina, although there are rumors of it having taken place in the nearby Santa Rosa convent.
The convent has always been surrounded by imposing high walls, and the approximately 450 people (about a third of them nuns and the rest servants) who once lived here never ventured outside the convent. Accordingly, the place was shrouded in mystery for almost 400 years! It finally opened to the public in 1970 when the mayor of Arequipa forced the convent to comply with laws, requiring it to install electricity and running water. The nuns, now too poor to do this, opened their doors to tourism to pay for the modernization." (Lonely Planet Peru).
Lonely Planet Peru guidebook also says: It certainly wins the "most fascinating colonial
religious building in Peru" award. It is enormous--over 20,000 square meters and covering
an entire city block--so our visit here, wandering through the complex of rooms, cloisters
and tiny plazas, took a good two hours.
The most striking general feature of the monastery's architecture is its predominantly Mudejar style, adapted by the Spanish from the Moors, but rarely found in their colonial buildings.
The quality of the design is emphasized and beautifully harmonized by an incredible interplay between the strong sunlight, with stone and brilliant colors--on the ceilings and in the deep blue sky above the maze of narrow interior streets.
Today, the approximately 20 remaining nuns continue to live a cloistered life, but only in the Northern corner of the complex. As visitors walk down the maze of the narrow interior streets, they can try to imagine what life might be like for the closeted nuns--open to the skies and the city sounds, yet bounded by the monastery's high walls.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the most beautiful monasteries of the Americas and is the only one with a "citadel" in the world.
I can highly recommend visiting the monastery when you travel in Peru and are in the city of Arequipa. It will be one of the many highlights you'll discover in this magnificent country.
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