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History of the Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa - SA Expeditions

The Santa Catalina Monastery is a cloistered convent lying in the center of Arequipa, Peru. With walls constructed from sillar, a white volcanic rock commonly used in structures throughout the town, the complex blends in perfectly with the city. Within the convent, which covers an area of over 20,000 square meters (15,615 square feet), hides a complete and colorful city equipped with parks, streets, houses, fountains, laundry areas, trees, a church, a cemetery, and more (literally a city within a city). This religious community was constructed in 1580 to house the nuns of the Dominican Second Order, and in the 430 plus years that the Santa Catalina Monastery has existed only a few significant events have managed to impact this convent and nuns residing within.

The reform of 1871 marked an important historical event reinventing the monastery. The reform came about when a Dominican nun named Josefa Cadena (pictured below) was sent to Arequipa by the Pope Pius IX to implement and reinforce certain guidelines that had been disregarded for many years at the convent.

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The reform brought order to and redefined the monastery according to the Dominican church; a nun should live a basic and cloistered lifestyle while fully devoting themselves to prayer and God.  Before Josefa Cadena’s arrival, many nuns enjoyed certain luxuries that were brought in from home, such as an assortment of furniture, money, and servants, among other things.  Many nuns lived up to their religious vocation after the reform, however, as one may expect due to the stricter rules attracting only the truly committed, aspirations to become a nun decreased overtime following the reform.

A second significant happening at the monastery, which to this day is recognized as “the miracle” by all nuns and many others, was the story of Ana de los Angeles Monteagudo. Ana was born in the early 1600s and was initially brought to the monastery by her parents at the age of three so that she could be educated by the nuns until she turned eleven (more or less), which was not uncommon during this era. What her parents did not foresee was that Ana would decide to commit her life to prayer and would become one of the most devoted, respected, and idealized nuns in the history of the convent.

Throughout her time at the monastery, Ana successfully predicated the fate of many (ie: diseases, healings, death, etc.). Just before and long after her death, numerous people have claimed that by either commending themselves to or by touching an object of Ana’s that they were miraculously healed of whatever it was they were suffering from.

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A third important event, and also the most recent, was the opening of the monastery to the public in 1970. Before the grand opening, the monastery was a secret cloister, shut off from the rest of the world. After the major earthquakes of the 1960s, the city of Arequipa took on a new project to restore the historical building and negotiated a deal to open the convent with its leaders. The prioresses (two head nuns) fashioned a contract that allowed them to set certain privacy boundaries and earn a profit. At this time, a modern complex was built in the northern part of the monastery for the nuns, which now remains the only closed-off sector.

Before the reform of 1871, there was a maximum of about 220 nuns residing in the convent at one time and just before the public opening, according to the monastery guides, only about 40 nuns. As of today there are 23 nuns, with the newest addition beginning just last year. It used to be common that the postulants came from different parts of the world, but currently the nuns mostly derive from Arequipa and the surrounding regions. The reasons for the declined number of nuns inhabiting the convent today can likely be attributed to numerous historical events (worldwide) and current social pressures that have affected religion and how it is perceived in today’s society.   

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Throughout the eventful years, the life of a Santa Catalina Monastery nun has evolved and adapted, but has never truly lost custom. As always, the nuns still live a very cloistered life, but now are no longer invisible to the outside world as they once were. They attend the same mass as the public, but are seated in a separate room just below the church that is divided by double wooden bars allowing a peak for any curious person. The nuns must pass through a publicly exhibited area of the monastery in order to attend church; however, this is completed before the monastery’s opening hours. After mass, the nuns retreat back to their closed off quarters where they are once again completely sheltered from the world.

When a nun has a visitor from the outside, they must communicate via a window with similar double wooden bars separating them in the church as to prevent contact between the nun and their visitor. Historically, a curtain was draped inside the window to avoid any viewing between the nun and visitor; however, today the curtain has been removed therefore allowing minimal visual contact. Also, under special circumstances a nun can be given permission to leave the confines of the convent, however, this was not always the case.  Previously all medical complications would be handled within the monastery walls, however, today a nun will be transported to an outside clinic when seriously ill.  Likewise, nuns would not tend to the illness of family members outside of the convent, but now can be granted authorization in grave circumstances.

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Apart from daily prayer and meals, the nuns will take time to bake (mostly bread) which is then either eaten communally or sold to the public. Other than an increased variety of what is baked by the nuns, this tradition has not really changed.  The funds gathered from the sales of baked goods are then used toward maintaining the convent. The money collected is not spent individually, but collectively on essentials. To prevent direct interaction, all transactions are completed via a revolving window connecting to the outside world. This is also how the nuns negotiated their contract with the city of Arequipa when the public opening was being arranged; via the revolving window and double bars.

An interesting historical fact is that it was once common for locals to leave their unwanted children at either the front door of the monastery or in the revolving window for the nuns to orphan them. Also, many children from the upper class were left in the hands of the nuns to receive proper education, but in this case, only for a limited amount of time.  At present, nuns no longer take in orphans or educate the children and they reside alone within their confinement. In fact, entry is not granted without authorization from the head of the church; something that was easily overlooked before the major reform.

The Santa Catalina Monastery is currently the most important religious monument in Peru and is also one of the most impressive colonial structures in Arequipa, bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city annually. The Monastery is open to the public during daytime hours every day of the week and on Tuesdays and Thursdays a special tour by night is available, providing a different perspective of the convent.  This elaborate and colorfully coated complex is a definite must-see when visiting the Arequipa area.                    

Keen to see Arequipa for yourself? Check out our Machu Picchu & Peru tours here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.

Thanks to Valdiney Pimenta for the title image of this blog.

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