The Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa was built in 1579 and is a must when you visit La Ciudad Blanca (The White City). Together with the complete Historical Centre of Arequipa, the Santa Catalina Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The monastery was opened to the public about 50 years ago but there are still about 20 nuns living in a secluded part of the terrain. Santa Catalina is actually a little city of its own with alleys bearing the names of Spanish cities, a cemetery, various cloisters and room for about 500 people.
What was life like in the early days of the monastery?
According to my guide, it was common among Arequipa’s nobility to send their second eldest daughter to the monastery at the age of 12. It was no strict rule, though. If another girl of the family felt a stronger vocation to serve God, she went. Same for the boys, actually – keep in mind that big families with 10 or more children were common.
Until the late 19th century, each nun had her own cell. I was surprised how big those cells were, they looked quite comfy. The nuns were allowed to bring up to four servants who were basically kept like slaves. Unlike the nun, they had to share a tiny room, slept on animal fur on the floor, didn’t earn any money and weren’t allowed to leave the monastery unless they had to run errands in the city. Poor girls.
The nuns didn’t leave the monastery, either. When they had a visit from family members, they went to the so-called “locutorio” and could speak to them. However, they were separated by a lattice window and could barely see each other.
While the servants were responsible for doing the laundry, the cooking and all other domestic tasks, the nuns dedicated their time to manufacturing special pastries and candies which were sold. They also engaged in sewing, embroidery and other tasks which were seen as suitable for women of their social class.
The reforms after 1871
Santa Catalina was a monastery for the rich and was extremely wealthy as an institution, too. The nuns brought their dowry with them and their families often made generous donations to the monastery. With the system of servants being basically kept like slaves, they lived a life which was no longer acceptable in the late 19th century. Even less so for nuns of the Dominican Order which was founded as a mendicant order in the 13th century.
So in 1871, the Pope sent a nun to Santa Catalina who freed the servants and gave them the choice to stay as nuns or leave the monastery. The nuns had to leave the comfort of their single cells and lived in community from now on. They slept in one huge hall and ate together. While eating, one nun had the task to deliver a sermon and was not allowed to eat that day.
Education in the monastery
In the early times, most novices were illiterate. They learned things by memorizing and with the help of pictures. In the colonial society of Peru, a formal education was reserved for boys only. The monastery accepted a certain number of girls who lived with a teacher nun from Monday to Friday and returned home for the weekend. The girls usually started this education at the age of 6 and after 6 years they would either leave or enter the monastery full-time as a novice.
Visiting the monastery
I visited Santa Catalina on one of Peru’s national holidays in March and it wasn’t particularly crowded. The general admission fee amounts to 40 Soles (app. US$ 12) and you can stay as long as you want. If you would like to take part in a guided tour, you’ll have to pay your guide another 10 soles at the end of the tour.
Is the guided tour worth it? Yes, absolutely. There’s not that much written information when you explore the monastery on your own, so without a guide, you will miss out a lot of interesting facts. Almost everything I wrote above is information I was given by my guide.
The guided tour takes about one hour. When you enter the monastery, guides will be waiting. It may be possible to book a guided tour in advance. There was a big German group of about 20 people behind me. However, most groups were smaller, like 3 – 5 people. I more or less accidentally joined a Spanish group and we were 4 people altogether.
After the tour, you can explore the monastery on your own, go back to the places you liked best and take more photos. There’s also a shop but I wasn’t too impressed with it. Or you may want to relax in the garden café which is what I did. Prices are a bit higher than in the city (but the same as in the very touristic places) but still moderate. I had a piece of lemon cake (very yummy) for 8 soles (US$ 2.50) and a huge pineapple juice for 9 soles (US$ 2.80).
I’m an atheist who has always been fascinated by religions and their impact on human beings and societies as a whole. And I’ve always been interested in history. How did people live hundreds of years ago? How did they think? What was important to them?
Walking through Santa Catalina Monastery was truly fascinating. The various cells had a lot in common but were different, too. I wondered if all those girls who entered the monastery at the age of 12 really wanted to spend the rest of their lives behind those walls. On the other hand, was the alternative better? An arranged marriage with no possibility to reject the man who was chosen by the girl’s parents? Given birth to numerous children, seeing some of them die and always risking their own health and lives, too? I’m really not sure what I would have preferred and am thankful that I was born in a century and in a society which allows me to make my own choices.
Nowadays, Santa Catalina Monastery is a peaceful and enchanting place. You can easily spend the whole afternoon there, wandering through the various alleys and cloisters and one or two visits to the café.
Have you been to Santa Catalina Monastery or would you like to visit it?
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