Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa, Peru

Walled City Within a City

Santa Catalina Monastery
Katiebordner/Flickr/CC 2.0

Enter the gates into the adobe brick walled community of the Santa Catalina de Siena Monastery in  ArequipaPeru and step back 400 years in time.

A must-see in the White City of Arequipa, Santa Catalina Monastery was begun in 1579/1580, forty years after the city was founded. The monastery was enlarged over the centuries until it became a city within the city, about 20000 sq./m. and covering a good sized city block.

At one time, 450 nuns and their lay servants resided within the community, closed off from the city by high walls.

In 1970, when the civic authorities insisted the monastery install electricity and running water, the now poor community of nuns elected to open the greater portion of the monastery to the public in order to pay for the work. The few remaining nuns retreated to a corner of their community and the remainder became one of Arequipa's prime tourist attractions.

Built with sillar, the white volcanic rock that gives Arequipa the name of the White City, and ashlar, petrified volcanic ash from Volcan Chachani overlooking the city, the monastery was closed off to the city, but much of it is open to the intensely blue sky over the southern Peruvian desert.

As you tour the monastery, you'll walk down narrow streets named for Spanish locales, pass through arched colonnades surrounding courtyards, some with fountains, flowering plants, and trees.

You'll linger in churches and chapels and take a rest in one of the plazas. You'll see the interior, look into the private rooms, each with a small patio, common areas like the colonnades, and the utilitarian areas such as kitchen, laundry, and outdoor drying area.

Highlights

  • Cloister of the Oranges (Claustro los Naranjos): the three crosses set among the orange trees are the center of the Passion of the Christ ceremonies when the monastery is closed to visitors.
  • Silence Yard: nuns walked, said the rosary and read the Bible in silence
  • Entrance Portico: Statue of St. Catherine of Siena in sillar over arched doorway
  • Main Cloister: largest in monastery with confessionals and paintings depicting the life of Mary and the public life of Jesus
  • Church: rebuilt several times after earthquake damage according to the original design. Silver worked altar dedicated to Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo. A metal grille separates the nun's area from the public.
  • Cordova Street: beautiful street reminiscent of Spain with hanging geraniums on one side. Newer architecture on opposite side houses new quarters for the nuns.
  • Plaza Zocodover: named for Arab word for barter or exchange, this was the area where nuns gathered on Sundays to exchange or barter their religious crafts.
  • Sevilla Street: originally led to the first church of St Catherine which was later converted to the kitchens. Kitchen burned coal and wood, darkening the walls and ceilings. Original cooking utensils are on display.
  • Burgos Street: connected vegetable garden to Sevilla Street and the kitchen.
  • Laundry Area: big earthen storage vats served as wash tubs when canals provided Arequipa's water supply.

Everywhere you walk, you'll get a feel for what life must have been like for the women who lived here in seclusion, to spend their life in prayer and contemplation.

Or so you'd think.

The early town leaders wanted their own monastery of nuns. Viceroy Francisco Toledo approved their request and granted the license to found a private monastery for the nuns of the Order of Saint Catherine of Siena. The city of Arequipa set aside four plots of land for the monastery. Before it was completed, a wealthy young Doña María de Guzmán, the widow of Diego Hernández de Mendoza, decided to retire from the world and became the first resident of the monastery. In October 1580, the city fathers named her the prioress and acknowledged her as the founder. With her fortune now the monastery’s, work continued and the monastery attracted a number of women as novices. Many of these women were criollas and daughters of curacas, Indian chieftains. Other women entered the monastery to live as lay persons apart from the world.

Over time, the monastery grew and women of wealth and social standing entered the novitiate or as lay residents. Some of these new residents brought with them their servants and household goods and lived within the walls of the monastery as they had lived before. While outwardly renouncing the world and embracing a life of poverty, they enjoyed their luxurious English carpets, silk curtains, porcelain plates, damask tablecloths, silver cutlery, and lace sheets. They employed musicians to come and play for their parties.

When Arequipa's frequent earthquakes damaged portions of the monastery, the nuns' relatives repaired the damage, and with one of the restorations, built individual cells for the nuns. Occupancy of the monastery had outgrown the common dormitories. During the two hundred years of the ViceRoyalty of Peru, the monastery continued to grow and flourish. Various parts of the complex display architectural styles of the time they were constructed or renovated.

By the mid-1800's, word that the monastery functioned more as a social club than a religious convent reached Pope Pius IX who sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, to investigate. She arrived at the Monasterio Santa Catalina in 1871 and promptly began reforms. She sent the rich dowries back to the motherhouse in Europe, dis-employed the servants and slaves while giving them the chance to leave the monastery or stay on as nuns. She instituted internal reforms and life in the monastery became as other religious institutions.

In spite of this later reputation, the Monasterio was home to a remarkable woman, Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo (1595 - 1668), who first entered the walls as a three-year-old, spent most of her childhood there, refused marriage, and returned to enter the novitiate. She rose within the nun's community, was elected Mother Prioress and instituted a regime of austerity. She became known for her accurate predictions of death and disease. She is credited with healings, including the severely inflicted painter who painted the sole portrait of her. It is said that as soon as he completed the portrait, he was completely healed. In her later years, Sor Ana was blind and in ill-health and when she died in January of 1686, she was not embalmed because her body did not reek of death. She was buried under the floor of the Choir in the church.

When she was exhumed ten months later, her body had not deteriorated but remained as fresh and flexible as the day she died. She is credited with healing others, even after death. The nuns wrote reports at the time of instances where the sick were healed after touching her possessions. Shortly after her death, petition to name her a saint was submitted to the Catholic church. In the way of the church, the process is slow. It wasn't until 1985 that Pope John Paul II visited this monastery for the beatification of Sor Ana.

With the wealth of the monastery no longer available, and the nuns apart from the world, the monastery remained much as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. While the city of Arequipa modernized itself around the walled community, the nuns continued living as they had for centuries. It was only in the 1970's that civil codes required the nuns to install electricity and a water system. With no funds to comply, the nuns made the decision to open the majority of the monastery to public view. They retreated to a small complex, off-limits to visitors, and for the first time in centuries, the curious public entered the city within a city.

Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Check Santa Catalina Monastery's website for current visitor information and pricing. There is a cafeteria, souvenir shop, and guides available. 

Buen viaje!