The Odyssey

Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Teacher Zone
Latin America Kevin Dispatch

Banished or Delivered?

Click image for larger view
Map showing the location of the Monestary of Santa Catalina.
How many of you guys out there have ever been in a classroom made up of mostly girls? I remember finding that particularly exciting, but could you imagine walking down the hallway and out into the street and seeing nothing but more girls? Wow, sounds like heaven, right? Well, you wouldn't be far off because for the last 400 years the Monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa was more or less a whole city full of girls, all of whom were devoted to God, religion, and the prospect of going to heaven themselves.

The nuns prayed at this altar in the Monastery of Santa Catalina
The Monastery was built in 1580 and was originally much smaller in size. Its founder, Maria de Guzman, was a rich widow who accepted young girls from rich families who would become nuns. The girls entered the Monastery when they were between 12-14 years old, and their families had to pay large dowries to the monastery for their acceptance. In addition to money, dowries also included nice dish and silverware sets, and most of the money or financial papers were stored in large chests opened with no less than three keys held by the daughter, the Mother Superior, and the Financial Nun. If a family could not afford the entire dowry then the girls were expected to play music, embroider cloth, or complete household chores to earn their keep. It was a privilege to live in the monastery and leaving was considered a disgrace to your family.

For the first couple of years, the girls underwent a training period in which they lived in simple rooms and studied in classrooms every day. They slept under an archway that was to protect them in case of an earthquake. While walking down one particular street, they would kiss a white cross hanging on the wall because on the other side of the wall was the cemetery (which they preferred not to visit any time soon). Nuns devoted their entire lives to the monastery; they expected to live and die there.

Earthquakes were common and after a large one in 1582, two earthquakes on February 18, 1600, and the eruption of a nearby volcano the same day, much of the monastery was destroyed. When it was rebuilt, it was greatly enlarged to its present size. Many of the walls are made of a white volcanic rock that is characteristic of most buildings in Colonial Arequipa. Aside from the small quarters of girls in training, there were sixty rooms for the nuns and even more rooms for all of their slaves. These slaves lived in tiny, dark, damp rooms without windows.

This doesn't look like my washing machine!
Nuns were devoted to three things: silence, work, and prayer. They took baths only once a month in a special bath of cold water. Sometimes two nuns would bathe in the same bath together with a curtain separating them as they prayed, because seeing another person's naked body was not allowed. Other daily activities of nuns included baking holy breads and cakes, sewing clothes, making a green soap, and other sweets. When washing laundry, they used the halves of big clay pots originally used to make chicha (a fermented Peruvian drink made from corn) and a system of flowing water. In 1770, they used their first "washing machine" which was made of wood and had a handle that tumbled a basket full of clothes.

Maintaining good health in the Monastery was a big problem. Each room had running water that could be used for cooking and cleaning. Water purifiers made of volcanic rock were used to boil the water for human consumption. However, the sewage still flowed freely down the middle of the streets into large reservoirs. This caused many health problems such as cholera. The general humidity in the rooms contributed to widespread pneumonia, arthritis, and other illnesses. Even with the care of the monastery's own hospital, the women generally only lived to be 45-50 years old.

Cordoba Lane - Are we in Spain or Peru?
In 1834, Santa Catalina reached its maximum capacity with 175 nuns and about 500 women in all (including the servants). The entire complex was a labyrinth of narrow streets named after cities in Spain such as Cordoba or Burgos. Toledo is the monastery's oldest, narrowest, and longest street. These colorful streets all branched out from beautiful courtyards lined with trees like the Arequipa papaya. Several chapels or churches were constructed; many of which bear the signs of Arabic architecture copied from existing places of worship back in Spain. Santa Catalina was known for being an important place of worship, religious life, and also charity. Many people left orphans in the doorways hoping that they would be cared for by the nuns (the girls were incorporated into the monastery and the boys were sent to other religious sanctuaries).

Not a bad place to live!
In 1871, Mother Superior Maria Josefa Cadeņa initiated major changes. She did away with the system of paying a dowry, she changed the lifestyle from one of individual focus to that of the monastic community as a whole, and she abolished slavery. Communal dormitories were established and she brought the monastery closer to its supposed vision of renouncing poverty and the material world.

A century later, in 1970, the mayor of Arequipa forced Santa Catalina to modernize with electricity and clean running water, which was beyond the financial means of the monastery. For this reason, the nuns decided to open up the city to tourism in order to offset the costs of its modern existence. Today there are twenty-six nuns that live in the Monastery, but they only live in the new northern part of the complex. The rest of the monastery is open to tourists who wish to glimpse a different way of living.


Monica - Waterworld, or the Floating People of the Lake
Kavitha - The Children of the Sacred Lake
Abeja - What Next? A Roller Coaster to the Temple of the Moon?
Shawn - Coca and the Environment
Team - Coca: Modern Vice or Traditional Power?
Making A Difference - Save the Redwood Forests (and the Coho Salmon, and the Spotted Owl, and All of Us)!!!
Meet Kevin | Kevin's Archive
Meet Kevin
  Basecamp | Trek Connect | Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests
Home | Search | Teacher Zone