February 22nd, 2008 – by: Belluomo
St. Catherine of Siena
I'm writing about my spectacular day tonight because tomorrow I embark on a three day tour of the Colca Canyon and environs. I'd call it a trek but we only walk for part of it and that was my disappointment. More on that later. I want to jump right in to the account of my visit to the St. Catherine Dominican convent in Arequipa
The complex is a highlight of the city and a major reason to visit. It's a UNESCO world heritage site and unique in South America. What makes it so special is that it was a functioning cloistered convent from its foundation in the mid 1500s all the way to 1960, when the nuns ceded conservation and running of it to a private company, and kept a small area for themselves.
A bit of the history. It was founded for the daughters of the rich and nobles who according to the custom of the time, often promised their second daughter or son to the religious life. She was provided with a dowry and entered the cloistered convent never to come out. However by this time, the Dominican order wasn't very observant to the original rule and the girls entered with a significant amount of money, furniture, three or four slaves (usually negros) and led a less than strict and penitent life inside the walls. They were able to entertain visitors, hold music concerts, and such and it wasn't until Pope Pius IX sent an emissary in 1871 to clean things up that order was restored. As can be imagined, the reform was fiercely opposed but in the end much of the finery was taken away and most of the slaves.
Mary, Star of the Sea (for you, Stella!). This courtyard of the novices had the entire Litany of Mary frescoed. It was amazing!
Still, even during that time, sanctity was recognized in many of the nuns who tried to live up to their religious vocation. One, a St. Ann of Moqegua, was beatified in 1987, and other nuns are venerated too.
The convent's shape evolved over the centuries and occupies a whole city block. It's really a small city within a city. Everything necessary for the up to four hundred nuns was delivered through the gates or produced on site. Following the trail to see the whole complex was difficult. A warren of rooms and passages branched off from each courtyard or alley, which they called streets (calles). I was impressed by the wealth that the nuns possessed as evidenced in the Limoges china, finely embroidered linens and bedspreads, paintings, musical instruments (I saw pianos and harps) and other acoutrements of wealth and priviledge.
Living in style
Evidently, their family and friends were allowed to give them whatever they wanted.
Halfway through a slight Hare Krishna approached me and tried to speak to me in English but I could hardly understand him and so we switched to Spanish. I thought he was from Bhutan or that area of the world, but he was Peruvian. Tobias was his Christian name before he took a new name Tattua Vit which means "One who understands the truth" in some eastern language, I know not which. He was friendly and inquisitive and before I knew it I was explaining everything to him about the orders in the Church, their history and differences, who the Dominicans were, what religious life entailed, the lives of some of the saints, and so forth. He just kept asking questions and I kept talking.
Tobias, aka "One who understands the truth"
His main interest in coming was this St. Ann and he knew about her from a book he picked up off a street bookseller's cart for thirty cents that was a history of her life. He was fascinated by her and badly wanted to see her cell. He admired her life and wanted to understand where she came from and how she lived. We must have passed an hour and a half talking and touring the rest of the complex, the numerous cells, kitchens (every room seemed to have a private kitchen or hearth which seemed very strange to me!), the church, courtyards, a sizeable pinacoteca (in which I paused before many paintings to relate the story or iconography to him. He was so interested!), gardens and so on. Exhausted, I emerged after three hours in the mini city and we said our goodbyes, after I gently dissuaded him from giving me a large Baghavada Gita and then a small pamphlet on Hare Krishna. We left respectfully and I wished him luck on his personal travels. There is so much more I could say about the complex but I'm limited in time. I have to pack for the trip tomorrow. I'll be out of touch for a few days and will update when I get back.