In a city full of extraordinary colonial buildings with a rich ecclesiastical history, Arequipa’s Monasterio de Santa Catalina still manages to astound. It is huge, has beautiful buildings, plazas and gardens, but mainly it has a truly bizarre history that inspires both awe and moral indignation. The Monestario was an extremely wealthy institution, shown not only by its size (from the outside it looks like a massive impregnable fortress) but also by the grandeur of its buildings.
The history of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, with its horrendous and hypocritical class system, was always going to captivate and repulse at the same time. The two hours I spent there could easily have turned to three or four and, despite the steep price of admission, I would happily go back. Also, an apology in advance, it is one of the most photogenic places I’ve been – so lots of photos.
Established in 1579, the Monasterio’s founder was the wealthy Spanish widow, Maria de Guzman. She established a system where the daughters of only the wealthiest Spanish families could enter the Monasterio (paying a very large dowry for the privilege). In return, the ‘nuns’ were permitted every luxury imaginable – the finest furniture, china and silks; parties, with musicians; the very best food and fine wines; and regular, unregulated visitors.
The latter included men. Understandably, the whiff of sexual scandal was never far away from the Monasterio – which to the contemporary eye looks like a religious private members club where money was far more important than faith, and the Paris Hiltons of their day could do whatever they wanted thanks to Daddy’s money.
Worse than all of this by some considerable distance, the wealthy nuns were allowed by the ecclesiastical authorities to keep slaves – that’s right, slaves – to minister to their needs. Poorer nuns performed the role of servants to the wealthier nuns, who lived lives similar to their wealthy secular counterparts.
Each wealthy nun had their own private quarters, of various sizes, with a bedroom, living room, kitchens and outside space. Each had luxuries such as musical instruments, well upholstered furniture, china and crystal glass.
This deplorable situation continued for three hundred years. Finally, in 1871 the papacy sent a strict Dominican nun to sort the whole sordid mess out. She freed the slaves and liberated the servants, sent the wealthy dowagers back to Spain and reformed the whole rotten institution. Many of the servants and freed slaves remained as nuns, and the Monasterio closed its doors firmly to the public. Its affairs became an enigma for nearly a century.
As recent events have revealed, it is a rare occasion when the Holy See moves with speed to end shocking abuses within its ranks; it seems little has changed since 1871.