August 16, 2010

The Underground Nuns

Santa Monica nunWhen the Convent of Santa Monica was searched, in 1934, it revealed an amazing secret. It was full of nuns. That might not sound so startling, insofar as convents are generally the first place that you would look for nuns. But this particular convent had been supposedly empty for 70 years; and it was in a land where all monasteries and convents had been seized by the government, their very existence rendered illegal.

An intricate system of tunnels, secret chambers and hidden passageways allowed the nuns to stay out of view. Their exterior doors were bricked up. A secret door, affording access from a private residence next door, allowed supplies to pass in and out. They lived and worshipped in utter seclusion; even their dead were buried in a small interior graveyard, away from prying eyes. Their tiny cells contained planks, stretched across blocks, as beds. Amongst their meagre possessions were self-flagellation instruments, which were used to bring themselves closer to Christ. Thus the small order of Augustine nuns went on for seven decades, before they were discovered.

Mexico is a Catholic country; however, it also has a Constitution that separates church from state. The Reform Era, commonly viewed as the period 1857-1876, laid the foundations of this. To do this, the government of the time needed first to reduce the traditional power of the Catholic church. A whole series of laws were passed, restricting clerical privilege, disabling church courts and many other measures designed to place church power into the hands of civil authorities.

Then came the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Properties. It ordered all religious orders to hand over their monastries and convents, which were then distributed to local farmers. If the church refused, then these lands would be seized and sold by public auction to the highest bidder. Nearly all of the country's religious houses became secular in this way. But not the Convent of Santa Monica, in Puebla.

refectory at Santa Monica


It had been a convent since the seventeenth century. Before that, several other female institutions had been operating on the site. In 1609, a home for wayward Spanish women had been built on that spot. It was under the patronage of St Mary Magdelene. Donations for its upkeep had diminished over time, so the home closed down. In 1682, it had briefly been a refuge for Spanish widows and orphaned girls. Then they too moved on and, in 1688, the Augustinian Recollect Convent of Santa Monica was founded.

The day to day lives of these nuns would have been silent. They did not sing, even during High Mass, nor speak aloud. Theirs was a contemplative life, assisted by a small religious library. They undertook rigid fasts or else ate only water, bread, fruits, olive oil, and wine. They practiced severe penance, for which the self-flagellation tools found afterwards would have been used. They walked barefoot, or in sandals, with any other mode of footwear forbidden. Their daily routine was one of intense worship and meditation, but there were moments of relaxation too. The Chocolate Room was set aside for recreation.

crypt at Santa Monica


It is thought that the local authorities knew all along that they were there, but that a blind eye had been turned. Or maybe just the first officials knew and, disagreeing with the national edict against them, had helped them prepare the convent for concealment. There were certainly city folk who sneaked in food and the other necessities for survival.

However it worked, it all came to an end in 1934, when a local official ordered a search of the premises. The Augustine nuns were evicted from their convent and the building passed into state hands. It is now open to the general public and houses the Museum of Religious Art. There are some fine architectual features, some dating back to the very beginning of the 17th century; alongside exhibits from the time of the nuns.

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