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“Penitentes”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

During the 1600s and 1700s, Hispano settlers in present-day New Mexico lived in small isolated poblaciones, or communities. They built adobe houses, dug acequias (irrigation ditches), and planted their crops along these ditches. The settlers lived independent lives, receiving few supplies from Mexico and few visits from government and religious authorities. They practiced their Catholic faith in adobe churches they built. In the larger villages a resident Franciscan friar oversaw worship, but the smaller settlements received visits from a friar or priest only a few times a year.

Isolated from other Spanish people and living in a harsh and sometimes dangerous environment, the Hispano residents maintained a strong religious faith. With little assistance from Spanish or, later, Mexican authorities, Hispano settlers practiced traditions of prayer and the rosary, processions, and mass when they could. In the 1800s, a new religious brotherhood called La Fraternidad Piadoso de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazarite (the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus Nazarite) arose. The members of this brotherhood called themselves Penitentes (penitents), or Brothers of Light. Some historians believe that the Penitentes grew out of a Spanish Catholic fraternity called the Third Order of Saint Francis that existed in Santa Cruz, along the Rio Grande, in the early 1800s.

The Penitentes organized moradas that included some twenty to fifty men and worked to maintain Catholic religious worship in their communities. A morada was the name of the group of men and also the building that served as the place of worship. The penitente hermanos (brothers) in a community built the morada and kept an altar, santos (carved statues of saints), a carretera (a death cart), crosses, and other ritual objects there. During Holy Week, they held processions in which some dragged heavy crosses and some practiced flagellation (whipping themselves) to relive the suffering of Christ. In processions, they dragged the carreteras up to the cemeteries.

In addition to serving their communities spiritually, the Penitentes provided help and care to people who needed it. They visited the sick, held wakes, and alabados, dug graves, buried the dead, and offered financial aid to the families.

The Catholic Church sometimes opposed the Penitente brotherhood because of its rituals as well as its independence from Church authority. In 1857 Archbishop Lamy allowed the Penitentes to continue their brotherhood and conduct their rituals of penance under five rules that encouraged secrecy.

Today, moradas still stand in or near many small Hispano communities in New Mexico. Some moradas no longer function, but others host active brotherhoods. Traditionally, some moradas included women members as hermanas, or sisters. More often the women served as assistants who helped maintain the morada rooms and provided other support. The Penitentes preserve a strong Hispano cultural and spiritual tradition.