Photographer's Note

The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is located in Arequipa, Peru. It was built in 1580 and was enlarged in the 17th century. The terms 'convent' and 'monastery' are used interchangeably, though its official site says monastery.

The founder of the monastery was a rich widow, Maria de Guzman, who only accepted nuns from the best Spanish families. All the nuns had to pay a dowry. Traditionally, the second daughter of upper-class families entered a nunnery, supposedly to live in poverty and renounce the material world. In fact, each nun at Santa Catalina had between one and four servants or slaves, and the nuns were able to invite musicians to perform in the convent, have parties and generally live the style to which they had become accustomed while growing up. The dowry that had to be given by the most important nuns, who wore black veils, was 2,400 silver coins, equivalent to US$50,000 today. The nuns also had to bring 25 listed items, including a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. In the case of the wealthiest nuns, these included the finest English china and wonderful silk curtains and rugs. All these nuns entered because of the family tradition that the second son or daughter had to enter religious service. Although it was possible for poorer nuns to enter the convent without paying a dowry, it can be seen from the cells that most of the nuns were very wealthy.

After about three centuries of these goings-on, the pope complained that Santa Catalina was more like an exclusive social club than a convent, and he sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, to straighten things out. She arived in 1871, sent all the rich dowries back to Europe, and freed all the servants and slaves, giving them the choice to stay on as nuns or leaving.

Today, the approximately 20 remaining nuns continue to live a cloistered life, but only in the northern corner of the complex. As visitors walk down the maze of the narrow interior streets, they can try to imagine what life might be like for the closeted nuns--open to the skies and the city sounds, yet bounded by the monastery's high walls.

Official Santa Catalina Website

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Additional Photos by JC Ramos (jramos) Silver Star Critiquer/Silver Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 47 W: 26 N: 141] (507)
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