A Nun’s Tale From Arequipa, Peru

Santa Catalina Monastery is an interesting museum in the city of Arequipa. We visited Arequipa on a previous trip to Peru and posted a blog about it here. During both trips to Arequipa we visited Santa Catalina Monastery. On tours of the monastery we heard fascinating stories about the nuns that lived in the monastery. Whether folklore or true history, these stories inspired us to write a short story about what life may have been like for a nun in Santa Catalina Monastery in the 1700s. Our story is pure fiction but is based on the stories that our guides told us of the lives of these nuns. None of it is based on a real person.

The sound of wooden clackers woke Maria from under a pile of warm blankets on her soft bed. She wouldn’t get out of her bed until her servant brought in hot tea. Within a minute, like clockwork, the servant entered with a tray. On it was Maria’s favourite tea served in fine bone china. After setting the tray down on the bedside table the servant lit the candles in the golden candelabra. It brought a warm, cozy feeling to the large bedroom.

As she sat up in her bed Maria curled her toes in the plush carpet underfoot. She looked around the room admiring the large paintings on the walls. Her favourite was one of her family’s mansion which was not far away. Like she often did as she sipped her tea, Maria spent too long dreaming of another life and now she would have to rush to make morning prayers in time.

Her servant quickly helped her dress into her white tunic, habit, black veil, long socks and sandals. Before slipping out the door Maria checked her reflection in the gilded framed mirror. She knew that most convents thought mirrors were too self-indulgent and didn’t allow them, but Maria was glad that her convent was different. Even though she was a nun Maria didn’t see a reason not to make sure she had an acceptable appearance. After all, she was from a good family and was raised to always look her best in front of others.

Maria hurriedly walked through the halls of the convent. The brightly painted red walls always cheered her up. Like most wealthy families at the time, Maria was sent to live in the convent when she was just 12. It was the custom in Arequipa that the second born daughter would spend the rest of her life in Santa Catalina Monastery. The families paid 2,400 silver coins ($150,000 USD today) and agreed to furnish the apartment in quality furnishings for the privilege of having their daughter become a Santa Catalina Nun. 

Maria knew her fate since she was a little girl, but it didn’t make it easier to leave her family forever. In the beginning it was very difficult. At just 12, she went from living in a lavish mansion to living in a communal room with the other novice nuns. Then, the blue walls in the novice area seemed to reflect her common mood. She was to live a cloistered life with the other novices until she was 16. Maria remembers lying in bed hearing some of the other girls crying themselves to sleep at night.

It was not Maria’s calling to be a nun, but she knew that it was expected of her. Some of the girls she joined with have since found their calling and want to live their lives as nuns. Maria though missed her other friends. The girls she went to school with that were the oldest or the third daughters in their family. They were the lucky ones. Being a nun just wasn’t in her soul.

A nun’s life wasn’t what she wanted, but it wasn’t too bad. Once she turned 16 she got her own apartment in the convent. It is quite large, with a separate bedroom, sitting room, kitchen and servant quarters. She had a servant, a cook, elegant furniture and decorations and luxury creams for her skin. She had a large kitchen for the cook and up to date laundry facilities.

Sometimes if she had enough time she would climb the stairs to the roof so she could see the mountains. El Misti was her favourite because she used to watch it from her room in her family’s mansion. From the rooftop in the convent she had almost the same view. It warmed her heart.

Sitting in morning prayers Maria recited the words by heart. As she did so her mind wandered. She daydreamed of the man she would never marry and the children she would never have. She started to reminisce about the dance a few days ago. The nuns had fun dancing with each other and pretending that one was a boy that fancied them. She always dreamt of a boy that was tall, handsome and absolutely in love with her. Her best friend Luisa had the same dreams, so they’d take turns being the man or the woman of the dance. It was the most fun they had at the convent.

As they often did, after the dance Luisa and a few other nuns came over to Maria’s apartment for tea and cake. They immediately began gossiping about the latest rumour. Sister Ana, who was only a couple of years older than them, had caused quite a commotion. The rumour circulating the convent is that Sister Ana had given birth! Maria and her friends had heard of men sneaking into some of the sisters’ apartments but had never seen it happen themselves. They often tried to figure out how it was done, and how they could have a boy visit them.

Like all nuns living in the convent, she was the second born daughter. Maria’s sister was much older and knew all about how to make babies. She explained it to Maria before her 12th birthday when she was sent to the convent. Most of the other nuns in the convent didn’t know. There were many rumours on how babies are made, but only Maria and Luisa knew for sure. Maria of course had told Luisa all about it.

Over cake the girls discussed how it easy it would have been for Ana had to hide her pregnancy from Reverend Mother Francesca. The large tunics they wore could hide just about anything. Of course Ana’s servant must have known, but she would never tell the Reverend Mother. The servant must have told Ana’s family though because as soon as the baby was born last week, it was sent to live with them. At least that’s what the rumour is. The girls weren’t sure if they’d ever learn the whole story but promised to tell the others if they heard any more news.  

As morning prayers were ending Maria realized that today was a special day. Her mother and sister would come to visit. They would sit on one side of the screened window and Maria on the other. They couldn’t see each other, but it would be so nice to hear their voices. They would tell her news about her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in the 4 years since she entered the convent. They would share news about their family and neighbours. Maria loved to hear the local gossip. She’d later share it with Luisa even though she wouldn’t know any of the people.

Later that night, alone in her room, Maria daydreamed about her childhood. How her parents, brother and sister would go to church in the big Cathedral, just down the street from the convent. It is an imposing stone building with its large, wooden doors and tall bell towers. After church they would walk around the plaza, and maybe even have a picnic. She loved seeing the white, stone buildings that lined the edge of the plaza and the giant archways on either side of the cathedral. It’s nickname ‘White City’ suited it well with all of the gorgeous white buildings.

At night was when the plaza was most beautiful. Lights lit up the church and the surrounding arcade. To Maria, if felt magical.

After their picnic they would often walk along the streets admiring the other homes and mansions.

One of her favourite spots was a lookout in the community of Yanahuara above the city. She could look down on the streets of her precious city. From the lookout Maria could also see the snow covered Mount Chachani and her precious El Misti.

Maria also missed watching the traditional Quechua dances that they would see at festivals at the plaza. The local Quechua women would dance in their bright skirts and their long, black braids would swing in the air.

Even though it wasn’t what she dreamed of, this was her life now and she had to make the best of it.

Coming Next – Exploring The Heights of La Paz

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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