Santa Catalina Monastery was founded in 1579. It is the only convent in the world comprised of a city within a city. Over the centuries, it has been the home of hundreds of cloister nuns, who had little or no contact with the outside world.
In the early days, nuns were only allowed to speak to their families once a month, if they had been screened first. They had to use a turntable to exchange gifts, which could not be objects of vanity. There was also always someone else present who listened in to the entire conversation.
Today, the convent is still active. There are 20 nuns and 4 novices. If you want to have a chance of seeing them, you have to arrive by 7 am, when they hold mass.
The monastery covers 20,000 square metres, and as you walk through the pretty streets, you can see examples of the way the nuns used to live. Be careful not to lean against the walls, as the bright red and blue paint comes off on your clothes.
The first place you will come to is the area where the novices used to live. The monastery would take on 7 novices at one time. As was the Spanish tradition, the second-born child of rich families would become a priest or a nun. This was considered an honour, which the families would pay for.
The novices would undergo 1 to 4 years of training, during which time, they had no communication whatsoever with their families.
Surrounding the novices’ cloister are 54 paintings, which were done by a local artist in 1805. These were to help the novices memorise their prayers by didactic learning.
Novices’ rooms were actually quite big. Their beds were always placed under arches to protect them from earthquakes. They had storage for their bed sheets and clothes, and a chamber pot, which they would empty into an outdoor sewage system.
When they finished their training, they would move to a new part of the monastery, where they had more freedom and were allowed to use the speaking room.
Moving into the area inhabited by the rest of the nuns, there are many more paintings depicting scenes that were meant to help the nuns find ‘perfection of their soles’. Many of them even practised self-flagellation – some with barbed wire – in the belief that it would help them achieve this.
When a nun died, she would be kept in a mortuary inside the monastery for 24 hours or more, then carried away to a cemetery. The nuns’ families did not participate. They would simply be informed by letter!
When a mother superior died, an artist would be brought in to sit in the mortuary and paint her exactly as she looked when she passed away. There are still many paintings adorning the walls of the mortuary, including one of a nun who had died with her eyes open.
In the 1600s, two large earthquakes destroyed the convent. Many of the nuns’ families wanted to help rebuild it. Since they were contributing financially, it was decided that a family with a child in the convent could be responsible for building her ‘room’.
As a result, many finished up with private apartments complete with private kitchen and, often, a servant too. Today, the monastery contains more than 80 houses!
Nuns made bread and cakes for selling, as well as holy bread for mass. There is now a modern-day cafeteria where you can buy baked goods made by the present residents.
As well as equipment for sieving flower and compressing the holy bread, some of the nuns had volcanic rock water filters in their dwellings. These would have been very expensive to acquire, and they could only purify 1 litre every 6 hours.
Some families sent their daughters to the monastery for their education. As part of this ‘boarding school’, they would share a room with one nun and take lessons from them. For this reason, a lot of the old rooms contain chalk boards and music stands.
Today, the old infirmary is used as a museum, showcasing many of the gifts the nuns had been allowed to accept from their families. Since objects of vanity were banned, many took pleasure from expensive, ornate tea sets. They also had baby doll Jesuses, which they would dress up!
The museum has many items because, when a nun died, all of her belongings became the property of the convent.
We were told that, in 1984, the Pope had visited Lima. Since it hadn’t been possible for him to visit all of the convents, the nuns were allowed to leave their confinement under special circumstances. There was one nun who had been in the convent since 1952 and she started screaming and panicking because she couldn’t cope with the noise and fast pace of life outside the walls of the monastery.
Our tour guide passed around a rosary that had been made by hand. Each bead was composed of more than 40 compressed rose petals. After we had held it, there was a pungent floral smell on our fingers for hours.
Outside, you can see a line of massive broken pots. These are second-hand. Once they had cracked, they were divided in two and used as efficient ‘sinks’ in which to do laundry.
There is also a small stone pool, now overgrown with vegetation. This used to be where the nuns took a ritual bath once a month.
Interestingly, in 1871, the rules changed and nuns were no longer permitted to live in private accommodation. Their houses were abandoned, and they had to move into one large dormitory. The nuns who live in the monastery today still live together, although the old dormitory is now an art gallery in which music recitals and weddings are sometimes held.
Since July, 2012, it has also been possible to observe a valuable monstrance made from gold, silver and precious stones here.
The monastery is currently open to visitors from 9 am to 4 pm (exit by 5) every day. It costs S/35 to enter, and an extra S/5 for a guided tour in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian or Portuguese.