Enter the gates into the adobe brick walled community of the Santa Catalina de Siena Monastery in Arequipa, Peru and step back 400 years in time.
A must-see in the White City of Arequipa, Santa Catalina Monastery was begun in 1579/1580, forty years after the city was founded. The monastery was enlarged over the centuries until it became a city within the city, about 20000 sq./m. and covering a good sized city block. At one time, 450 nuns and their lay servants resided within the community, closed off from the city by high walls.
In 1970, when the civic authorities insisted the monastery install electricity and running water, the now poor community of nuns elected to open the greater portion of the monastery to the public in order to pay for the work. The few remaining nuns retreated to a corner of their community and the remainder became one of Arequipas prime tourist attractions.
Built with sillar, the white volcanic rock that gives Arequipa the name of the White City, and ashlar, petrified volcanic ash from Volcan Chachani overlooking the city, the monastery was closed off to the city, but much of it is open to the intensely blue sky over the southern Peruvian desert.
As you tour the monastery, youll walk down narrow streets named for Spanish locales, pass through arched colonnades surrounding courtyards, some with fountains, flowering plants and trees. Youll linger in churches and chapels and take a rest in one of the plazas. Youll see the interior, look into the private rooms, each with a small patio, common areas like the colonnades, and the utilitarian areas such as kitchen, laundry and outdoor drying area. Click on a circle on this map of the layout of the monastery for details.
Everywhere you walk, you'll get a feel for what life must have been like for the women who lived here in secusion, to spend their life in prayer and contemplation.
Or so you'd think.
The early town leaders wanted their own monastery of nuns. Viceroy Francisco Toledo approved their request and granted the license to found a private monastery for the nuns of the Order of Saint Catherine of Siena. The city of Arequipa set aside four plots of land for the monastery. Before it was completed, a wealthy young Doña María de Guzmán, the widow of Diego Hernández de Mendoza, decided to retire from the world and became the first resident of the monastery. In October, 1580, the city fathers named her the prioress and acknowledged her as the founder. With her fortune now the monasterys, work continued and the monastery attracted a number of women as novices. Many of these women were criollas and daughters of curacas, Indian chieftains. Other women entered the monastery to live as lay persons apart from the world.