Shelter: Silken Cells of Santa Catalina

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There has always been something rarefied about the air among these convent passages, something more than the crispness lent by the altitude of 7,000 feet. For nearly four centuries, while the wealthiest daughters of colonial Peru retreated to these cells to take on the habit, the Arequipueños left outside of the high white walls whispered that the streets of the nunnery were paved of gold, that the nuns held parties that stretched late into the night. It was said that the skeleton of a baby from an illicit affair was hidden inside one of the walls.

The wild rumors of life inside the nunnery must have been matched, on the other side, by the girls confined to a life beneath the habit and behind the walls, their dreams thick with feverish images of the bright outside. Yet while the world faded to memory and imagination, the girls enjoyed a life of uncommon luxury. In return for a handsome dowry and trousseau provided by their families, Spanish novices were granted their own self-contained houses lining the sunny streets that wound through the 5-acre complex. They bathed in stone basins, slept between lace sheets, and gazed from silk-draped windows while their needs were attended by indigenous and African servants and slaves.

Girls entered the convent between the ages of 12 and 14. The families believed the surrender of daughters and dowries would secure their tickets into heaven. From the chapel windows, these brides of Christ looked out onto the volcanoes that etched chilly lines against the sky. In the centuries before, Inca boys and girls their own ages, chosen for their noble blood and physical beauty, had been sacrificed atop those mountains to appease the gods. One of those, now known as the Ampato Maiden, was found frozen and preserved by archaeologists in 1995; hair silken black, shoulders hunched beneath a fine alpaca shawl. The Spanish novices, who knew nothing of the fate of the Ampato Maiden, tore their eyes from the bright outside to focus once more on the crucifix above them.

For nearly four centuries, the women lived by their own rules, withdrawn from the world. In the late 18th century, they went head-to-head with the local Bishop, one Pedro José Chaves de la Rosa, when he attempted to reform the order to bring the discipline, piety, and communal living he thought appropriate to such an institution. The nuns brought their suit to the diocese. Frustrated by his attempts, the Bishop resigned in 1804. A pious Dominican nun, Josefa Cadena, sent by the Pope from Rome, was more successful; in 1871, she freed the slaves, dismissed the servants, returned the dowries and imposed an austere rule of prayer, poverty, fasting and flagellation. For a hundred years, the walls were sealed to the outside world, until an earthquake (and city decrees requiring plumbing and electricity to be installed) forced the nuns to open their doors to the public.

Now home to just 24 nuns sequestered in the north wing from prying eyes, the convent is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the White City of Arequipa. The light falling through volcanic-stone archways onto persimmon and cerulean walls takes on an almost holy hue in these hushed cloisters. The sounds of the city are muffled and distant, only the occasional car horn or refrain from a protest chant disturbing the serenity. To avoid the sin of vanity, portraits of the nuns were painted only in death. Their faces, drawn and angled, line the galleries still.

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