Every day we passed an unusual building on our walk in Arequipa, Peru. The plain white and very high stone walled building took up an entire block near the Plaza de Armas. No windows in sight. We found out that it is the Santa Catalina Convent, built in 1579, for women who were cloistered from the world and spent their days in prayer.
In 17th century Arequipa, 2nd sons became priests and 2nd daughters became nuns. Girls entered the Santa Catalina Convent when they turned 12 years old. Each girl roomed by herself during the 4-year novitiate-training period. These young novices left their room at 7am to go to the chapel and again at noon for 15-20 minute in the yard. The rest of the day was spent alone in their room – praying, meditating, and sewing.
Their parents paid a stipend each year and, at the end of the novitiate, paid a dowry to the convent – equivalent to $150,000 US in today’s dollars.
Life for the nuns radically changed in 1871 when the Pope sent Sister Josefa Cadena to Santa Catalina. Servants were dismissed, the convent’ wealth was sent to Europe, the nuns no longer were housed in private rooms but in a large dormitory style room, and no longer were large dowries required.
Since Santa Catalina has been continually occupied and maintained, the tour allowed us to imagine just what life might have been like 500 years ago for those privileged women in colonial Peru.