Issue - July 2007

July 2007

In this issue we invite you to read and enjoy: by Mikko Mäkimartti, Living with the Yuracare; Santa Teresa de Jesús Convent is now a museum that can be appreciated by the public in all its splendour. Climate change talk is more than hot air by Lucy Witter. more...

July 2007

Santa Teresa de Jesús Convent

This unique convent, located in the centre of Cochabamba, is considered one of the most important pieces of religious catholic architecture in Bolivia. Silvia Bustillos and Carminia Arias were granted a rare visit inside the convent

By: Carninia Arias and Silvia Bustillos
Departament ofTourism, San Simón University
Translated by: Alejandra Estrada

The convent, built 329 years ago, belongs to the Order of the Carmelites of Saint Teresa. Within its huge walls there are hidden stories of women who chose the path of silence to show their love to God. The order was named after the ‘Virgen del Carmen’, who is said to have appeared to shepherd St. Simon Stock on July 16th in 1215. The order was founded in 1255 by Bertolo de Calabria and reformed in 1564 by San Juan de la Cruz, whilst the female order was created in 1452 and reformed by Santa Teresa in 1562.

Before the 1730s there were no convents in Cochabamba, so young women who wanted to be nuns had to go to convents in Sucre or Potosí. For this reason, in 1724 Don Juan de Salvador and his wife donated an area of two blocks, on what is now Baptista Street, for the construction of a new convent. Their son and daughter (a priest and a nun) also pledged their inheritances to the construction of the convent.

An architect known as Cambiaso began to work on the construction of the convent in 1753, but died before it was completed. In 1760, three nuns came to Villa de Oropeza (the first name of the city of Cochabamba) and the convent life began. It is believed that the Jesuit Juan Reher was the architect who designed the church, the most remarkable characteristic of which is the polilobed nave with walls of 3 meters wide and 9 meters high. However, during construction they were unable to find a way to put the vault on top of the nave. In 1770, Pedro Nogales took charge of the construction, and had the idea of building a new church with a rectangular nave inside the polilobed one, thus beginning the convent’s definitive construction.

Now that the restoration has started, a section of the convent is now open as a museum. This visit presented the opportunity to explore the convent, its internal construction, and the life of the sisters today. Their daily lives remain austere. They wake up early every morning to hear the mass. After that, they clean and cook. In the afternoon, one of the sisters makes the bread for communion, which is distributed to the Cathedral and other churches. Other sisters weave handicrafts and prepare corn beverages to sell in the grocery of the convent. Their day finishes at about 11:00 pm after a long prayer.

At the Main Entrance there is a turn, which remains as a symbol of life inside the convent. Once the sisters passed this threshold they could never leave, not even after their death when they were buried in the cemetery inside. From the Outer Locutorium one can reach the central backyard where there is a huge 300 year-old palm tree and a crucifix from 1942 made of calicantus wood.

The Capitulary Chamber serves as a place of rest from the sisters’ daily work. The walls retain their original paintwork, and all the paintings here are from the Potosinian school. The altar depicts an image of the Virgin Mary whose shawl, decorated in gold leaf with feather technique, is of great artistic value. In the south corner of the Central Backyard is the Hermita de la Merced, dedicated to meditation and prayer where the sisters stay when fasting. The Ante Chorus contains many beautiful religious icons.

There, a list can be found with the names of the sisters who went to the convent between 1760 and 1991. Some names like María del Espíritu Santo (Mary of the Holy Spirit) and Magdalena del Corazón (Magdalena of the Heart of Jesus) are very common, because the sisters are given a new identity after their entry into the convent.

Next to this room stands the Oratorium. In accordance with the decree of Santa Teresa de Ávila, Carmelite convents can accept only 21 sisters. When she founded the Order, she decided that only 13 sisters could be taken in, representing Jesus and his 12 apostles. But the restriction proved short-sighted; many of the sisters became ill and they were unable to perform their respective duties. In this chamber there are 21 chairs, below each of which is a box where the sisters put their Bibles and prayer books. Located to the left of the choir, the Oratory has a Baroque style, with a statue of Christ carrying the cross.

On the Second Floor are the sisters’ living quarters, whose most obvious characteristic is their simplicity. There is only one bed, a table to make handicrafts, a wardrobe and a closet. The ceiling and the floor are in their original state. Nearby, the old pharmacy contains original bottles with basic elements to prepare medicines.

The first body of the church, through a cedar door, contains two ensigns of the Carmelite order beneath an undecorated semicircular domed roof. In the second body is a niche with semicircular domed roof, above which is inscribed the year of completion of the church. In the Third Body is the belfry, containing an iron Latin cross with pinnacles on both sides. The Main Altar is located in the north side of the church. The Holy Sacrament is covered in silver and at the top there is a silver niche where the Virgen del Carmen stands. Santo Elias and Santa Teresa lies in two niches at each side.

The Choir is to the right of the Presbytery with pews carved from wood, behind which is a life-size image of Santa Teresa. Early in the morning the sisters sing here and attend the mass.

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