Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesús

By William H. Wroth

The Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesús (Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus) is a Catholic lay confraternity in New Mexico, whose members, popularly known the Penitentes, are dedicated to living a pious Christian life through devotion to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. Their devotional activities include sessions of prayer and the singing of hymns (alabados) during Lent and throughout the year, penitential processions during Holy Week to re-enact the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, and various forms of self-mortification such as flagellation and the carrying of heavy wooden crosses. The Brotherhood first came to notice in New Mexico in the 1830s, but it had deep roots in Catholic practice. One of the most important and popular ceremonial elements in the Catholic calendar since the late Middle Ages in Europe and in the New World had been the annual re-enactment of Christ's passion during Holy Week. This complex of ceremony and ritual drama was tenaciously preserved by the Brotherhood and served the vital purpose of annually renewing the mutual bonds that linked all members of the community. The Brotherhood in the late nineteenth century constituted the spiritual core of Hispanic society and it continues today as a vital movement in many communities.

The penitential practices of the Brotherhood, especially after the American occupation of 1846, have provoked much comment and misunderstanding among outside observers. The organization has even been mistakenly viewed as a cult separate from the Catholic Church. But the practices of the Brothers have a long history in European Catholicism and were transmitted to Mexico in the early colonial period. At this time penitential practices were an integral part of Catholic observance, practiced at all levels of Mexican society: in Zacatecas, Guadalajara, Mexico City and everywhere Spanish settlements had been established. The very first settlers of New Mexico, led by Juan de Oñate, brought with them the practice of self-mortification during Holy Week. Oñate established the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico in 1598 and was its first governor until 1609. He was the son of one of the four founders of the city of Zacatecas, Don Cristobal de Oñate, an early conquistador.

Juan de Oñate's activities are described in detail by one of his officers, Gaspar de Villagrá, in his Historia de La Nueva México, written within ten years of the expedition. In 1598, on the long trek to New Mexico, Oñate and his expedition celebrated Holy Week where they were encamped, somewhere south of the present day El Paso. On Holy Thursday, Oñate ordered that a large temporary chapel be built, and in it was placed a representation of the Holy Sepulchre of Jesus. According to Villagrá, “With an honor guard of soldiers led by the General [Oñate] and with the friars on their knees, they kept a vigil all night long. They were very contrite penitents, making a large and bloody scourging and asking God with tears and supplications...that He show them the way through those most dismal deserts… so that the Church might be brought to remote New Mexico.... In loud voices, by themselves in the field, the women and children, barefoot all, prayed for mercy, and the soldiers in two groups scourged their own shoulders with cruel blows, urgently praying for aid, and the humble, devout friars dressed in hair shirts urged them on with outcries and supplications.” It was not only the friars and the soldiers with their wives and children who took part in this self mortification, but also Juan de Oñate himself and his two nephews, for at this time all levels of society in New Spain participated in these practices during Holy Week and other times of the year.

By 1626 the colony of New Mexico was well established; there were missionaries at most of the Indian Pueblos and many of the Indians were at least nominally converted to Christianity. In January of that year the new Franciscan custodian for New Mexico, Fray Alonso de Benavides arrived from Mexico to assume his office. Among the Christianized Indians Fray Alonso found penitential practices to be the norm and willingly followed. He suggested this in his recounting of an incident at the Pueblo of Xumanas (now known as Gran Quivira) southeast of Albuquerque. Here, an “old sorcerer” came up to him and accused the Christians of being crazy because “you go through the streets, flagellating yourselves, and it is not well that the people of this pueblo should commit such madness as spilling their own blood by scourging themselves.” Benavides notes that the man no doubt had been “in some Christian pueblo during Holy Week when they were flagellating themselves in procession....” After the man stormed off, Fray Alonso explained to the people “the reason why we scourge ourselves,” and he said that they were even “more confirmed in their desire to become Christians.”

In summarizing the progress of the Franciscans among the Pueblo Indians, Benavides claimed that the Indians were for the most part fine and obedient Christians who during Lent came "with much humility to the processions, which are held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday." On these days they performed penances in the churches and "during Holy Week they flagellate themselves in most solemn processions." While Benavides does not mention penitential practices among Spaniards in New Mexico, there is no reason to doubt that the Hispanic parishioners, with the guidance of the friars, continued to carry on the same exercises as were universally followed in New Spain and were introduced by Juan de Oñate in 1598 at the founding of the colony.

In Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the changes brought about by the Reformation and the rising current of philosophical rationalism gradually brought an end to the traditional penitential processions, except in isolated areas. By the mid-eighteenth century these effects of the Enlightenment, as it was called, began to be felt in Spain. Finally in 1777 King Charles III, with at least some backing from the Catholic Church, officially censured public penitential processions and gradually the custom began to die out in the cities. However, in the Spanish countryside and in rural areas throughout Spain's far-flung colonial possessions, flagellant processions continued to be held, surviving in isolated places like New Mexico into the twentieth century.

The increasingly negative attitude of authorities in late eighteenth-century Spain and Mexico toward public self-mortification was no doubt reflected in New Mexico. There is no mention of such public practices in either Bishop Tamarón's report of 1760 or in the report of Father Domínguez, or in any other known document of the period. However, it is unlikely that these practices had ceased to exist. Domínguez does mention with approval the practice of self-scourging fostered by Fray Sebastián Fernández at Abiquiú, but apparently this took place within the Church and only at night. Domínguez noted that the people performed “the Via Crucis with the Father, and later, after dark, discipline [self-scourging] attended by those who come voluntarily, because the Father merely proposes it to them, and following his good example there is a crowd of Indians and citizens.” Clearly in the late eighteenth century, although change was in the wind, the "good example" of zealous friars still inspired the faithful to self-mortification as it had for centuries in Spain and Mexico. But by this time the growing uneasiness with public self-mortification may have induced a certain amount of caution and secrecy among those who participated. Such practices were now performed under the watchful eye of a priest, at night and inside the church or meeting room of the group.

With the isolation of rural New Mexico and the lack of priests in the early 1800s the penitential brotherhoods assumed some of the spiritual functions in local communities. They finally came to official notice in 1833 in Taos when Father Antonio José Martínez wrote to the Bishop of Durango, Don José Antonio de Zubiría, concerning the activities of a Brotherhood of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ). He noted that they made “exercises of penance during the Lenten seasons principally on Fridays, all of Holy Week, Fridays from this time until Pentecost, and other days of such significance in the year.” His main concern was not with their penance but with the fact that they performed it in public during Holy Week and “cause a great spectacle to the bystanders.” He then notes “they say that thus it has been granted to them from time immemorial.” Martínez suspended the public penitence of the Brotherhood, permitting “them only to do it at night and during the day in solitary places, because it makes me very uneasy….” Here began the necessary secrecy of the Brotherhood which only would increase in the coming decades.

The original name of the penitential confraternity in New Mexico was the Brotherhood of the Sangre de Cristo. While there no founding documents available for the organization, it may have survived continuously from the Mexican and Spanish Brotherhoods of the Blood of Christ of the early 1500s. Confraternities dedicated to the Sangre de Cristo were active in both Spain and Mexico by the sixteenth century, including one founded in Guadalajara in 1551 and one in Zacatecas by the early 1600s. By 1760 if not earlier, there was one in the northern city of Parral in today’s Chihuahua, a city often visited by New Mexicans. Father Martínez noted in 1833 that the Brothers said they had been performing their penance since “time immemorial” and Bishop Zubiría called the Brotherhood “ancient.” In New Mexico the name “Hermandad de la Sangre de Cristo” was in use until the early 1850s.

In 1846 the American occupation introduced not only a change in sovereignty but also the introduction of a new, predominantly Protestant culture, the result of which was even greater secrecy on the part of the Brotherhood. In the late 1850s under pressure from the outside world, most notably Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and his foreign clergy, the name of the organization was changed, officially at least, to La Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno. Jesús Nazareno is the name given to Christ in his suffering during Holy Week. Statues of Jesús Narareno were highly revered by the Brothers and used in Holy Week re-enactments of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. This change in name no doubt took place to avoid the public attention and misunderstanding that the name "The Blood of Christ" would give to a flagellant brotherhood.

Since 1833 and particularly since 1846, the outside world has focused upon the self-mortifying activities of the Brotherhood, in particular, their flagellation and carrying of heavy crosses. Emphasis upon these practices, particularly by Anglo-American commentators since the late nineteenth century, has almost obscured the important role of the Brotherhood in preserving the essential values of Hispanic Catholicism both for the individual and for the community at large. In each rural community the Brotherhood chapter served, and often still serves, important social functions such as taking care of the sick and the indigent and performing funerals for community members.

Sources Used:

Chavez, Fr. Angelico.My Penitente Land. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Steele, Thomas J., S.J. and Rowena Rivera. Penitente Self-Government. Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1985.

Weigle, Marta. Brothers of Borthers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

Wroth, William. Images of Penance, Images of Mercy: Southwestern Santos in the Late Nineteenth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Wroth, William. The Chapel of Our Lady of Talpa. Colorado Springs: The Taylor Museum, 1979.

Wroth, William. “La Sangre de Cristo: History and Symbolism,” Hispanic Arts and Ethnohistory in the Southwest. Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1983.