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Penitente Brotherhood in New Mexico

By Robert Torrez


When Holy Week approaches, the thoughts of many Roman Catholics in northern New Mexico turn to the traditional religious practices observed during the several days preceding Easter Sunday. To many nuevomexicanos, semana santa brings to mind the haunting sounds of the native flute, or pito, that echoed through the hills and valleys of northern New Mexico as the Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno conducted their services.

Few aspects of New Mexico's history have sparked so much interest, speculation, and misunderstanding as the activities of this Catholic lay men's organization whose beliefs and practices center around recreating the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Even the origins of the hermandad, or brotherhood, remain unclear. Some historians have suggested that it had its beginnings within the Third Order of St. Francis, a lay organization brought to New Mexico by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth century. Others believe that it is based on Mexican or Central American flagellant societies which were based on medieval Spanish practices and brought to New Mexico by immigrants in the early 1800's.

Regardless of its origin, the brotherhood was well established in New Mexico (and the portion of southern Colorado that used to be part of New Mexico) by the time the territory entered the United States in 1848. Historians do not agree as to whether the hermanos had a formal organization during the early nineteenth century, but it is generally accepted that during this time, when clergy were scarce in New Mexico, they provided the principal means of public worship available to a large portion of the population. Most communities had no local priests to conduct services or provide religious instruction. Thus, Catholicism may have survived this period in New Mexican history largely because of the heroic efforts of the local chapters, or moradas, of this pious organization we have come to know as the penitentes.

In the absence of priests, these men gathered their communities, instructing them in their faith through prayers and hymns known as alabados and through the enactment of religious dramas during Holy Week. They did not seek to infringe on the sacramental duties of the priest, but only to provide for the spiritual needs of the community until such time as a priest came for a periodic visita. The hermanos also provided much needed social services to the community. They buried the dead, attended to the needs of widows and orphans, and helped maintain law and order.

The hermanos, however, experienced difficulties with Church authorities. When the French priest Jean Baptiste Lamy came to New Mexico in 1850 as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe, he apparently tried to deal sympathetically with the membership of this organization. But some of his successors were intolerant and did not make an effort to understand the unique nature of the brotherhood’s role within the Church.

There never was an official ban against the organization, but, by the late 1800s, semiofficial persecution and hounding by a curious and unsympathetic public forced the hermanos to conduct their services in secret. Their secretive nature made them an easy target for the press and critics of the Catholic Church, and they often took the blame for anything negative that happened in the territory. The March 11, 1892, the Daily New Mexican, for instance, took great delight in Archbishop J. B. Salpointe's attempts to control the order:

It is well known that the practices of the Penitentes are cruel in the extreme; they are criminal ... [and] ...subversive of all good government as [they] usually stand together...when one of their members runs for public office or is [on] trial...

This attitude towards the order is not surprising, considering that even the Catholic press took a negative approach to reporting their activities. In 1877 La Revista Catolica, concerned about what newcomers to New Mexico might think about the Catholic Church if they witnessed the activities of the hermanos, commented:

...there will be great dishonor to the religion they profess if they are seen naked and bloody...Men who seek any pretext to turn public opinion against the Catholic Church, come here to observe and to report such craziness back to the newspapers in the States...

Such negativity and persecution forced the hermanos to conduct their services in secret for many years. It was not unusual for groups of tourists or the merely curious to go "penitente hunting," searching for isolated moradas in hopes of catching a glimpse of the hermanos’ rituals on Good Friday. These individuals often wrote letters to newspapers and articles about what they saw—or thought they saw. Many of the stories published by these uninvited observers were wildly exaggerated and generally critical, contributing to public misconceptions and suspicions about this "secret sect" and their "bloody rituals."

Occasionally, however, a story was published that demonstrated a sense of respect for the hermanos and their religious practices. One such article appeared in The Gallup Independent of April 23, 1924. It described Good Friday services held at San Mateo, a village located north of Mount Taylor and northeast of Grants, as witnessed by a group led by the editor of the newspaper that included several residents of Gallup and a visitor from California. They had expected to receive a "cool reception," but as it turned out one of them knew the hermano mayor as well as most of the residents of the village. Instead of being run off, they were allowed to watch from a respectful distance and even take pictures.

They arrived in time to observe "the solemn procession" as it wound its way to the morada in the valley below the village. The description continued:

A little girl bearing a strange crucifix, a figure of the Holy Virgin dressed in a black gown, led the procession. Following her was a stately Mexican woman reading prayers aloud; and behind followed a hundred women, children and brothers who fell down on their knees every fifty feet or so to pray, and singing weird hymns or chants as they walked between prayers. They marched to a cross half a mile down the winding road and returned in the same deliberate manner to the morada.

Without knowing it, they had described the via cruces, or way of the cross. It should also be noted that despite the best intentions of the writer the words "strange" and "weird" made their way into the story.

Later in the day, the visitors returned to what they described as an "important part of the ceremony" and certainly the most impressive—las tinieblas.

It was an impressive sight that greeted us there—the little adobe room, whose flickering candles struggled vainly with the vagrant shadows; the altar bright with Chromas of the Saints; the brothers who stood reverently before the altar and solemnly extinguished one candle at a time marking different steps of the ceremony; the strange audience who sang so dolefully their haunting chants, and our own little party sat in the rear, a little lost, a little frightened, but ever reverent and respectful to these sincere worshipers of a religion we know nothing of.

After midnight, the last candle was extinguished, leaving the room in complete darkness. Then, "the rattling of chains, the muffled blows, shrieks, groans and chants" filled the room, sending one female member of their party "into hysterics." But they summoned all their courage and sat through the remainder of the ceremony.

At the close of the tinieblas, the procession proceeded to the village cemetery, led by the pitero, or flute player. Seven hermanos, wearing their familiar hoods, followed. Some carried crosses on their backs, while others methodically hit themselves across the back with whips of yucca strands. After praying at the camposanto, or cemetery, they returned, "in weary procession, still whipping themselves, still chanting, still startling the peace of this serene night with...the monotonous playing of that unearthly whistle." The worshipers slowly wound their way back to the morada, bringing to an end the services of one more semana santa.

The brotherhood was not formally accepted into full union with the Church until 1927. That year, Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne issued a statement that noted,

…the Association of Hermanos de Nuestro Señor Jesus Nazareno is not a fanatical sect apart from the church, as some seem to think, but an association of Catholic men united together in love for the passion and death of our blessed Lord and Savior.

With this statement Archbishop Byrne confirmed what his successor, Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez called, "the validity of the particular spirituality of the Hermanos." It had taken a century of struggle for the hermanos to regain their position as an integral part of the religious fabric of New Mexico's society and culture