New Mexico’s Penitente Brotherhood

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1986

Penitente is Spanish for one who does penance for their sins.

Formed in the first quarter of the 19th Century and variously known as Los Hermanos Penitentes (Penitent Brothers) and Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (The Bothers of the Pious fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene) the fraternity member’s main source of penance is self flagellation.

The members also carry heavy crosses and, mainly during Holy Week, have been known to submit to some form of crucifixion.

History of the Brotherhood

After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries in the area were pulled out and replaced by an inadequate number of parish priests. In remote villages of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, where they hardly ever saw a priest afterwards, men began to meet for prayer as well as spiritual and social support. Thus the Penitentes were born.

From early on, members of the organization took to cleanse their sins with auto flagellation.

The physical penance was then public. Another public atonement ceremony took place on Holy Week when, after a procession on Good Friday in which many carried heavy crosses and walked shoeless, some affiliates would submit to a reenactment of Christ crucifixion.

Due to the isolation of the small communities of northern New Mexico in the 19th and early 20th centuries the brotherhood developed along local groups without a central organization. A hermano mayor (elder brother) is the executive of the individual community.

Conflicts With the Church And Changes

As the Catholic Church moved away from practices considered archaic and heretical, such as physical self mortifying, tensions grew with the brotherhood.

Late in the 19th Century, the firs Archbishop of Santa Fe Jean Baptiste Lamy, and the second, Jean Baptiste Salpointe, attempted to control the Penitentes, by presenting to them the rules of the Third Order (Lay) Franciscans and asking them to follow such regulations.

The brotherhood answered by going underground and performing their ceremonies in windowless, meeting homes known as moradas (Spanish for abode). The moradas were and still are habitually built in isolated areas but on occasion can be found by the roads on the outskirts of villages and towns, their only identification being a rough, wooden cross over the front door.

Threatened with excommunication and other penalties, the Penitentes scaled down their physical acts of penance – last known public crucifixion took place in 1896 – and reconciled with the Catholic Church, obtaining official recognition in 1947.

Heirs to a tradition that began in 13th Century Spain and Italy, the Penitentes, continue to survive mainly n the northern New Mexico counties of Valencia, Sandoval, San Miguel, Rio Arriba, Mora, Colfax and Taos.