by David Tesitor
HUERFANO- Today, known as Maundy Thursday, marks the beginning of the remembrance of the Passion of Jesus Christ, commencing with the Last Supper and ending with his death on the cross. For a local group of men known as the Penitentes, it also marks a weekend of penance, reflection and atonement.
The history of the Penitentes in Huerfano County dates back before Colorado statehood when Walsenburg was known as La Plaza de Los Leones. As the United States gained influence in the area, Spanish missionaries withdrew to the south and Hispanic Catholics were left without a priest to offer Mass or provide the sacraments. The elders of the community took it upon themselves to create and lead their own forms of worship, calling themselves Penitentes.
To house these activities, several moradas were built in the area, including those in Maes Creek, Yellowstone, Turkey Creek, Ideal Canyon, North La Veta, Farisita and Rito De Oso. The practitioners of the Penitente rites, always with utmost respect for the Catholic Church, desired to pray, sacrifice and atone for their sins, and it was this desire which led them to build the moradas and to the sometimes brutal ritual practices for which they have been criticized.
The Penitente men of Huerfano County were called La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus, The Society of Our Father Jesus. Their purpose was to take care of the local church and its possessions, to conduct religious services and to provide help for the parishioners during the absence of priests who usually came to the community only once a month. It was not until a French missionary, Bishop Machebeuf, visited the area between 1860 and 1865 that Walsenburg’s Saint Mary Catholic Church was established (1869), then known as Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. The area finally had a fulltime priest to offer the sacraments; however, the Penitentes continued their practices under the direction of the priests and provided prayers in their absence.
Participation in the Penitente rituals during Holy Week were limited to the men, but on dias de fiesta, Festive Days, everyone in the community celebrated. Those days honored the village′s patron saint or other saints: Santa Ana (St. Anne), Santiago (St. James), Dia de San Juan (St. John′s Day), and San Isidro, the farmer′s patron saint. On these summer days, the festivities began with a short procession around the church before the Mass. Various sporting events followed. Las corridas de gallo, the “rooster races,” were played when a rooster was buried in the ground with his head sticking out so the man could lean down and scoop up the fowl as he galloped by on horseback. Sporting rivalries existed between communities like Chama and Los Crestones (Redwing).
There were also baseball games, rodeo events, and cock fighting. They also played Tejas or Tiles, a game like horseshoes played with flat stones. Another common game was El Chueco, like field hockey. A similar game was called La Pelota, The Ball.
A day′s festivities always culminated with a dance in the evening. The dances were festive occasions where both Hispanic and European immigrants danced to the music of their cultures. The guitar and the violin were the most popular instruments, though inevitably an accordian could be found. The dances included polkas, waltzes and folk dances like cuadrillas, cunas, redondos and La Varsoviana, that the locals came to know as “Put Your Little Foot.”
The Penitentes were very community-oriented, yet their worship practices were kept secret inside the walls of the church. In many ways, this organization was similar to the other fraternal organizations of the time such as The Knights of Columbus and the Masons. Still, because of their methods of spirituality, the Penitentes received only the reluctant acknowledgement of the Church. By the late 1800s, the Diocese of Santa Fe distanced itself from the group after it was reported that four men had died during the services. As a result, the Penitentes remained underground for almost seventy years until their reunification with the Catholic church in 1947.
Today, some of the penitent practices have changed and members emphasize the communal aspects of their fraternity. In an historic celebration two years ago, Bishop Arthur Tafoya of the Diocese of Pueblo celebrated Mass with the Penitentes in the Morada de San Jose at Agua Ramon in the San Luis Valley. Hermanos from several moradas of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado were present.
To this day, Los Hermanos testify that their brotherhood is based on faith and mysticism. One of their members describes his commitments and duties like this: "When one becomes a hermano it is like the bond of holy matrimony … we know the role we accept and, like Christ, we take the cross and follow Him. We help the people, we help those that need help … we never say no. We see the needs of the community and we take care of them. We are the leaders of the community." Within the morada, the people stand facing each other, rather than facing a priest and an altar. This further inscribes the egalitarian sense of community among the members. When they sing, they are singing for members of the brotherhood, feeding their souls and their bodies in a veritable communion through the sharing of food.
While most Penitentes still consider themselves Catholic and partake of the sacraments during the Holy Mass, they are also Hermanos, and like the brotherhood of their fathers and their fathers before them, Holy Week is their time to reflect on their life.