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Los Hermanos Penitentes

by David Tesitor

Huerfano-  On April 5, 1912 the Trinidad Chronicle wrote, “The Penitentes are described by historians as a branch of Flagellants that were known in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries in different parts of Europe.  The sect is fast becoming extinct and in years to come will have died out.”  How wrong they were.

    For Christians, this Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week when Jesus rode into Jerusalem through waving palm fronds and which ended with his death upon a cross.  For the Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, also referred to as The Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father, Jesus the Nazarene, or known most simply as The Penitentes, this week has its own special meaning.  The Brotherhood literally takes on the sufferings of Christ as their own as a means to atone for their own sins, and demonstrate their faith and their appreciation for the agonies and sufferings of Christ.  This is their form of penance.

    Like most kids growing up in southern Colorado, I heard stories about the group of people who had their own rituals during Holy Week.  They called themselves Penitentes.   They would allow themselves to be scourged, walk through glass and thistles while carrying a cross and then be tied to the cross to simulate an actual crucifixion.  We were even told they actually were nailed to the cross.  If anyone was caught observing this secretive, ritual, they’d hang you or even worse.  These were the stories most of us heard growing up.

    I heard the term morada for the first time as a child.  The morada was a windowless structure where they held their rituals.  No one dared to trespass.  Since this was a secret brotherhood who did unthinkable things, most children, who are curious by nature, had to see for themselves.  Though very few bragged about what they saw, most would say, “Yea, I saw it.”

    To begin to understand these people and their presence in the area, one should understand their history.  The Penitentes began as a Catholic lay organization of men some 500 years ago in what is now New Mexico, but their original roots date back almost 1000 years to the flagellant orders of Spain.  The term flagellant, comes from the Latin word, flagellum or whip, and refers to those who scourge themselves as penance.  As the Spaniards made their way to North America and settled in the southwest, these rituals of atonement were already customary.

    The Brotherhood in New Mexico is thought to have been started by the Franciscans when the missionaries wanted to bring the Catholic faith to the native peoples of the southwest.  Without a central authority and with only missionaries to administer the Catholic sacraments, the people were forced to practice the faith on their own.  When the missionaries withdrew, many secluded areas were deprived of the benefit of a priest.  The men of the community then came together for the purpose of prayer and to offer spiritual and humanitarian aid to their communities. They would gather in moradas to offer alabados (songs of praise and worship).  Their ascetic practices included self-flagellation in private ceremonies during Lent and the processions during Holy Week along with the re-enactments of Good Friday and Jesus’ march to Calgary to be crucified.

    Over the years, it has been purported that these men actually crucified themselves.  Because of these practices, the Catholic Church disavowed themselves of the Brotherhood and distanced themselves from the Penitentes officially in the mid-1800s. 

    Nevertheless the Penitentes continued to flourish.  It would not be until 1947 that the Catholic Church recognized the practices of the Penitentes as a lay organization of men doing community good and allowed them back as members of the Catholic Church. The Rev. Archbishop of Santa Fe, Edwin Byrne, submitted a press release that simply concluded, “if the Brethren proceed with moderation and privately and under our supervision, meanwhile giving a good example to all us Catholics and citizens, they have our blessing and protection.” While Byrne’s statement legitimized and recognized the Brotherhood, the actual practices of the Brotherhood had never changed and in some areas, remain unchanged to this day.

    Los Hermanos will be continued next week to consider the local influence of the Brotherhood and to explain how this secretive society is no different than other currently practicing fraternal societies.