Semana Santa (Holy Week) is historically the most important time of the year for the Penitentes. These men who honored Jesus Christ and his suffering reenacted the Crucifixion on Good Friday each year; one member of the group would be bound to a cross, although this practice was discontinued many years ago.
The Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus el Nazareno, also known as Los Hermanos Penitentes or just the Penitentes, was an organization of Catholic lay brothers. The Penitentes, with a strong devotion to Christ, practiced acts of piety: including mortification, flagellation and cross bearing. They atoned for their own sins and those of mankind. They worshiped and still do, in small, unsanctified chapels, called moradas, often located adjacent to cemeteries. You’ll find a life sized statue of Christ carrying a Cross outside moradas still active today.
The order, perhaps going back as much as 400 years, flourished in isolated mountain communities in both Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Some believe that the order began in the 19th century after Mexico‘s 1821 independence from Spain when many clergy left the New World to return to the old. This may just be the period they gained power and came to prominence during a time when the Catholic Church was not active in the region.. In the absence of official clergy, these devoted men provided for the spiritual needs of their somewhat isolated communities.
Things began to change after New Mexico became a United States territory in 1846. In 1850, the Catholic Church established a new diocese in Santa Fe (previously the diocesan seat had been in Durango, Mexico). When New Mexico became a United States territory, the groups’ practices fell into disfavor. Reportedly, Archbishop Lamy (the man portrayed in Willa Cather’s classic novel Death Comes for the Archbishop) who arrived to head the new Santa Fe Diocese in 1851 did not want to outlaw them, but he required that they practice in secret. His successor, Archbishop Salpointe, had even less tolerance and ordered the dissolution of the Brotherhood. They flourished underground many years.
They were brought back into the fold in 1947. While somewhat accepted by the Catholic Church today, they continue to practice in secret. Like many sects in contemporary times membership is decreasing. When the current generation of Penitentes passes, the sect may cease to exist. The group still observes Good Friday. In an effort to be more transparent in a new day and age, and perhaps attract new membership, the Penitentes now offer Good Friday service to the general public.
Author’s note: Robert Cafazzo, owner of the Two Graces Gallery in Ranchos de Taos, gave invaluable editorial input to this post. When asked about being an outsider at the Good Friday rites, he advised: “All are invited to join and participate in the services at the moradas on Good Friday in Ranchos de Taos. If you are in doubt about how to act or what to do, simply and humbly ask the person next to you or in front of you for some guidance. As in: “I’m not quite certain how to participate would you mind if I follow along with you?” What is frowned upon is people attending just to be onlookers and not partake in the wonder of the moment, (although if you have not partaken in confession you should never follow the other Church goers to receive communion of the Host & Wine). Whether you follow any Religious Faith or not, you should be able and willing to attend this religious event with a bit of respectful humility.” Read Cafazzo’s post on Good Friday in Ranchos de Taos.