Where padres dwelled

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New Mexico’s old Spanish missions stand today as solemn monuments to Spain’s enduring imprint upon the arid lands of the Southwest. All are surrounded by an aura of romance that is tempered by recollection of past tragedies, which from time to time befell the Franciscan friars serving in them. A respectable number of books have appeared over the years describing the history and architecture of these proud, weathered missions. One part of the story seldom receives more than passing mention and it deals with the conventos, the living quarters of the clergy with their workrooms, usually attached to the church. Originally, the term convento was applied to a place in which either men or women of a religious order lived. In modern times, however, the word usually refers only to the residence of nuns, while monks are said to inhabit a monastery.

In the 17th century, prior to the Pueblo Revolt, the Franciscan churches tended to be large, imposing structures, designed to impress, even awe, the Native Americans. The sizeable conventos, grafted on the outside wall, completed the picture of a massive, overpowering building, just what the friars were aiming for. The layout of a convento was similar in most of the pueblo missions. Visitors were admitted through a porter’s lodge into a large interior patio, known in New Mexico as a placita. Around it could be found rooms for various purposes: cells for friars containing a few sticks of furniture, a kitchen, storerooms and classrooms. In those, native students received religious instruction and training in carpentry, along with other European trades.

In the earliest days, all of the mission conventos owned an assortment of musical instruments, even beyond the standard church pump organ. In 1672 at Chilili and Tajique pueblos east of the Monzano Mountains, the conventos contained music rooms where village youths learned to play “sets of trumpets, flageolets, and all instruments with which the religious feasts were celebrated with the greatest harmony of voices and instruments.”

Curiously, we find only stray mention of latrines located within the conventos, even though all had them. The one at Tajique Pueblo in 1663 was reported to be used by both friars and pueblo people. At Picuris, in 1747, a report on its convento referred to “an upper room for privies, roofed, with its two-seat box.”

At Acoma, the latrine had been placed in a corner of the convento’s open courtyard and was said, in 1776, to be “a small recess for certain necessary business.” This subject is of interest because the method of human waste disposal seldom gets attention in colonial documents.

In the heyday of the missions, their conventos must have been beehives of activity, since the Franciscans were involved in most aspects of village life. Unfortunately, none of the padres left even a skeleton of their daily routine. We do have a glimmer, however, of one outside function by which the conventos offered themselves as a hostelery for travelers. That was significant in a land like New Mexico, virtually devoid of inns or hotels.

An example can be seen in a letter from the chaplain of the convento at Pecos Pueblo, by Fray Juan de Toledo. In writing to the governor at Santa Fe, he reported, on Aug. 6, 1752, that two French merchants from the Mississippi Valley leading nine horses packed with trade goods had arrived and “were lodged here.”

The Frenchmen’s pleasant stay in the convento proved short. The governor ordered them arrested and their goods seized, since according to official policy foreigners were prohibited from trading in Spanish territory. The grand and well-furnished conventos erected during the early mission period were all destroyed in the mayhem of the catastrophic 1680 Pueblo Revolt. New conventos constructed after the reconquest were more modest in size.

Nowadays, the majority of pueblo missions no longer have a standing convento. A spectacular exception can be seen at Acoma, “the Sky City.” Its deteriorating convento remained intact in the 1890s and underwent rehabilitation, along with the church, in the early 20th century. The complex is magnificently preserved at present.