A Morada Memory: Sacred Spaces for the Penitente Brotherhood

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Above Photo: Abiquiu Morada, Circa 1820; Credit: Stephanie M. Chambers, Stephen B. Chambers Architects

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By Stephanie M. Chambers

Father Casmiro Roca was doing his best to let us down gently. “I doubt any of the Penitentes will talk to you.” It wasn’t what we were hoping to hear.

In Dallas, it had seemed like a great idea: go to Santa Fe and study the moradas – the Penitente meeting houses similar to the mysterious apricot adobe we’d photographed down the road from the Georgia O’Keeffe house in Abuquiú, New Mexico. We were hopelessly intrigued with the handcrafted meeting places built over the hundreds of years of Spanish colonization.

Locating Father Roca, the heart and soul of Chimayo pilgrimages, had been astonishing in itself. He was mid-construction, saving a decaying and almost forgotten chapel. The efforts to preserve El Santuario de Chimayo were loud and dusty… and the noonday sun was beating down on us. Our mission might be at a dead end.

Finally, the priest scribbled four names and phone numbers on a scrap of paper. “Three of these are Hermanos Mayor (high leaders); the fourth man is an art gallery owner, who has the trust of the Brotherhood. You can try. Tell them you have my blessing.”

We called and left messages for all four of them, scattered all over the High Road to Taos. Only one returned our call—the art gallery owner in Truchas, elevation 8,000 feet, population 560.

On the hill-climbing drive to the gallery, we wondered: why keep chasing this place? We talked of the divine solitude of a vast terrain with billowing cumulus clouds and soft violet mesas, but the history of the Penitentes and their buildings is transcendent. They refused to give up on the needy people on the Southwest’s loneliest frontier and neither were we.

The Brotherhood, also known as Los Hermanos, is a lay fraternity of Spanish-American Roman Catholic men active in New Mexico and southern Colorado. It is traditionally held that Franciscan missionaries brought their pious practices from Spain to New Spain in the sixteenth century. Planting and harvesting cycles coincided with commemorations of Catholic saints, celebrated on their many feast days.

In the 16 and 1700s, the remoteness of these New Mexico villages and a shortage of priests made it difficult to serve the Catholic faithful. The Brotherhood stepped up as lay ministers for the Church. Their hand-built meeting places, the moradas, emerged sometime in the late 1700s. Many of today’s moradas date to the nineteenth century, with the majority built between the 1870s and 1920s.1 The fate of the first moradas is unknown – perhaps some are encased within these later-built structures.

The Penitentes’ ceremonies always peaked during Holy Week, when services took place inside the moradas. In the mid-1800s, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Salpointe decried their ‘stations of the cross’ re-enactments, which involved carrying life-size wooden crosses barefooted over many miles of dirt roads, staged crucifixions, and bloodletting. In the mid-19th century, the Brotherhood was disassociated from the mainstream Roman Church for being too extreme a profession of faith.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that the Penitentes were again invited to participate in Catholic services, provided their pietistic rituals were conducted elsewhere. They accepted re-entry into the Church and continue their traditional practices into the present day.

We found the art gallery perched in the valley below a ridge where the two-lane blacktop turns into a dirt road. We introduced ourselves and spoke with the owner about his art and the quaint cottage that housed it. When our questions turned to the moradas, the owner began questioning us in turn.

“Why are you interested? Do you want to take photos? The Penitentes need their privacy,” he cautioned.

“The architecture is beautiful. We want to educate ourselves about it,” we assured him.

“There is a woman who maintains the Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Rosario Catholic Church,” he said finally. “She might be able to introduce you to leader of the Truchas Brotherhood.”

We left our car and walked to meet the caretaker of the antique adobe Santo Rosario church. She was elated to open the church for us – less so about giving us access to the Truchas morada. “Let me talk to Brother Isabro to see if he will meet with you.”

In the meantime, we marveled at the sanctuary of Santo Rosario, whose altar and sides are filled with antique retablos. The Stations of the Cross were vividly rendered paintings framed by hand-carved wood. We photographed the details reminiscent of small churches across Spain.

Most early Spanish settlements in New Spain had a church, a morada, a camposanto or ‘holy field’, and sites marked by calvarios – destinations for their processions and Stations of the Cross. But while the Catholic churches were centrally located, moradas were often built in isolation, particularly if Church opposition was strong.2 They might be located in a rugged canyon, near a river, or within walking distance of the village church or camposanto. A calvario (the crucified Christ), or a statue of Jesus carrying his cross, often stands nearby.

The moradas were built with the materials at hand: adobe, stone, or logs, and later with dimensional lumber. Their roofs could be flat or pitched, and they might have a bell tower. It’s also our observation that are few, if any, windows and a very long, narrow floor plan in most of their buildings. Three large crosses staked in the yard, or sometimes piled up nearby, are for use in penitential processions. But it appears to us every morada is unique, reflecting the building site, the materials, and the creative devotion of the men who built it.

Inside the morada, are usually two rooms: a chapel or oratorio, and a kitchen or meeting room where the brothers gathered for meals and conversation. Many images adorned a morada, but the principal figures of the Passion were ever-present: the Nazarene Christ; a Crucifix, often jointed to allow removal to a sepulcher on Good Friday; an image of Our Lady of Sorrows; and often one of St. John, the Disciple. There was usually a Muerte – a death figure.3

At last, the caretaker returned with words we’d dared to hope for. “You’re in luck,” she said. “Isabro wants to meet you.”

Her instructions led us past a decaying defensive adobe compound built by Spanish settlers. Brother Isabro Ortega’s “Casa de Las Nubes” (House of the Clouds) was perched on the outer edge of Truchas, where the land drops into canyon so staggering and wide open we feared we might fall in as we walked along the narrow path to his front door.

With breath held, we knocked on the turquoise door to his two-story plaster home–and were promptly ushered in to a fantasy world of hand-carved Ponderosa pine, aspen, willow, cedar, and cactus, with bright colors and detailed applications set at dizzying angles on the walls, ceilings, and floors.

A breadbox-sized wood-burning fireplace was plastered in the wall in front us, obviously well-used, but not quite finished. Niches cut into the adobe wall leading up the staircase housed handmade pottery. The plumbing and sink had yet to be installed, but the kitchen, pantry, and master bathroom had cabinets so intricately carved they could be sold in as art. Brother Ortega’s talent was playful, unconstrained, unprescribed… overhwhelming.

“Watch out for the dirt floors in the kitchen,” Isabro apologized. He had been working on the house for thirty years. We asked when it might be finished.

He thought a while. “I think maybe in 2040.”

“But, Isabro,” we said, “you’ll be almost a hundred years old.”

His eyes glistened as he laughed. “God willing.”

It was easy to like this warm, gentle man whose skillful hands were rough-hewn like stone. His serenity and wisdom were akin to a shaman. Of his work-in-progress and talent, he pointed through his open roof to the sky. “He’s up there, my inspiration. Everything I do comes from Him to my hands.”

The sixty-year old carpenter had grown up in a hundred-year-old adobe house with no bathroom or running water. His college aspirations had been deferred—too big a luxury for his father, a carpenter with nine children. So he built his dream instead.

Toward the end of our tour, he entreated us to follow him to a room “we just had to see.” In the studio, he stopped and said, “Look at my carved floor.”

We glanced at each other. Where was this floor?

Isabro saw the question on our faces, plugged in his air compressor, and blew away two inches of shavings and sawdust. A brightly painted, zigzag-carved floor appeared below our feet.

Then he opened a thick door with four inlaid cactus-wood crosses to show us his closet-sized ‘chapel.’ The carved altar, painted and detailed by the craftsman and adorned with smaller paintings and statuary, had just enough space for one person to kneel. The altar wall, grooved and painted with bright primary colors, framed an ornately carved and painted crucifix, surrounded by scenes of saints tending animals.

As we enthusiastically discussed each piece, Isabro summarized it best: “This room was finished first… to praise God. He gave me the talent.”

In villages where there was no priest in residence, the Catholic church was sometimes used for Penitente services during Holy Week. Some moradas have been sold and many abandoned, new ones are occasionally dedicated and old ones repaired. Later, moradas in the Taos area were sold and remodeled as residences for artists.3 This diversity is indicative of the contradictions and eccentricities which, combined with continued Penitente reticence,” make generalizations (about this architectural form) difficult.4

As we said our goodbyes at the door, Isabro hugged us. “Steve, I always wanted to be an architect. I was excited when the architect from Dallas wanted see my house.” We only belatedly realized that our quest had ended here – with no morada in sight.

Then Isabro pointed to a long, narrow adobe building several hundred yards away. “That’s the Truchas Morada. You’re welcome to take pictures… of the outside. I want you to come back for our Holy Week, when you can come inside and worship with us.”

It was too good to be true.

We walked around the morada and its grounds, photographing its simple shed-roofed form, its precious few windows, and its handle-less doors. We had driven right past it without ever recognizing its significance. And perhaps that is fitting: after all, moradas are a folk vernacular with elegant forms, developed outside an organized central hierarchy. They arrived out of ‘necessity’ craftsmanship, an impulse to create a place. The manner and style are similar to Outsider Artists, like Isabro, who have no formal art training, yet produce art because of their strong desire for expression. Similarly, The Brotherhood created meeting places for the shared expression of their faith, in praise of something greater than themselves.

On the drive back to Santa Fe, we reviewed our pilgrimage to this unique form of architecture: El Santuario de Chimayo, Father Roca, the art gallery, the caretaker of Santo Rosario, the House of the Clouds, and finally the Truchas morada. We heard the story of Isabro’s family’s migration from Spain and the inspiration for his life’s work, and learned of the human and physical treasures that helped us recognize what we would never have found on our own.

Our visit affirmed a belief we have about architecture: its preservation and study can sharpen our perceptions of the world, and of the people who created its structures. These buildings represent a journey—way stations for pilgrims on separate paths, in time and place, and precious windows into America’s built environment.

Bibliography below video

Taos Morada Circa 1810: National Register of Historic Places

1Weigle, 1976;

A Penitente Bibliography, Weigle, Marta; compiler: Published by Univ. of New Mexico Press (1976), Albuquerque, 1976


2Weigle, 1971:345

3Weigle, 1971

4Weigle, 1971: 277, 278

Marta Weigle, Revised 1971 dissertation, “Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest.”

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