Josefa de los Dolores Peña y Lillo Barbosa

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Sor Josefa de los Dolores Peña y Lillo Barbosa OP
Born Josefa de los Dolores Peña y Lillo Barbosa
12 March 1739
Santiago de Chile,
Captaincy General of Chile, Spanish Empire
Died 12 August 1823(1823-08-12) (aged 84)
Santiago de Chile,
Occupation Nun, poet, writer
Nationality Chilean
Relatives Ignacia Barbosa and Alonso de Peña y Lillo (parents)

Sister (Spanish: Sor) Josefa de los Dolores Peña y Lillo Barbosa, OP (also known as sor Josefa de los Dolores or sor Dolores Peña y Lillo, 12 March 1739 – 29 August 1823) was a Dominican nun and a self-taught writer of the Chilean Colonial period ascribed to Catholic confessional discourse produced by Indian nuns[1][2] in South American cloisters during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.[3] She cultivated the epistolary genre, but also rarely wrote poetry.[4][5]

She entered the religious life in 1751 against her parents' wishes,[6] and began her literary production in 1763 probably by own choice.[7] She is considered today "the best existing sources for the study of the Spanish language that was spoken during the Chilean Colonial period"[8] and the most reliable source for diachronic linguistics.[9] Despite her humble origins, she achieved great influence in the political world of the nascent Republican Chile, especially within government ministers during the Independence, who consulted her regularly.[10]

Alongside the autobiography of Ursula Suarez and collections of poems by Juana López and Tadea de San Joaquín, the epistolary production of Sister Josefa is included today within the first female literary records in Chile[11] that identify and express themselves "in the literate territory of the city and culture of eighteenth-century Chilean colonial society".[12] This is not to say that during that period there were no more written texts by nuns, but probably many of them are gone by authors' request.[13]


There are little biographical data available on Josefa de los Dolores,[1] most of which are available in the monastery's records where she lived, some hagiographic publications, and her own confessional handwritten letters.[14][15][16]

She was born on March 25, 1739;[n 1] and according to the clergyman and historian José Ignacio Eyzaguirre Portales, her parents were Ignacia Barbosa and Alonso Peña y Lillo, both of humble origin, who was sent her to "Beaterio Dominico de Santa Rosa de Lima"—latter named "Monasterio de Dominicas de Santa Rosa de Lima de Santiago de Chile"—at age of seven, in order to pursue music studies.[6] On December 18, 1751, aged 12, she decided to enter the convent as a postulant without her parents' permission, made a vow of perpetual chastity at 15[n 2] and on October 15, 1756, she made her formal profession as a white veil nun under the tutelage of the Prioress Maria Antonia Wandin, thereby becoming a fully recognized member of the religious community.[1][6][20]

She lived in the monastery until her death in the first half of the 1820s:[8][n 3] the historian Eyzaguirre in his 1850's "Historia eclesiástica, política y literaria de Chile, Tomo II" (Ecclesiastical, Political, and Literary History of Chile, Volume II) indicates that it was on August 29, 1823,[16] while Raïssa Kordic, the editor of her work, indicates that she died on August 27, 1822, aged 83.[1][8]

Literary work[edit]

Historical context[edit]

Nuns' writings in colonial convents were a common practice in South American subcontinent, not only because it allowed to reinforce faith or because it was done "for confessional mandate",[22][n 4] but also because it allowed "to express some concerns or dissatisfactions against the lived reality"[25] for including issues related to material and spiritual life that they had within the convent.[26]

In this context, literary works by nuns were framed and developed in Chilean convents and monasteries during the colonial period until the 19th century; these included spiritual letters, diaries, autobiographies and epistolaries.[27] Highlighted in these genres Tadea de San Joaquín, Úrsula Suárez and Josefa de los Dolores,[27][28] whose works became the best known of its kind in the South American region, along with those of Capuchin Sister Maria Jacinta from cloister of Our Lady of the Pillar in Buenos Aires,[3] possibly dating back to the 1820s.[29]

Characteristics of her work[edit]

Her literary output was based on a series of epistolary letters sent to her confessor Manuel José Álvarez López (1701–1773) of the Society of Jesus—with whom the convent remained a close connection[10]—probably in a period between March 15, 1763, and March 7, 1769, or such later date (as several letters contain no precise data).[30]

In 1923, the existence of these manuscripts was first mentioned by the historian José Toribio Medina in History. Letters of women in Chile, 1630-1885 (Spanish: Historia. Cartas de mujeres en Chile, 1630-1885),[28][31][32] but without a philological or linguistical point of view and with a short, imprecise descriptive character.[33] Their rescue, analysis and publication started in the 2000s thanks to funding from the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research, CONICYT.[33][34]


According to its literary technique, tone, content or length, her literary work is considered part of the epistolary genre,[5] and constitutes "the only so far known in Chile, of significant size, that remains whole",[35] while the subgenre is the letter.[36]

Several investigators "undearscore the letter's value as a 'technique' of confession, guided self-analysis, self-knowledge, self-development, and management of the cloistered nuns' inner life".[37] In the case of Sister Josefa de los Dolores, such writings have enabled to know their discursive production, and have alloved to include her in the group of the first female literates in Chile.[12][28]


The letters were discovered in the archives of the monastery by the researcher and theorist Raïssa Kordic, who rescued over a hundred epistles "written in tiny italics, and developed in booklets of four to eight pages"[14] that probably do not constitute all of her written work.[38]

Such correspondence was held by the Jesuit priest Manuel Álvarez until his departure from Chile in unspecified date due to the expulsion of the Jesuits;[n 5] those missives passed into the hands of the Bishop and his successors until 1861, when the Prioress of the time requested them: their content was partially censured and then were returned to the monastery.[20][30] In the early 2000s, an academic group from the University of Chile began a rescue process.[33][34]

Then in 2008, an edition containing 65 letters was published under the title of the "Epistolary of Sister Dolores Peña y Lillo (Chile, 1763–1769)" (Spanish: Epistolario de Sor Dolores Peña y Lillo (Chile, 1763–1769)) that included a critical analysis.[20]


  1. ^ According to religious and historian Imelda Cano Roldán in 1981's La mujer en el Reyno de Chile, her date of birth would be May 25, 1739,[17] although in Letter 6 sor Josefa indicated that her birtdate was March 25th.[18]
  2. ^ In Letter 6, sor Josefa mentioned that she made a vow of perpetual chastity before professing as a nun.[19]
  3. ^ The Dominican Monastery of Santa Rosa de Lima in Santiago, Chile, reached such monastic rank in 1754, and its first prioress was Sister Laura Rosa Flores de la Oliva, cousin of Rose of Lima, T.O.S.D.[21]
  4. ^ Nuns' writings were made by order of confessors[23] and were later revised with «a watchful eye»[22] in order to find «possible transgressions or to asseverate the orthodoxy of the written text».[24]
  5. ^ Most Jesuits left Chile between March 31 and April 2, 1767, however, a few not sailed to Europe for advanced age or illness, including Father Manuel Álvarez.[39]