Penitentes (New Mexico)

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Pentitetes "crucifying" one of their own in a ritual in an undisclosed New Mexico location, 1888
Regions with significant populations
Northern and Central New Mexico and southern Colorado

Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Spanish: 'The Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene'), also known as Los Penitentes, Los Hermanos, the Brotherhood of our Father Jesus of Nazareth and the Penitente Brotherhood, is a lay confraternity of Spanish-American Catholic men active in Northern and Central New Mexico and southern Colorado. They maintain religious meeting buildings, which are not formal churches, called moradas.


Although there is great variability regarding candidacy for Brotherhood membership, usually novices come from Penitente families and ideally, only those of known background and conviction are chosen to undergo the initiation. New candidates express their desire for novitiate status by application to the Hermano Mayor, the secretary, or some other official of the morada of intention. After a thorough investigation of the petitioner's life and motives, he receives elaborate instruction in the Brotherhood's regulations and rituals. If he passes an examination on this material, he is allowed to present himself, together with a sponsor, at the morada door for the actual rite of initiation. Aspirants might apply for admission to the Brotherhood after mature thought, as a matter of course, or as the result of a vow or promesa (religious promise). It is also thought that the eldest son of a Penitente father "automatically" joined the Brotherhood at the age of eighteen to honor and obey his parents.


The Brotherhood began in the early 19th century. Following Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, Church authorities in Mexico withdrew the Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries from its provinces, replacing them with secular priests. They failed, however, to replace the missionaries with an equal number of priests, depriving many secluded communities of a resident clergyman. Accordingly, many of those small communities could expect only a once-yearly visit from a parish priest.

The men in those communities eventually came together in the absence of a priest and dedicated themselves to the purpose of providing mutual aid, community charity and to memorialize the spirit of the penance and the Passion of Christ. They gathered in meeting houses known as moradas. Los Penitentes were perhaps best known for their songs of worship, called alabados, and for their ascetic practices, which included self-flagellation in private ceremonies during Lent, and processions during Holy Week which ended with the reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday.

Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and his successor, Jean Baptiste Salpointe, unsuccessfully attempted to suppress the brotherhood in the latter part of the 19th century as a part of the "Americanization" of the Church in New Mexico, driving its membership underground, with some seeking refuge in Penitente Canyon. For this reason, Los Penitentes are sometimes described as a “secret society.”

The modern embodiment of the Brotherhood began in the middle of the 20th century with the reconciliation between the Brotherhood and the Church. In June 1946, Miguel Archibeque began his first term as the Brotherhood's first Hermano Supremo Arzobispal (Archiepiscopal Supreme Brother). His first term lasted 7 years and it was during this term in January 1947 that the Brotherhood was officially recognized and sanctioned as an organization by Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne. By this time, membership had declined markedly since the turn of the century, but the Brotherhood continued to perform a modified form of religious rituals and to pursue its commitment to acts of community charity. In June 1953, Miguel Archibeque was replaced by Roman Aranda of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Aranda served for one year and was replaced by Archibeque in June 1954. Archibeque served the Brotherhood until 1960 when he was replaced by the third Hermano Supremo Arzobispal, M. Santos Melendez, of Mora, New Mexico, who continues to serve in this capacity.


Willa Cather's 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop included references and scenes of the Penitentes and their ritual.[1]

In the novel Brave New World, the Penitentes are shown in a video at a school, which causes the class to laugh at their rituals.[2] They are also compared to savages in the 1946 foreword by Aldous Huxley.[3]

The 1936 roadshow exploitation film Lash of the Penitentes combines old footage of the Penitente's ritual flagellation with new footage about a murder.[4][5]

The novel Dayspring (1945) by Harry Sylvester depicts an anthropologist who studies the Penitentes and eventually joins them.[6]

Fray Angelico Chavez titled his book on New Mexico My Penitente Land.

Percival Everett’s novel The Body of Martin Aguilera (1997) features Penitente characters and rituals as part of a murder mystery set in northern New Mexico. Everett also utilizes Penitente characters for his short story "Warm and Nicely Buried" from his collection Damned If I Do (2004).

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel The Five Wounds (2022) takes place in New Mexico and heavily features Penitente characters and rituals.

In the 1968 Richard Bradford (novelist)) novel Red Sky at Morning set during World War II, he describes a morada: "...little wooden building with a cross on the roof. It looked very old and weathered, with no windows and a chain and padlock on the door." This makes the protagonist question whether the owner is a Penitente, whom he describes thus: "The Penitentes were a sort of outlaw branch of the Catholics who took everything very seriously, especially Good Friday. They'd pick a member of the church to play Jesus every year. He'd carry a cross while his friends all whipped him with rawhide and cactus and then they'd crucify him. In recent years they just tied him to a cross and left him all day in the sun. A hundred years ago they did the job right, with nails."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Notes on Death Comes for the Archbishop". Retrieved 5 October 2020.
  2. ^ Huxley, Aldous (1932). Brave New World. Chatto&Windus. pp. 132–133.
  3. ^ Huxley, Aldous (1946). Brave New World. pp. 7–14.
  4. ^ "THE LASH OF THE PENITENTES | BAMPFA". Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  5. ^ "The Lash of the Penitentes/Fun Facts - The Grindhouse Cinema Database". Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  6. ^ "Article | First Things". Archived from the original on December 31, 2012. Retrieved September 26, 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • De Aragon, Ray John. The Penitentes of New Mexico (Sunstone Press, 2006).
  • Aranda, Charles (1974) The Penitente Papers.
  • Carroll, Michael P. The Penitente Brotherhood: Patriarchy and Hispano-Catholicism in New Mexico (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).
  • Chavez, Fray Angelico. "The Penitentes of New Mexico." New Mexico Historical Review 29.2 (1954): 97.
  • Espinosa, J. Manuel. "The origin of the penitentes of New Mexico: separating fact from fiction." Catholic historical review 79#3 (1993): 454-477. in JSTOR
  • Weigle, Marta. Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood (2007).

External links[edit]