Secret flagellation societies in northern New Mexico

November 13, 2013
Morada outside Santa Fe, NM

Morada outside Santa Fe, NM

Secret religious societies are a mystery to me. “Secret” as in those with rituals and memberships they don’t disclose publicly.

For example, I really don’t “get” the Masons.

So we’re driving around the Abiquiu area near Santa Fe with friends and come across this structure.

“What is it?” I ask our friends, who are locals.

“It’s a morada and it’s used by Los Penitentes,” was the answer.

Umm. Alrighty. WTF is that?  I had to find out.

Los Penitentes means “those who do penance.” To me, penance was always a few Hail Marys and an Our Father, but in New Mexico, it means something more serious.

Men seem to love to gather in secret societies and usually they’re religion-based. Go figure.  And so that’s what Los Penitentes is: a lay confraternity of Spanish-American Roman Catholic men active in Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Sort of like a college fraternity, there are “legacies,” meaning most people become “novices” by being proposed by another Penitente and applying to an official of the “morada.”  The morada is simply the gathering place. Looks like a church, but isn’t exactly.

Of course, there’s an initiation and certain rules, regulations and, as you’d expect, rituals.  Novices actually have to pass an exam on this stuff before they can qualify for Hell Week.  Only kidding, they don’t call it Hell Week. It’s an initiation, though.

And what fun: they’re flagellants. That is, they whip themselves.  Oh, we Catholics love flagellation. Some orders of nuns and priests still practice it. (They say it’s for religious reasons, but I’m suspicious. You’ve got to do something if you’re celibate. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the author of the terrible 50 Shades trilogy that soccer moms are so giddy about is Catholic. Or maybe Catholicism features in the plot? I don’t know because I’m told that it’s terribly written and that reading it would nauseate me, especially since the author got rich on it. Besides, if I’m going to read porn, I’ll read the real thing. But I digress.)

The roots of the flagellants in Los Penitentes (also called mortification of the flesh) go back at least a thousand years to similar orders in Spain and Italy. In case you’re wondering, the obsession with flagellation refers to the Flagellation of Christ, before his crucifixion. So it really is related to Christianity.

These moradas are dotted all over the countryside in northern New Mexico and apparently they’re quite secretive.

We did get out and get a closer look, but decided to be respectful and not approach the building.  I did a little research and it appears that this one may have been built in the 1700s. It was definitely rough. If I’d had more time in Santa Fe, I’d do a bit more research. Apparently, if you show enough respect, you might be able to go to a service, even if you’re female.

Do you know anything about moradas? If so, share!  Here’s a closer view.

morada cu


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