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Cuban Convents in the Age of Enlightened Reform, 1761–1807$

John J. Clune Jr.

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813032177

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813032177.001.0001

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Orthodox Convent Reform and Progressive Social Measures

Orthodox Convent Reform and Progressive Social Measures


(p.62) 5 Orthodox Convent Reform and Progressive Social Measures
Cuban Convents in the Age of Enlightened Reform, 1761–1807

John J. Clune

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyzes the attempt to make-over the contemplative female religious communities or convents of Havana-Santa Clara, Santa Catalina, and Santa Teresa in Cuba and turn them into institutions of female education. It explains that despite the reestablishment of the communal regimen the nuns continued to reject the common-life. The chapter discusses the slow progress of common-life reform at Santa Clara, the failure to stem the tide to secular admission at Santa Clara, and the solicitation of a papal bull to make new world convents sites of female education.

Keywords:   convent reforms, educational institutions, Cuba, common-life reforms, nuns, papal bull

The common life, reestablished at Santa Clara on May 1, 1783, was assured continuity in the triennial convent elections of June 7. Afterward, the Council of the Indies could take comfort in knowing that at the helm of the Poor Clare community were officers who were supportive of the common life. Optimism about a peaceful transition to the communal regimen quickly diminished, however, when letters from ex-superiors of Santa Clara began trickling into Madrid. In August of 1783, the Council of the Indies received a distressing letter from the former abbess of the convent, Ana Alberja. Six months later, in February 1784, the tribunal received a letter from the ex-definidoras of the community who, like the abbess, condemned all that had transpired at Santa Clara in the name of reform. Although the Council of the Indies dismissed the clamoring of the superiors as the inevitable consequence of the reforms, the tribunal revisited their complaints a dozen years later in 1796.

This period, 1784–1796, during which the common life took root at Santa Clara, bridged the peaceful, prosperous years of Charles III and José de Gálvez and the war-torn and tumultuous years of Charles IV and Manuel Godoy (1792–1808). By the time Godoy, the capricious royal favorite and reputed lover of the queen, emerged as the most powerful voice at court, the Gálvez family was virtually gone from the scene. The great reformer José de Gálvez died in 1787, preceded in death by his brother, Matías (captain general of Guatemala, 1777; viceroy of Mexico, 1783–1784), in 1784 and by his (p.63) nephew, Bernardo (governor of Louisiana, 1777–1782; briefly governor and captain general of Cuba, 1784; and viceroy of Mexico, 1785–1796) in 1786. Moreover, the ministry of the Indies, held by José de Gálvez for a decade, was abolished upon his death. However, the Council of the Indies continued to be consulted on policy decisions and persisted in its conduct of convent reform. Just as José de Gálvez's death in 1787 and Charles III's a year later did not mark the end of the Bourbon Reform program, changes in Madrid did little to relieve pressures on the Havana Clares to adopt the common life. The accommodation identified in other areas of the reform program in Cuba was not seen in convent reform in Havana.1

In Cuba, Luis de Las Casas (1790–1796) took over the reins of government. Some of the measures enacted by the new governor and captain general were positive: he oversaw the establishment of a newspaper, the Papel Periódico de la Habana, a twice-weekly publication, and founded the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País in the city to promote sugar production. However, in the excessive favor Las Casas showed to sugar magnates (as with regard to the selling of militia commissions), his reductions in the number of young creoles in regular units, and his attacks on military fueros, the new governor proved to be a lightning rod. A great many Cuban creoles chafed under Las Casas's antagonistic policies.2 As they watched a slave rebellion engulf the island of Haiti, slave uprisings occur on their own island, and society around them darken, they secured their status by sheltering their unmarried daughters at convents and enhanced the eligibility of the daughters being groomed for marriage through a convent education.

In the religious realm, the long and peaceful tenure of José de Echevarría (1770–1788) came to an end with his appointment as bishop of Puebla. This erudite Cuban-born cleric had cultivated good relations with civil officials. At the same time, the Diocese of Santiago de Cuba was being shorn of its western and northern components, which fell under the jurisdiction of the new Diocese of San Cristóbal de Habana. In reality, the division only legislated what long had been the custom: that the bishop lived in Havana. Echevarría's replacement, Felipe Josef Trespalacios y Verdeja (1788–1799) was Spanish born and educated in Salamanca. Known for his bad eyesight, an equally bad temper, and a tendency to micromanage, the new bishop butted heads with civil officials over the role of the church in civil society.3

In 1792, Trespalacios engaged in a bitter dispute with Luis de Las Casas over the issue of church versus state jurisdiction, more specifically over the (p.64) right of the episcopate to censor the Papel Periódico, published by the Sociedad Patriótica. The confrontation over articles the bishop found offensive devolved into a nasty exchange in which the governor speculated on the bishop's mental capacity and maneuvered to have the ecclesiastical official replaced by the bishop of Louisiana and the Floridas, Luis de Peñalver.4 The dispute between the two was symptomatic of the turmoil in Havana society during the tenure of Las Casas. Living in the heart of a tumultuous society, one nun after another embraced the common life. Infighting among the nuns continued, but that dissipated over time. In their acceptance rather than rejection of the communal regimen, the Clares were the exception to the rule in the Spanish Empire.

Protests Against the Common Life

Nuns continued to reject the common life almost everywhere else, including at the Dominican convent of Santa Catalina of Arequipa, Peru. In 1786, there were 116 nuns, novices, and lay sisters and a good number of protégés and retirees living at the Peruvian convent. The nuns spent their private incomes on elaborate rituals, ornamental habits, food, and personal items.5 Bishop Miguel de Pamplona used the occasions of an Indian revolt and earthquake to persuade the nuns of his diocese to adopt the common life and to limit the number of novices, servants, and slaves so as to reduce the expenses of the convent to that which communal resources could support. He discouraged the use of private incomes and insisted that the nuns eat in the common refectory. In the end, Pamplona managed to persuade only eight of the sixty-four black-veiled nuns of Santa Catalina to adopt the common life. He subsequently resigned his post.6

In 1788, Bishop Pedro José Chávez de la Rosa stepped up efforts to reform Santa Catalina of Arequipa and stirred up staunch opposition in the process. Chávez pressed the nuns to bring the population of the community in line with what rents could support and to embrace the common life. He also continued to pressure the nuns to spurn elaborate ceremonies. The nuns persisted in their opposition to the bishop's efforts, arguing that they were bound only by the customs and regulations that were in place at the time they took their vows. In their thinking, the custom of private life trumped the vow of poverty. In retaliation, Chávez threatened the nuns with excommunication and suppressed communal elections. Imposing an appointed (p.65) “presidenta” (who had adopted the common life) in the place of the prioress, the bishop stirred deep resentment in the community. Those who opposed the reforms were denied active and passive voice in the affairs of the community and were excommunicated for their actions. When Bishop Chávez resigned, the Dominican nuns simply elected a prioress who was supportive of their customs, private incomes, and comfortable lifestyles.7 By contrast, Chávez's Cuban counterpart, Bishop José de Echevarría, praised the application of the 1774 cedula at Santa Clara as an “authentic testament to the crown's wisdom, prudence, justice, and fairness,” and a “monument of the rational use of sovereign power.” He proclaimed the common life off to a “good start” in the Clarist community.8

Echevarría's optimism was tempered, however, in early August with news of Ana Alberja's letter in council chambers. Written in May 1783, the letter detailed how Manuel Estéves's innovations had violated the benign spirit of the 1782 decree that ordered the application of the 1774 cedula at Santa Clara. The former abbess charged that the vicar provincial had waged war against her personally, going so far as to remove her from her cell as well as her office. Moreover, she claimed that Estéves had stirred up internecine battles in the community, leaving the Clares “without the unity that [they] should have had as sisters.” While conceding that the Carmelite and Dominican nuns of the city practiced a more perfect form of the common life than her Clarist sisters did, Alberja pointed out that the friars who were imposing the regimen upon the nuns did not practice it themselves.9

The situation depicted by Ana Alberja was neither optimal nor desired, but her clamoring for relief did not evoke a sympathetic response from the Council of the Indies. The council did not question the authenticity of the former abbess's charges, for it already had in its possession letters corroborating them. Nonetheless, it dismissed the situation at Santa Clara as the inevitable consequence of reestablishing the common life under the lenient guidelines of the May 1774 cedula. The fiscal of the Council of the Indies even suggested that the nuns should expect to suffer “some extortion and violence” in the reestablishment of the common life and judged it best to “conceal for now… any inconvenience or restlessness, having no other means to complete the king's will.” The council therefore took no action in response to Alberja's charges.10

Within six months another disturbing letter arrived in the council's chambers, this from the members of Alberja's cabinet. Writing on June 14, 1783, (p.66) the ex-definidoras complained that the officers elected in the recent elections were not merited on the traditional qualifications of accomplishment (in a lower-level convent office), age, or experience. They asked that suffrage and office-holding rights be restored to those in private life. The mature nuns saw the young officeholders as usurpers of authority that was rightfully theirs. Many among the seventy-six in private life were more qualified in terms of accomplishment, age, experience, and character to hold office, argued the nuns. These former advisors of the abbess borrowed their solution from that used to diminish strife between creoles and Spanish-born peninsulares in male communities of the empire, proposing to rotate office between those in the common life and those in private life until attrition depleted the ranks of the latter.11 It soon became apparent, however, that a restoration of suffrage and office-holding rights to the Clares in private life would not be forthcoming.

The obstinacy expressed by the former abbess and her counselors must be understood in the context of the community's membership. The meek and humble—in addition to orphans and those without dowries—generally looked to one of the other two convents of the city, either Santa Catalina or Santa Teresa. A good example of the type of aspirants Santa Teresa attracted was Juana López González, the orphaned daughter of Juan López, an officer in the cavalry, and Catarina González. In the summer of 1776, with only a partial dowry of one thousand pesos, Juana sought admission to Santa Teresa. This was not her first attempt to enter the convent. For fifteen years, from the age of twelve to the age of twenty-seven, she had been petitioning the Carmelite nuns. Despite appeals to Madrid, she had been denied admission each time on the basis that there was no vacancy (the Carmelite constitution allowed for the admission of a novice only upon the death of a nun). Juana María charged that there had been vacancies, but they always went to candidates from more powerful families. Slight of build and advanced in age for one entering the novitiate, Juana María had lost two sisters in addition to her parents. Blaming the Carmelite community and its patrons for frustrating her vocation to become a nun, Juana María sought the intervention of the bishop, José de Echevarría.12

The prioress of Santa Teresa, María Teresa de San Joseph, explained to the bishop that the community had opposed the woman's petition in the belief that her admission would threaten religious observance at the convent. A medical doctor, Joseph Barrios, had confirmed that Juana María suffered (p.67) from intestinal problems, which the prioress argued were incompatible with Carmelite routines of abstinence and fasting. Moreover the nuns, barred from having personal servants, served one another and cared for the aged and infirm among them, making it imperative that aspirants be in sound health as well as of a strong stomach.13 The prioress suggested that Juana María should serve God at home and drop her aspirations to become a Carmelite. The Council of the Indies agreed with the prioress, and Juana María was denied admission.14 In truth, Santa Teresa already had various orphans who had entered with only partial dowries, placing a financial strain on the community. Santa Clara, by contrast, had relatively few orphans. Rather, it attracted the strong-willed, status-conscious, independent, and often out-spoken daughters of the leading families of the city.

Common Life Slowly Takes Root at Santa Clara

Common-life reforms made slow progress at Santa Clara, as the nuns, their families, and even officials in Madrid continued old practices that undermined the effort to restore monastic discipline. The reforms did progress, however. By the end of 1783, twenty-eight Clares had embraced the common life. By 1787, fifty had adopted the regimen, including a former abbess, María Manso de Contreras Hernández (abbess, 1765–1768), who had adamantly opposed the common life at its introduction.15 The growing number of Clares living the common life had its consequences, however. By 1787, Santa Clara was reeling financially and socially from the reforms, as the discord stemming from restrictions on political participation continued to divide the community.

Manuel María Trujillo, who succeeded Manuel de la Vega as commissary general of the Indies, had considerable experience with the difficulties of reestablishing the common life in his capacity as provincial of the Franciscan province of Granada, Spain, a province in which there were twenty-seven female communities under Franciscan jurisdiction. There, Franciscan provincials attempted to reestablish the common life on three separate occasions. On each occasion the regimen failed to take root. As a result of a 1772 order, the female communities of the province poured money into renovating the kitchens and refectories in their convents and indebted themselves in the process. Trujillo's predecessor in the office of provincial returned eleven communities to private life. Trujillo himself, upon taking office in (p.68) the Granada province, returned the remaining sixteen to the private regimen.16

Although a firm believer in the spiritual value of the common life, Trujillo nonetheless thought it a feasible regimen only if a community had adhered to the lifestyle since its founding, since the remote past, or at least since the profession of the current membership. He judged it impractical in those convents founded in private life, for those in which private life had long been the custom, or for those in which rents were insufficient to support nuns living communally.17

Trujillo's solution for Santa Clara was threefold. First, he proposed reducing the religious population to seventy (fifty nuns of the black veil and twenty lay sisters); until that reduction could be realized, he suggested limiting the admission of novices to one for every five nuns who died. Such a policy, Trujillo believed, would ensure an adequate number of nuns to fill the convent's many offices, particularly the more rigorous ones that required strength and agility. Second, he recommended that “a large portion of the black and mulata servants” be expelled, deeming their presence among the nuns “detrimental to the routine and even the honor of the convent” and blaming this underclass for cultivating a negative image of the Poor Clares in Havana society. He suggested that these individuals, “not subject to the cloistered life, go out into the world when they feel like it… [where] they exaggerate the slightest imperfections of the nuns and publicize their defects.”18

Finally, the commissary general proposed reintegrating that portion of the community still clinging to the custom of private life. The older, merited nuns had continued to look upon the younger officeholders as usurpers of the honor and authority that were rightfully theirs, which made for a tense and resentful situation. Trujillo recommended that full suffrage and office-holding rights be restored to those in private life, believing that such a gesture would restore a degree of peace to the cloister and provide the community with much-needed leadership.19

With monthly allotments running three months behind in 1788, a meeting of the abbess, her council, the mayordomo, and the Franciscan provincial in Havana resulted in an agreement to reduce the number of nuns at Santa Clara to sixty-five, a number that matched the number of cells at the convent and was more in line with what rents could support. There was a distinct sociopolitical windfall to this policy as well: if the number of nuns (p.69) did not exceed the number of cells, the disputes that frequently arose from the competition for a deceased nun's cell would evaporate.20

Failure to Stem the Tide of Secular Admissions at Santa Clara

Despite the moratorium on the admission of new novices at Santa Clara, Franciscan prelates continued to admit secular females with little objection. Until 1793, Commissary General Trujillo regularly conceded licenses for secular females to enter the Clarist community. He recognized some practical concerns but no ecclesiastical impediments to the admission of secular females. His requirements for admission were straightforward: that there be a vacancy in the secular quarters; that no personal servant accompany a secular female into the cloister; that the secular female not petition to enter the novitiate in supernumerary status; and that she have a relative at the convent or be faced with poor prospects for a life outside the convent's walls.

An important factor in the eyes of prelates and royal officials alike was the circumstances under which a female sought secular admission. A female in particularly dire circumstances might arouse the sympathy of a prelate. On the occasion that she did not, royal officials were apt to override the prelate's decision and admit the aspirant, as they did in 1788 with Cecilia Moya, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Diego Miguel Moya, honorary alderman of the Audiencia de Guatemala and counsel general of the Intendancy of Havana.21

After many years of trying unsuccessfully to gain admission to Santa Clara, Cecilia appealed to the crown in May 1788. Her prospects for admission had recently grown worse as a result of restrictions on admissions at the convent. Further compromising her prospects for a religious vocation was her age: at seventeen, she was too old to enter Santa Clara as a protégé—protégés entered between the ages of seven and twelve, preferably before the age of ten—and she should have entered the novitiate the previous year.22

Cecilia had the support of the majority of Clares, but Commissary General Trujillo opposed her admission on the grounds that it would swell Santa Clara's population and threaten the common life there.23 In light of Cecilia's age and circumstances, however, the Council of the Indies approved her admission at the convent, and she subsequently took the habit.24 Her profession, (p.70) however, subsequently was declared null and void and she was forced to leave the convent.25 María Zequeira was even less fortunate.

In 1788, Juan de Zequeira y Palma petitioned Madrid to admit his daughter María Zequeira as a protégé at Santa Clara. The petition included an allowance of a personal servant and the right of María to accede to the novitiate as a supernumerary nun at age sixteen, both of which Commissary General Trujillo opposed.26 Trujillo urged the Council of the Indies to reject the petition on the grounds that it would compromise the effort to reduce the convent's population to sixty-five and only worsen the financial situation of the community. The council sided with the commissary general on this occasion, reasoning that the aspirant's age and circumstances did not warrant an exception.27

Another Zequeira was allowed to enter Santa Clara a few months later as a retiree. In July 1789, Rafaela de Zequeira, the daughter of the Conde de Lagunillas (Felipe José Antonio de Zequeira), passed through the convent's doors. The conde's motivation for placing his daughter in the convent was no secret: he wanted to prevent her from marrying Julián Campos, a doctor in the royal army with whom he had feuded and whom he accused of being a mulatto.28 Cuban creoles like the Conde de Lagunillas were hardly unique in their discriminatory practices. Ann Twinam demonstrates that in the last decades of the eighteenth century, discrimination was on the rise everywhere. Nonetheless, Cuban creoles seemed particularly prejudiced. To a greater degree than their Mexican or Peruvian counterparts, Cubans tended to think of themselves as Spanish and, therefore, sought to insulate themselves from a society that was darkening around them (a 1792 census marked a new age, as for the first time a majority of Cubans were slaves or free blacks/mulattos).29

Royal pragmatics on marriage issued in Spain in 1776 and Spanish America in 1778 promoted racial and social equality by giving parents and royal officials more say on whom a child could marry.30 Although within his rights to prevent his daughter from marrying a man he deemed unworthy on the basis of racial mixture, the conde was in conflict with Tridentine doctrine that prevented him from forcing her into the convent: “The holy Council anathemizes each and all persons… who shall, except in cases permitted by law, in any way force any virgin or widow, or any other woman whatsoever, to enter a monastery against her will, or to take the habit or to make profession.”31 The conde was manipulating the situation before him in (p.71) an effort to ensure the status of his offspring and the honor of his family.32 As the charge of being a mulatto was an all-too-common slur in Cuba, its validity is questionable; but it had served its purpose. Rather than marrying Julián Campos, Rafaela entered the cloister with the option of taking the habit at the first vacancy in the novitiate. In August 1792, however, Bishop of Havana José de Trespalacios reported that “ruined health” prevented the young woman from taking her vows and petitioned the crown to allow her to remain at the convent as a retiree, occupying one of the cells set aside for women of that status.33 The presence of Rafaela Zequeira in Santa Clara reflects eighteenth-century society's preoccupation with social status, racial purity, and family honor. It also suggests the degree to which the Bourbon state was complicit in upholding the patriarchal system in which a female was under her father's control until age twenty-five.

María Zequeira was refused the courtesy granted to Rafaela Zequeira, but other secular females entered Santa Clara under Commissary General Manuel Trujillo's watch. These included María Valdespino, Juana Perdomo, and Gertrudis de Zayas. While all three requested the benefit of a personal servant in their petitions, none asked to accede to the novitiate in supernumerary status. And all three demonstrated either the presence of one or more relatives at the convent or poor prospects for a future outside the cloister or both.34 María Valdespino had an aunt who was a professed nun at Santa Clara.35 Juana Perdomo did not have a relative in the Clarist community but found herself in particularly dire circumstances. A daughter of the military community whose father was deceased, Juana found refuge in the cloister.36 She had entered Santa Clara as a servant, lacking the dowry to become a nun. Fearing that she would be turned out of the convent by reforms designed to replace personal servants with lay sisters, Juana sought refuge in the non-servant, secular class as a retiree. With pensions for military spouses and children under siege by Governor Luis de Las Casas, there was little security in civil society. Given a widowed mother who was destitute, removal from the cloister would “subject her to a terrible death,” she argued.37 Gertrudis de Zayas benefited from having both a relative at the convent and bleak prospects for an education in the secular world. She had an abundance of female siblings and an aunt who was a professed nun at Santa Clara. In his petition, Antonio de Zayas-Bazán lamented that he did not have the resources to educate Gertrudis and his four other daughters “with the decency corresponding to their illustrious birth.”38

(p.72) Commissary General Manuel Trujillo approved the petitions of Valdespino and Juana Perdomo.39 He deferred any decision on Gertrud's de Zayas's petition because her age was not given in the petition under which she sought admission.40 If a girl had not yet reached age seven, a papal license was necessary for her to enter a cloister; that of the commissary general would not suffice. If a girl was between the ages of seven and twelve, a license of the commissary general in Madrid gained her admission to the convent as a protégé. At age twelve, a license from the local provincial sufficed for a girl to remain at the convent. At age sixteen, she was expected to enter the novitiate. After two years as a novice and a license from the provincial, she could take the habit. Each step also required the approval of the community.41 The above-mentioned cases demonstrate that Franciscan prelates to the 1790s recognized no ecclesiastical impediments, only the obstacle of age, to the admission of secular females, in particular protégés, at Santa Clara.

Franciscan prelates traditionally had acquiesced, albeit somewhat reluctantly, in royal efforts to accommodate Havana's elite, regularly conceding licenses for eligible young girls to enter the convent as protégés. In 1793, however, this acquiescence came to an abrupt end when a Franciscan prelate refused to admit a young habanera at Santa Clara, citing restrictions in ecclesiastical law and recent efforts of the Clarist community to reduce its population. In June 1793, Commissary General Juan de Troya breached a long-smoldering issue: the right of prelates to concede licenses for young girls to enter New World convents. On that point Troya objected to the admission of María Garrido y Cabello, the orphaned ten-year-old daughter of Josef Garrido and Bernarda Cabello, a military family. In rejecting Garrido y Cabello's petition to enter Santa Clara, the commissary general argued that ecclesiastical law did not permit prelates to admit young girls to New World convents, however much this had been the custom of the female communities and the practice of his predecessors.42 The commissary general in Madrid proved to be no more accommodating than the governor in Havana. Policies originating in the center and being enforced in the colony were limiting opportunities open to young females. With their families' privileges and pensions under attack in civil society and obstacles blocking their admission to convents, many girls and young women no doubt felt their futures threatened.

Of concern to Commissary General Troya were the mid-eighteenth-century bulls of Pope Benedict XIV, dated June 5, 1741, January 3, 1742, and (p.73) January 24, 1747. These papal bulls prohibited any secular female from entering a convent without a papal license and just cause, the latter of which could only be determined by a bishop or an archbishop, not by a regular prelate. Orders of a predecessor in the commissariat, Matías de Velasco, also restricted the prelate's authority to admit secular females. In orders of February 16, 1753, and September 16, 1760, Commissary General Velasco prohibited the admission of secular females to Franciscan convents without a papal license or, in an apparent concession to Madrid, “of whomever might have the legitimate authority.” Finally, chapter 13 of the Clarist constitutions prohibited the admission of secular females without papal approval. Reflecting a change of policy, the Council of the Indies acknowledged the ecclesiastical impediments to the admission of secular women in convents as cited by Commissary General Troya. With a sense of urgency born out of the frequency with which elites petitioned to have their daughters educated at Santa Clara, the council sought a solution in Rome rather than Madrid.43

On the heels of María Garrido y Cabello's petition arrived another, this one from the widowed Condesa de Casa-Barreto, asking that her eight-year-old daughter, María Barreto, be admitted as a protégé at Santa Clara.44 María had relatives not only at Santa Clara—two aunts were nuns—but also on the highest rungs of elite society. María's father, the deceased Conde de Casa-Barreto (Jacinto Tomás Barreto y Pedroso) had been a prominent planter (hacendado) and member of the Havana cabildo, serving as the magistrate (alcalde ordinario), hereditary alderman (regidor perpetuo), and justice of the rural district around Havana (alcalde mayor provincial de la Hermandad). He also had been an officer in the local militia and an avowed enemy of Governor Luis de Las Casas.45 Maria's half sister, a daughter of the conde's from a previous marriage, was married to Mateo Pedroso, the richest merchant in Havana and an alderman on the cabildo. Mateo Pedroso was also the conde's first cousin. María's mother, the widowed Condesa de Casa-Barreto, was the daughter of Sebastián Peñalver, who had served on the cabildo with the conde. María's uncle on her mother's side was the Marqués de Casa Peñalver (Gabriel Peñalver), the head of the Peñalver clan and a prominent landowner who claimed the famous sugar plantation Ingenio de Jesús María y José among his holdings.46 Finally, a brother of María's was the Conde de Mopox.47 María's pedigree seemingly ensured her admission at Santa Clara and yet there were still papal and Franciscan impediments to overcome.

In the summer of 1794, while the Council of the Indies deliberated the questions of ecclesiastical impediments to the admission of secular females (p.74) to New World convents and how best to serve the needs of Havana's elite, another petition arrived asking that a young habanera be allowed to enter Santa Clara as a protégé. In July 1794, a petition arrived from Manuel Ramírez, a lawyer of the audiencias of Mexico and Santo Domingo, asking that his daughter, Jacoba, be admitted at the convent. The young girl was also fortunate to have relatives at the convent, two aunts and a great-aunt, who were professed nuns. In the petition, Manuel Ramírez asked that his daughter be afforded the benefit of a personal servant and be allowed to enter the novitiate at age sixteen.48

In August 1794, the Council of the Indies was reluctant to dismiss ecclesiastical impediments to the admission of secular females in New World convents. The council recommended that the crown's continued involvement in the admission of young girls at Santa Clara be contingent upon the receipt of a papal brief or bull dispensing with all restrictions on their admission. It also recommended that no action be taken on active petitions until such a dispensation was secured.49 Referring to the “frequent requests made by distinguished persons of the city of Havana,” and desirous of providing “that numerous citizenry the contentment of a good Christian and political education for the young of the illustrious class,” the council recommended a papal bull to remove any impediments to the admission of young girls at Santa Clara and Santa Catalina. In doing so, it was placating elites desirous of an education for their daughters. Asunción Lavrin suggests that with the change in royal policy “one of the basic points of the reform [that is, common life] was annulled.”50 It is not clear why the council felt an obligation to appeal to Rome, other than what appears to have been a sustained adherence to religious orthodoxy at the turn of the nineteenth century. As an alternative to the admission of young girls at either convent, the council suggested the founding of a colegio for girls or a convent of Ursulines “a ejemplo de Nueva Orleans.”51

The council expressed reservations about introducing young girls at Santa Teresa for the purposes of an education, respecting the austerity of the Carmelite lifestyle and the rigor of the nuns' daily routine. The Carmelites of Havana did indeed practice a rigorous daily routine: they arose each morning at four o'clock to begin a marathon day of prayer that did not end until nine or ten o'clock at night. Long days of prayer and fasting left the nuns with little energy to expend on the education and care of young girls. (p.75) While sick nuns ate meat stew (guisado de carne), which frequently contained chicken, the rest of the community subsisted on “abstinence stew” (guisado de abstinencia), or vegetable stew. With little time and energy at their disposal, the nuns of Santa Teresa contracted out most of their sewing and embroidery, and lay sisters did most of the cooking at the convent. This meant that the nuns rarely honed their skills in the three areas that were considered essentials of a well-rounded female education in the late eighteenth century.52 In the instructions written for the Spanish minister in Rome who was responsible for soliciting a papal brief, however, the council did not exempt the Carmelite community, or any other female community for that matter, from the proposal. Dated January 26, 1795, the instructions directed the minister to solicit a brief abolishing all restrictions on the admissions of young girls “in the convent of Santa Clara and the rest [of the convents] in the kingdoms of the Indies.”53

Soliciting a Papal Bull to Make New World Convents Sites of Female Education

Joseph Nicolás de Araña, the Spanish minister in Rome, failed in three separate papal audiences to secure the sought-after dispensation. In June 1795, Araña apologized for failing to bring to fruition “an idea so plausible like that of public education which contributes much to the general and particular good.” In light of his failure, the minister suggested that there was no need to appeal to Rome but simply to empower bishops, archbishops, and regular prelates to admit young girls to New World convents; Araña was of the mindset that such authority was entailed in the patronato real that defined church-state relations in the Spanish Empire. As long as the families of the young girls paid the costs of room, board, and other expenses, he saw no need to recur to Rome for a papal brief.54 Nonetheless, Araña continued in his quest to procure the brief. In a fourth audience with the pope, he succeeded.55

The resulting papal brief, dated July 21, 1795, dispensed with the need to petition a papal license to admit a young girl to a New World convent. However, it granted only secular prelates, bishops, and archbishops the authority to grant licenses, retaining the restrictions on regular prelates, such as Franciscan provincials and commissaries general.56 The brief was published (p.76) throughout the colonies. In Havana, it had two important ramifications. It meant that the bishop came to control an important—albeit somewhat diminished as a result of restrictive admission policies—source of patronage in Havana. It also meant that Santa Clara, a conservative, contemplative institution, would in time come under the jurisdiction of a liberal-minded bishop of Havana, José Díaz de Espada y Landa (1801–1832), who was ac-claimed for his enlightened views, Christian zeal, and organizational skills and also for his emphasis on social action over prayer and contemplation.57

The papal brief also established new regulations governing admission, matriculation, and behavior, allowing a girl to enter a convent at the age of seven but not obligating her to enter the novitiate between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, as had been the custom.58 The papal brief permitted a secular female to remain at the convent until she took the habit, chose to marry, or reached age twenty-five. In Spanish law a woman was subject to her father's will (patria potestad) until age twenty-five; if unmarried at age twenty-five, she gained her independence from her father.59 The brief did require that girls get by without the benefit of personal servants; dress moderately, not wearing either gold jewelry or silk; sleep separately from the nuns; observe the rules of the cloister; and cover the costs of room and board.60 In many ways, the brief simply reinforced custom in that a young girl living in a convent was expected to observe the rules of the cloister, which included dressing like a nun; following a strict schedule of work, study, and prayer; eating meals in silence; and obeying the rules of enclosure.61 However, the brief departed from custom in that it required pupils to live separately from the nuns. So common was the practice of young girls living with relatives at Santa Clara that Franciscan prelates, in approving the admission of young girls, simply assumed that they would live in the cells of relatives.62 Their presence also assured continued overcrowding in the cloister. The financial impact of these secular females is less apparent. However, the convent's financial prospects were growing dimmer by the year.

By 1795, monthly allotments were running three months behind. Nonetheless, the Clarist population had been reduced to eighty nuns, one-half of whom had signed on to the common-life reform and dispensed with their personal servants (although Ángel Huerta suggests that this figure, given by the commissary general, may have been exaggerated).63 By the time the despised Governor Luis de Las Casas departed Havana in 1796, however, the (p.77) notable reductions in Santa Clara's religious and servant populations had been undone by international politics. Despite years of scaled-back admissions, the Clares were right back where they had started, living in a crowded cloister and intermingling with secular women.


(1.) Barbier, “Culmination of the Bourbon Reforms,” 56–58; Kuethe, “More on ‘The Culmination of the Bourbon Reforms,’” 477–80.

(2.) Johnson, Social Transformation, 1, 3, 16, 124, 147, 164.

(3.) Curley, “Church and State,” 65, 212.

(4.) Jensen, Children of Colonial Despotism, 10–11.

(5.) See Gallagher, “Unworldly Women.”

(8.) José Santiago de Echevarría to the crown, June 10, 1783, AGI Ultramar 396.

(9.) Ana Antonia Alberja to the crown, May 24, 1783, AGI Ultramar 396.

(10.) Reply of the fiscal, August 29, 1783; Manuel de la Vega to the Council of the Indies, November 6, 1783, both in AGI Ultramar 396.

(11.) The ex-definidoras of Santa Clara to the crown, June 14, 1783, AGI SD 2241.

(12.) Certificate of baptism of Juana María López, in Expediente of Juana María López, February 18, 1777, AGI SD 1414.

(13.) Testimony of Pedro de Echevarría, October 15, 1776, in Expediente of Juana María López, February 18, 1777.

(14.) Reply of the fiscal, August 25, 1777, in Expediente of Juana María López, February 18, 1777.

(15.) Libro 1783, chap. 6, AMSC, B; Consulta, June 2, 1788, AGI SD 1142.

(16.) Manuel María Trujillo to the Council of the Indies, March 29, 1787, AGI Ultramar 396.

(20.) Pablo de la Moya to the crown, November 5, 1788, copy attached to Manuel María Trujillo to the Council of the Indies, August 20, 1796, AGI Ultramar 396.

(21.) Cecilia Josefa de Moya to the crown, May 27, 1788, in Expediente of Cecilia Josefa de Moya, August 7, 1788, AGI SD 1473.

(22.) Luis Peñalver y Cárdenas to the crown, May 30, 1788, in Expediente of Cecilia Josefa de Moya, August 7, 1788.

(23.) Manuel María de Trujillo to the Council of the Indies, September 1, 1788, in Expediente of Cecilia Josefa de Moya, August 7, 1788.

(24.) Consulta, December 10, 1788, AGI SD 1142; Reply of the fiscal, September 1, 1788, AGI SD 1473.

(25.) Consulta, January 18, 1806, AGI SD 2241.

(26.) Juan de Zequeira y Palma to the crown, n.d., AGI SD 1474.

(27.) Consulta, March 30, 1789, AGI SD 1142.

(28.) Francisco Blanco to the crown, August 8, 1784; Reply of the fiscal, September 19, 1784, both in Expediente of Felipe Zequeira, Conde de Lagunillas, November 20, 1783, AGI SD 1468; Felipe Josef de Trespalacios y Verdeja to Pedro de Acuña, August 6, 1792, AGI, SD 1136; Klein, Slavery in the Americas, 206–7; Kuethe, Cuba: 1753–1815, 166.

(29.) Twinam, Public Lives, 14, 16, 18, 209.

(30.) Ibid., 18–19, 240; Johnson, Social Transformation, 101.

(31.) Schroeder, Canons and Decrees, 228–29, 496.

(32.) Twinam, Public Lives, 18, 65.

(33.) Francisco Blanco to the crown, August 8, 1784; Reply of the fiscal, September 19, 1784, both in Expediente of Phelipe Zequeira, Conde de Lagunillas, November 20, 1783; Felipe Josef de Trespalacios y Verdeja to Pedro de Acuña, August 6, 1792; Klein, Slavery in the Americas, 206–7.

(34.) Manuel María de Trujillo to the Council of the Indies, March 7, 1790, AGI Ultramar 365; Consulta, October 8, 1791, AGI SD 1143; Antonio de Zayas-Bazán to the crown, February 7, 1792, AGI SD 1483; Consulta, November 3, 1792, AGI SD 1144; Consulta, July 15, 1790, AGI SD 1143.

(35.) Consulta, July 15, 1790.

(36.) On the refuge provided by the cloister, see Martín, Daughters of the Conquistadores, 199.

(37.) Consulta, October 8, 1791.

(38.) Antonio de Zayas-Bazán to the crown, February 7, 1792.

(39.) Francisco Ximénez Sarmiento (on behalf of María Rafaela Garrido y Cabello) to the crown, January 30, 1794, AGI Ultramar 365.

(40.) Consulta, November 3, 1792, AGI SD 1144.

(41.) Schroeder, Canons and Decrees, 226; Constituciones generales, chap. 1: 81, 85, AMSC, B.

(42.) Juan de Troya to Pedro Acuña, June 20, 1793, AGI Ultramar 365.

(43.) Manuel de la Vega to the Council of the Indies, March 17, 1777, in Expediente of Francisca Guazo, January 11, 1777, both in AGI SD 1465.

(44.) Josef Fernández (on behalf of the widowed Condesa de Casa-Barreto) to the crown, April 2, 1794, AGI Ultramar 365.

(45.) Nieto y Cortadellas, Dignidades nobiliarias en Cuba, 107–10; Marrero, Cuba: economía y sociedad, 13: 41.

(46.) Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, 44–45.

(47.) Consulta, January 18, 1806, AGI SD 2241. Eventually, María did enter the convent with a license of the bishop. In April 1803, María's brother, the Conde de Mopox, petitioned Madrid to allow his sister to become a novice at the first vacancy in the novitiate, a petition which the crown approved three years later in May 1806.

(48.) Manuel Joaquín Ramírez to the crown, March 10, 1794, AGI Ultramar 365.

(49.) Consulta, November 6, 1794, AGI SD 1144.

(50.) Lavrin, “Ecclesiastical Reform,” 201.

(51.) Testimony of Francisco Fonte, June 28, 1796, AGI SD 1491.

(53.) Instruction to Ramón de Posada, January 6, 1796, AGI Ultramar 365.

(54.) Joseph Nicolás de Araña to the Council of the Indies, June 24, 1795, AGI Ultramar 365.

(55.) Joseph Nicolás de Araña to the Council of the Indies, July 22, 1795, AGI Ultramar 365.

(56.) Translation of the papal brief of July 21, 1795, by Felipe de Lamaniego, August 31, 1795, AGI Ultramar 365; Bando publicado, October 20, 1796, Bandos, vol. 18, expediente 86–87, folio 396, AGN.

(57.) Kirk, Between God and the Party, 20–23; Figueroa y Miranda, Religión y política; Torres Cuevas, Obispo Espada.

(58.) Translation of the papal brief of July 21, 1795, by Felipe de Lamaniego.

(59.) Ibid.; Martín, Daughters of the Conquistadores, 78.

(60.) Translation of the papal brief of July 21, 1795, by Felipe de Lamaniego.

(61.) Martín, Daughters of the Conquistadores, 78.

(62.) Manuel María de Trujillo to the Council of the Indies, March 7, 1790.

(63.) Huerta Martínez, “Monacato femenino en Cuba,” 502.