- Historic Sites
The Brotherhood Of The Mountains
Maligned and misunderstood throughout much of their history, the Penitentes of the American Southwest have nevertheless given their people a sense of community and spiritual security. But for how much longer?
April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
What any recitation of the bloody and painful rites of the Brotherhood tends to obscure is the fact that it provided the people of the mountains a sense of community and cohesion, without which no society, however large or small, can survive. In the absence of the clergy, it kept faith alive, took care of the sick, collected money and food for the destitute, and buried the dead with rituals that may have lacked the high sanctity of a Requiem Mass but at least comforted the mourners with spiritual form. As Marta Weigle notes in her authoritative study Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood , “The Brotherhood took root because it fulfilled vital needs for social integration and individual spiritual security.”
But it was neither the nobility nor the necessity of the Brotherhood that captured the attention of outsiders—it was the blood. The sight filled that good Protestant, Josiah Gregg, with revulsion and drove him to a distortion in Commerce of the Prairies (1844): “The person who brought up the rear [of a procession he witnessed] presented a still more disgusting aspect. He walked along with a patient and composed step, while another followed close behind belaboring him lustily with a whip. … The blood was kept in perpetual flow by the stimulating juice of certain herbs, carried by a third person, into which the scourger frequently dipped his lash. Although the actors in this tragical farce were completely muffled, yet they were well known to many of the by-standers, one of whom assured me that they were three of the most notorious rascals in the country. By submitting to this species of penance, they annually received complete absolution of their past year’s sins, and, thus ‘purified,’ entered afresh on the old career of wickedness and crime.” (It should be noted that cases of one Brother having been whipped by another are very rare, and that absolution from sin could come only from a priest; the Brotherhood never claimed otherwise.)
If Gregg and other Americans reacted with disgust, the Catholic Church responded with outrage and edict. In 1833 Don Antonio de Zubiria, Bishop of Durango, visited Santa Fe, and when he heard about an order of Pénitentes in the village of Santa Cruz, took to the pulpit and forbade “for all time to come those brotherhoods of penitence—or, better still, of Butchery—which have been growing under the shelter of inexcusable toleration. Each parish-priest, or friar-minister, in all the territory of this administration, will see to it that not a single one of those brotherhoods remains in existence.…Moderate penance is not forbidden…but let it be performed without assemblages wrongly called brotherhoods which have no legal authorization whatsoever.”
Staunch words, but in New Mexico, the territory of Zubiria’s adminstration took in more than 120,000 square miles with fewer than ten priests among them, and when Jean Baptist Lamy became bishop of Santa Fe in 1851, he still found it necessary to issue warnings against the Brotherhood. Lamy’s successor, Juan B. Salpointe, went a step further—he banned all Brotherhood ceremonies from the churches.
Church edicts had approximately the same effect on the growth of the Brotherhood as Roman laws had on the spread of Christianity. Over the next forty years, the movement blossomed, undeterred by either clerical hostility or intrusion by outsiders. “The Penitentes will hold their orgies at Los Griegos, a village three miles north of Albuquerque, to-day,” announced the Albuquerque Morning Journal in 1886. “Their rites consist of flagellations, carrying crosses, and other horrid rites which should be suppressed. W. L. Trimble & Co. will run hacks to Los Griegos this afternoon, leaving the San Felipe Hotel at noon. Those who have not seen the Pénitentes ought to go.”
Driven from the churches, the Brothers built their moradas in the hills. By the end of the century, these meetinghouses could be found scattered as far south as the Mexican border and as far north as southern Colorado. The Brotherhood formed individual moradas into regional councils, and the movement became something of a political force, albeit a minor one in a territory thoroughly dominated by Anglo politicians, and certainly not important enough to deserve the abuse heaped upon it by the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1892: “It is well known that the practices of the Pénitentes are cruel in the extreme; they are criminal, often ending in self-destruction and murder. They are subversive of all good government as the Pénitentes usually stand together, regardless of all else, when one of their members runs for public office or is upon trial for violations of the law of the land.” Since membership remained secret, it is impossible to determine the actual number of Penitentes in this period, but it is safe to say that the Brotherhood oversaw much of the spiritual and temporal needs of its communities.