- 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
This power did not long survive World War I and its aftermath. Many young men who had learned something of the larger world as soldiers did not return to their mountain villages. Paved roads that allowed people to come into the mountain valleys more easily also made it easier to get out, and during the boom years of the 1920’s, village population declined. There were more priests, now, and a more active church life. During the Depression, the federal government began offering aid programs, schooling, and WPA projects, all of which undermined the Brotherhood’s influence. The Pénitente rituals declined in intensity; public self-flagellations became rare, and by the end of the 1930’s re-enacted crucifixions were even rarer.
As the power of the Brotherhood waned, so too did the antagonism of the Church. In 1947, after it agreed to conditions set forth by Catholic officials, the Brotherhood was declared by Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne to be “a pious association of men joined in charity to commemorate the passion and death of the Redeemer,” and was welcomed back into the fold. There was a certain poignance in the gesture; by 1960, membership was estimated to have dwindled to only twenty-five hundred, and today is thought to be no more than seventeen hundred in fewer than two hundred moradas .
Easter Sunday, 1978. The Easter Sunday service of Riverside Church in New York city is justifiably famous. This was my first, and like the rest of the two thousand people who had congregated there, I was entranced by the pageantry. It was a celebration of joy, of resurrection and redemption. There was joy in the music, joy in the service, joy in the sermon, joy in all the pomp and circumstance of it. When the minister led us all in the last Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah , I joined with everyone else in trying to negotiate that difficult song, and did it with pleasure.
But in the shadows of my mind, I could not quite forget the small procession I had seen two days earlier in New Mexico, or the ritualized meeting between Christ and His mother, or even the young man who had challenged us before moonrise in Truchas. Here, we were rejoicing as if pain and death were just transient whispers in the life of men; back there, both were everything in a dark world where true joy reigned only in heaven. I wondered then, as I wonder now, which of us was closer to the truth that both peoples believe must lie somewhere beyond us, out where the universe bends.