When the Spanish Conquistadores came to the upper Rio Grande valley, they brought with them Franciscan priests. The Franciscans, in turn, fostered among the lay people a fraternal organization called the Third Order of St. Francis, which espoused the principles of piety and humility of St. Francis of Assisi. Indeed, they named the capital of the province of New Mexico, “the Royal City of the Holy Faith (Santa Fe) of St. Francis of Assisi”.
The Third Order included all the principal citizens of the province, including Don Juan de Oñate, their governor. During Holy Week, the members of the fraternity would participate in processions, flailing themselves with whips, to the great amusement of the civilized Pueblo Indians. Although self-flagellation did not originate with the Franciscans --it seems to have sprung up all over Europe in reaction to successive crises from the arrival of the Millenium to the Black Death-- it fit well with the semi-subversive character of the Franciscans, as a subtle protest against the luxury and corruption of the pre-Reformation Church.
So it went until the Mexican Revolution. In those times, the late 1700’s, New Mexico suffered not unlike the Anglos on the East Coast from taxation without representation, only here it was a European-born elite ruling from Mexico City that collected the taxes. The Franciscans were loyal to Spain and fled. This left the people of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado bereft of spiritual leadership and supervision. The lay service organizations filled the vacuum. Since “Franciscan” had come to be identified with “Loyalist”, the lay orgnizations were no longer “the Third Order” of St. Francis, but became Los Hermanos Penitentes (The Penitent Brothers) or the Fraternidad Piadosa de los Hermanos de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (The Pious Fraternity of the Brothers of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth).
Members were initiated by scarification --performed with a flint knife or piece of glass-- on their back in the shape of a cross. In addition to self-flagellation, during Holy Week the Brothers practiced recreations of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, by carrying enormous crosses on long processions and pilgrimages and having themselves bound to or even nailed to crosses. During the rest of the year, the Brothers continued to act as a service organization, distributing assistance to widows and orphans, and with the disappearance of the priesthood, began to perform ceremonies essential to religious and civil society: baptisms, marriages and funerals. The village headquarters of the Brotherhood, a windowless adobe building called a morado, became the center of religious life in the rural communities.
After the Mexican Revolution, the Church sent priests back out into the provinces, tried to impose the rules of the “Third Order” on the Brothers, and demanded exorbitant fees or “tithes” for performing the same services the Brothers had handled for free. This did not go over well and was one of the reasons the Americans were welcomed as liberators during the U.S-Mexican War.
Eventually, the rift between clergy and laity became politicized. In the early years of the United States occupation of New Mexico, the struggle was personified by the feud between Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888) leader of the foreign-born (French) clergy in Santa Fe, and Padre Antonio Jose Martinez of Taos (1793-1867) a native New Mexican, educated in the seminary at Durango, Colorado, a popular Hispanic leader.
When the United States Army invaded New Mexico, Padre Martinez explained to his students the difference between the Republics of Mexico and the United States by comparing the republican form of government to a burro. “Let us pretend that the American government is a burro, but in this instance it is not the clergy riding the burro, but the lawyers.” Padre Martinez made good use of his new-found freedoms as an American citizen and was elected to the Territorial Legislature, was President of the legislature in 1851, and published a newspaper, El Crepusculo (“The Dawn”). He managed to antagonize both the French clergy and the Anglo lawyers. For his troubles as a champion of the people, Padre Martinez was excommunicated by Archbishop Lamy and villified as a bully in Willa Cather’s 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
By 1889, a Protestant paper, La hermandad, was published at Pueblo, Colorado, which incited the Brotherhood to resist the Church and follow their own practices. The Church anathematized the organization and it diminished considerably in numbers and influence in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Many morados are abandoned and the hey-day of the Penitentes is most certainly over, but they still exist, and can be seen carrying heavy crosses during Holy Week on the road from Española to the Santuario de Chimayó, and elsewhere throughout New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
Photographer’s account of Penitente crucifixion in 1888: http://www.charleslummis.com/penitente.htm
Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11635c.htm