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Los Hermanos Penitentes
(The Penitent Brothers), a society of flagellants existing among the Spanish of New Mexico and Colorado.
The Hermanos Penitentes are a society of individuals, who, to atone for their sins, practise penances which consist principally of flagellation, carrying heavy crosses, binding the body to a cross, and tying the limbs to hinder the circulation of the blood. These practices have prevailed in Colorado and New Mexico since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Up to the year 1890, they were public; at present they are secret, though not strictly. The Hermanos Penitentes are men; in the latter half of the nineteenth century they admitted women and children into separate organizations, which, however, were never numerous. The society had no general organization or supreme authority. Each fraternity is local and independent with its own officers. The chief officer, hermano mayor (elder brother), has absolute authority, and as a rule holds office during life. The other officers are the like as those of most secret societies: chaplain, sergeant-at-arms, etc. The ceremony of the initiation, which takes place during Holy Week, is simple, excepting the final test. The candidate is escorted to the morada (abode), the home, or council house, by two or more Penitentes where, after a series of questions and answers consisting in the main of prayer he is admitted. He then undergoes various humiliations. First, he washes the feet of all present, kneeling before each; then he recites a long prayer, asking pardon for any offence he may have given. If any one present has been offended by the candidate, he lashes the offender on the bare back. Then comes the last and crucial test: four or six incisions, in the shape of a cross, are made just below the shoulders of the candidate with a piece of flint.
Flagellation, formerly practised in the streets and in the churches, is now, since the American occupation, confined generally to the morada and performed with a short whip (disciplina), made from the leaf of the amole weed. Fifty years ago the Hermanos Penitentes would issue from their morada (in some places as Taos, N.M., three hundred strong), stripped to the waist and scourging themselves, led by the acompanadores (escorts), and preceded by a few Penitentes dragging heavy crosses (maderos); the procession was accompanied by a throng, singing Christian hymns. A wooden wagon (el carro de la muerte) bore a figure representing death and pointing forward an arrow with stretched bow. This procession went through the streets to the church, where the Penitentes prayed, continued their scourgings, returned in procession to the morada. Other modes of self-castigation were often resorted to; on Good Friday it was the custom to bind one of the brethren to a cross, as in a crucifixion. At present no "crucifixions" take place, though previous to 1896 they were annual in many places in New Mexico and Colorado. The Penitentes now confine themselves to secret flagellation and occasional visits to churches at night. Flagellation is also practised at the death of a Penitente or of a relative. The corpse is taken to the morada and kept there for a few hours; flagellation takes place at the morada and during the procession to and from the same.
(2) Origin and History
Flagellation was introduced into Latin America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though no actual records are found of any organized flagellant societies there until comparatively recent times. In some localities of Mexico, Central, and South America, flagellant organizations, more or less public in their practices, existed until very recently, and still exist in a few isolated places. All these later organizations were regulated and controlled by Leo XIII. The origin of the New Mexican flagellants or hermanos penitentes is uncertain, but they seem to have been an outgrowth of the Third Order of St. Francis, introduced by Franciscans in the seventeenth century. Their practices consisted principally in flagellation, without incisions and with no loss of blood, carrying small crosses, and marching in processions with bare feet to visit the churches and join in long prayers. The barbarous customs of the New Mexico Penitents are of a much later origin. The New Mexican flagellants call their society, "Los hermanos penitentes de la tercer orden de San Francisco," and we know that when the last organization came into prominence in the early part of the nineteenth century, the older organization no longer existed in New Mexico. When their practices reached their worst stage (about 1850-90), the attention of the Church was directed towards them. The society was then very strong among all classes and the ecclesiastical authorities decided to use leniency. In a circular letter to the Penitentes of New Mexico and Colorado in 1886, Archbishop Salpointe of Santa Fe ordered them in the name of the Church to abolish flagellation, and the carrying of the heavy crosses, and sent to the different hermanos mayores copies of the rules of the Third Order of St. Francis, advising them to reorganize in accordance therewith. His letter and orders were unheeded. He then ordered all the parish priests to see the Penitentes personally and induce them to follow his instructions, but they accomplished nothing. To make matters worse, a Protestant paper, "La hermandad", was published at Pueblo, Colorado, in 1889, which incited the Penitents to resist the Church and follow their own practices. Archbishop Salpointe, in a circular letter of 1889, then ordered the Penitentes to disband. As a result the society, though not abolished, was very much weakened, and its further growth prevented. In Taos, Carmel, San Mateo, and a few other places they are still numerous and continue their barbarous practices, though more secretly.
Aurelio M. Espinosa