previous chapter
The Convento
next chapter

The Convento

Lodging was located as close to the church as conditions would allow, and if the friar was to be resident at the pueblo, these quarters, called the convento, were more extensive. Translation of the word convento is a bit problematic because the English word convent, a direct rendering of the cognate, is associated with a community of nuns, which was not the case in New Mexico. Neither is the word friary entirely accurate—although it has been used in the past—because strictly speaking priests usually lived alone or in pairs. "Priest's quarters" is perhaps the best English rendering for convento, although the term must be taken to include not only the domestic rooms but also the support spaces, such as storage rooms, workshops, and buildings for livestock.

Architectonically, the convento comprised a block of low buildings that acted as visual anchor for the larger volume of the church. The contrast in scale between these domestic and auxiliary spaces and the nave only served to increase the apparent dimension of the church structure itself. At Pecos, for example, the pueblo and convento read almost as a lower platform on which the church was raised, a condition also present at Quarai, Gran Quivira, Laguna, and Acoma, where the contrast is perhaps the strongest.

In place of monetary tithes, the Indians were to provide labor and "first fruits," which allowed the priest to live and continue his efforts on their behalf.[94] As Domínguez noted, in more than one instance the friar was forced to fend for himself, tending his garden and perhaps even his stock or augmenting his scanty income through trading, although this practice was frowned upon by the authorities. Ornamental gardens were rare, but at Acoma there were "some little peach trees . . . watered by hand" that served decorative and functional needs. "When it is necessary to water the little trees mentioned above, the girls who come to catechism go with the weekly fiscal and bring a great deal all at once, even more than enough."[95]

The convento in almost all cases took the form of the placita and was attached directly to the long side of the church or separated from it by a narrow corridor. The great mass of the church served as wind or weather break when the convento was sited to its south or to the most desirable sheltered side.[96] Where sufficient level terrain was not available, as at San José de Giusewa, the irregular topography forced a juggling of the spaces and a somewhat random layout. Where the premises and the needs were large enough, the convento grew to two courtyards, paralleling the layout of the more prosperous ranchos. The living chambers, porter's lodge, office, and storerooms opened onto the first enclosed court, while the second served as a more secure, internalized corral for the animals as well as storage for their maintenance and perhaps for firewood. The convento at Acoma provides a good example of the single court type, while the ruined San Buenaventura at Gran Quivira exemplifies that of the double courtyard.

Hardly less important than the habitable structures were those for storage. Since supply convoys were dispatched or arrived only every third year, the life of the mission depended on systems and spaces for handling goods, foodstuffs, and even live animals. Provisions had to be made for both directions of the flow. When a missionary arrived with his allotment of supplies for initiating religious and construction activities, he required rooms in which to keep them. Supplies both quotidian and exotic that arrived from Mexico needed to be kept safe from rot, vermin, and theft since several years would elapse before any losses could be replaced.


Meanwhile, the annual harvests of agricultural, animal, and woven produce had to be stored until they could be shipped south to Mexico to trade for necessities not available at the edge of the empire. In the Salinas missions during the 1660s, for example, when drought brought famine and Apache raids, food and supplies were provided to the less fortunate by those conventos with an increment. There would have been no surplus without sufficient storage; indeed, new, more secure storerooms were constructed to meet the increased threat of theft fanned by desperation. Thus, these meager, undistinguished, and architecturally undifferentiated storage cells are better thought of as critical financial institutions rather than as mere rooms without windows.

Rarely were the conventos maintained in anywhere near excellent conditions; often they were only marginally habitable. Although their layouts might have been carefully planned, with time the nature and function of the spaces could change. Domínguez's pages were filled with negative judgments on the design or state of the friar's facilities. He frequently commented on the warrenlike configurations of rooms. Even at the Parroquia of Santa Fe, which should have been the flagship of the New Mexican system, the friar reported, "All these rooms are large with good windows, and everything was well designed when it was first built, but the neglect by those who should have taken care of it has left it in such a state that it has been necessary for some careful friars to repair what others have torn down."[97] At Tesuque the ambivalent state of the ministry left the convento in limbo. For the most part the pueblo was cared for by a priest from Santa Fe, and as a visita the convento was not maintained. "And when there was perhaps a resident missionary, it was for a short time, so that even if he was willing to undertake repairs, he could not do so."[98]

Yet perhaps these quarters, however dilapidated, were preferable to living in the pueblo itself—a common practice before the convento was built. At least living quarters placed some distance between the Franciscan and the pueblo and raised no question of jurisdiction. But construction of a convento was not the last word. At the close of the eighteenth century at Picuris the missionary there was forced to live in the pueblo's "community house" and celebrate the mass in one of its three rooms while a new church was being built. "It is kept with great cleanliness, care, and neatness," Domínguez wrote approvingly, "but it is very inadequate and poverty-stricken."[99]

Cochiti Pueblo
In some pueblos the campo santo—like the church—was divided along a
central axis, with women to one side and men to the other.
[Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Frederick Starr
Collection, 1894–1910]


previous chapter
The Convento
next chapter