Good Friday and New Mexico Penitentes

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is historically the most important time of the year for New Mexico Penitentes. These men who honored Jesus Christ and his suffering reenacted the Crucifixion on Good Friday each year; one member of the group would be bound to a cross. This practice was discontinued many years ago.


Stations of the Cross at a morada in Taos, NM, photo/Steve Collins

A bit about New Mexico Penitentes

penitente of new mexico - Cross at end of penitente stations of the cross, photo/Steve Collins

Cross at end of Penitente stations of the cross, photo/Steve Collins

The Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus el Nazareno, also known as Los Hermanos Penitentes or just the Penitentes, was an organization of Catholic lay brothers. The Penitentes, with a strong devotion to Christ, practiced acts of piety: including mortification, flagellation and cross bearing. They atoned for their own sins and those of mankind. They worshiped and still do, in small, unsanctified chapels, called moradas, often located adjacent to cemeteries.  You’ll find a life sized statue of Christ carrying a Cross outside moradas still active today.

The order, perhaps going back as much as 400 years, flourished in isolated mountain communities in both Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Some believe that the order began in the 19th century after Mexico‘s 1821 independence from Spain when many clergy left the New World to return to the old. This may just be the period they gained power and came to prominence during a time when the Catholic Church was not active in the region.. In the absence of official clergy, these devoted men provided for the spiritual needs of their somewhat isolated communities.

A new era

penitente of new mesico - Turquoise morada door, photo/Steve Collins

Turquoise morada door, photo/Steve Collins

Things began to change after New Mexico became a United States territory in 1846. In 1850, the Catholic Church established a new diocese in Santa Fe (previously the diocesan seat had been in Durango, Mexico) and the groups’ practices fell into disfavor. Reportedly, Archbishop Lamy (the man Willa Cather’s based her classic novel Death Comes for the Archbishop on) who arrived to head the new Santa Fe Diocese in 1851 did not want to outlaw them, but he required that they practice in secret.  His successor, Archbishop Salpointe, had even less tolerance and ordered the dissolution of the New Mexico Penitentes. They flourished underground many years.

New Mexico Penitentes today

new mexico penitentes --Morada with cross in the foreground, photo/Steve Collins

Morada with cross in the foreground, photo/Steve Collins

They were brought back into the fold in 1947.  While somewhat accepted by the Catholic Church today, they continue to practice in secret. Like many sects in contemporary times membership is decreasing. When the current generation of Penitentes passes, the sect may cease to exist. The group still observes Good Friday. In an effort to be more transparent in a new day and age, and perhaps attract new membership, the Penitentes now offer Good Friday service to the general public.

Author’s note: Robert Cafazzo, owner of the Two Graces Gallery in Ranchos de Taos, gave invaluable editorial input to this post. When asked about being an outsider at the Good Friday rites, he advised: “All are invited to join and participate in the services at the moradas on Good Friday in Ranchos de Taos. If you are in doubt about how to act or what to do,  simply and humbly ask the person next to you or in front of you for some guidance. What is frowned upon, according to Cafazzo, is people attending just to be onlookers and not partaking in the wonder of the moment,

For more on Holy Week  and moradas in Northern New Mexico: Good Friday pilgrims and Off the beaten path in Taos, NM



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10 Responses to “Good Friday and New Mexico Penitentes”

  1. Cathy Sweeney
    April 9, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    I was raised Catholic and have known the many traditions of the religion, but never heard of the Penitentes. Imagine the passion of people who will go to such lengths as reenacting the Crucifixion because of their faith. Interesting look at the New Mexico Penitentes. Not surprising that their numbers are dwindling, but impressed that they’re trying to attract new followers.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Our Top 5 Scottsdale Hikes … So FarMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      April 10, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

      I first heard about them years ago when we lived in NYC. Martha Graham did a dance about them called “The Penitentes.” We went to see it. They stuck in my mind and when we moved to NM, there they were. NM really has a unique culture!

    • Billie Frank
      April 10, 2017 at 3:31 pm #

      I first became aware of them from Martha Graham the great modern dancer. She choreographed a dance called “The Penitentes.” It was stark and beautiful. I forgot about them until we moved to NM. It’s really a unique culture here. Now that you live so close you should plan a visit!

  2. Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    April 10, 2017 at 5:48 pm #

    This is the first I’ve heard of the New Mexico Penitentes. I think they do something like this in Jerusalem’s Old City where they reenact visiting the 10 stations of the cross. Via Dolorosa. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen it except in my mind’s eye.
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers recently posted..Sights to See: Emperor Valley Zoo, TrinidadMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      April 11, 2017 at 10:38 am #

      The Penitentes were more were more than a reenactment of the journey to the cross. They lived their lives atoning for their sins and in the old days even practiced flagellation.

  3. Doreen Pendgracs
    April 11, 2017 at 6:00 am #

    Thx for the fascinating post about the New Mexico Penitentes. It’s far too long since I’ve explored NM. Thx for putting it back on my radar.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..a journey to the highland cacao of Hacienda de SPAGnVOLAMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      April 11, 2017 at 10:41 am #

      Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico are really unique places because of their distinctive cultural mix. National Geographic recently awarded Santa Fe first place in its Sense of Place category in it’s annual awards. Come back! (And there are some unique takes on chocolate here.)

  4. alison abbott
    April 14, 2017 at 11:24 am #

    So many interesting pieces of culture to explore in New Mexico. I’ve been wanting to visit for years and take in the Santa Fe Folk Art show. This is very interesting information about the Penitentes. I think they have a similar group in the Philippines.

    • Billie Frank
      June 17, 2017 at 1:01 pm #

      Definitely come to Santa Fe for Folk Art Market. It’s wonderful!


  1. Art Review: Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico, Denver Art Museum | California Literary Review - April 16, 2013

    […] summers, Graham created a short ballet, El Penitente. The dance is based on the rituals of the Penitentes, a Catholic lay brotherhood which played a major role in the life and culture of northern New […]

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