PENITENTE BROTHERHOOD (Los Hermanos Penitentes)


1598:  The first expedition to colonize northern New Mexico, led by Juan de Oñate took place.

1598 (March 20):  Oñate observed Holy Thursday rites with penitential expressions, including flagellation.

1598 (July 11):  The Oñate party “settled” in the Pueblo community by the name of Ohke and renamed it as San Juan De Los Caballeros.

1610:  The Villa de Santa Fe was established.

1620:  The Diocese of Durango was established.

1616:  New Mexican missions designated the Franciscan Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul.

1680:  The Pueblo Revolt was led by Popé. Spanish Colonist were forced to retreat to the Guadalupe Del Paso region.

1692:  The “Reconquesta” of New Mexico was led by Diego de Vargas.

1729:  Franciscan Custody officially annexed to the Diocese of Durango.

1750:  A distinct New Mexican Santero Art began. José Rafael Aragón (1783-1790 – 1862) was one of the most prolific and important santeros.

1776:  Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez reported Indigenous involvement in the practice of flagellation for religious purposes.

1810:  Hermano Bernardo Abeyta “discovered” the Shrine of Chimayó. Chimayó was originally named Tsimayo for the Tewa Pueblo, a sacred pit containing healing mud and dust.

1831:  José Antonio Laureano de Zubiría y Escalante began his service as Bishop of Durango.

1833:  Bishop Zurbiría made the first episcopal visitation of New Mexico.

1833 (July 21):  Bishop Zurbiría’s issued a special decree from Santa Cruz de la Ca˜nada condemning the Penitentes.

1833 (October 19):  Bishop Zurbiría composed a pastoral letter that included a further warning against the Penitentes.

1846:  The U.S. Congress and President James K. Polk declared war on Mexico.

1848 (February 2):  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed annexing the Mexican northern frontier to the United States. This marked the creation of the American Southwest.

1850: (July 19):  Pope Pius IX created the Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico, which was attached to the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

1851:  The newly consecrated Bishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy, arrived in Santa Fe as the first official bishop of the newly established American Catholic Church.

1853:  New Mexico is was elevated to a See, the Diocese of Santa Fe, a suffragan of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

1856:  Bishop Lamy issued rules for the Penitentes.

1875:  Pope Pius IX elevated Santa Fe to an archdiocese, and Lamy was consecrated as the frst Archbishop of Santa Fe

1885:  Jean Baptiste Salpointe was consecrated as second Archbishop of Santa Fe

1886:  Archbishop Salpointe issued his first Circular on the Penitentes.

1889:  Salpointe issued his second Circular on the Penitentes.

1912 (February 12):  New Mexico admitted as the forty-seventh state.

1943:  Edwin Vincent Byrne was consecrated as eighth Archbishop of Santa Fe.

1947:  Archbishop Byrne signed a statement officially recognizing both the Penitente Brotherhood and the organizational work of Miguel Archibeque, naming him Hermano Supremo.

1974 (July 25):  Robert Fortune Sánchez was ordained as the tenth Archbishop of Santa Fe.

1993:  Archbishop Robert Sánchez resigned as Archbishop of Santa Fe.


The Penitente Brotherhood is said to have originated in the early nineteenth century in the region of what is today known as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The full name of the brotherhood is La Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús and referred to as the brotherhood or La Hermandad for short. Speaking authoritatively, the history of this religious community is framed by official records, documents, and letters that have survived over the years and preserved in recognized archives. Yet, as a living history, we discover a range of additional oral histories and stories that have survived in the hearts and minds of the people from the region whose narratives are just as compelling as the official story and record. As a result, we discover community stories that at times compete and challenge the official record. Both official and oral/community histories are presented here where appropriate. All significant contributions to the history of this community are incorporated into the timeline.

According to the official account, the Penitente Brotherhood begins in 1833. It is in this year that Bishop José Laureano AntonioZubiría y Escalante of Durango, [Image at right] Mexico examines the Church of New Mexico that is under his supervision. As a result, he produces a lengthy pastoral letter where he acknowledges the Penitente presence in the community of Santa Cruz de la Cañada, in the region of northern New Mexico. The bishop expresses concern with the flagellant practices of the brotherhood, asking that the laity be provided with more guidance and instruction. According to numerous scholars, this date is considered the earliest definitive mention of La Hermandad . From this point forward, nothing more is heard about the brotherhood until some twenty years later when Mexican territories change hands and become part of the American southwest, marking the arrival and establishment of the American Catholic Church. New Irish and French Catholic clergy arrives into this region with new religious worldviews and new visions of Catholicism. The American Roman Catholic Diocese is officially established in 1853 under the guidance of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. As a result, Penitente history is understood and bound by the official story as dictated by Roman Catholic Church leadership and as reflected in archives and records. Such documents highlight the leadership of the church who speak about the brotherhood in terms of abiding by the “rules” of the church. They emphasize the brotherhood’s need to “obey and respect” church authorities.

It is during this period when the Hermanos Penitentes are rigidly defined and interpreted by the official church as being a nineteenth-century remnant of the Third Order of St. Francis within the Franciscan community. The Third-Order origin story continues through the late nineteenth century and is reinforced by official sanctions against the brotherhood by church officials beginning in 1886. The imposition of sanctions was led by the succeeding bishop, Jean Baptiste Salpointe. This Third Order origin thesis serves as a starting point for defining Penitente history for some scholars (Espinosa 1993), whereas others challenge it and place the origin of the Penitentes at an earlier historical moment (sixteenth century) and in regions outside of the American Southwest, such as Mexico, Central America and Spain (Chávez 1954; Wroth 1991).

Whereas the Penitente Brotherhood embody Roman Catholic expression in nineteenth century New Mexico, their vision and contributions are not integrated into the official and legitimate Church history. Instead, the Brotherhood is understood as an obstacle or hindrance to the full development and expression of Roman Catholicism in the United States. It would not be until the mid-twentieth century (1947), after the visionary work of the Penitente brother, Miguel Archibeque, that the Roman Catholic Church would officially recognize the Brotherhood, under the leadership of Archbishop Edwin Vincent Byrne. There were a reported 10,000 members in the Brotherhood at this point in time (Archuleta 2010). Hermano Miguel Archibeque would be named the first Hermano Supremo . This recognition would remain constant through the 1970s. Different Hermano Supremos enter into this role, now under the church leadership and guidance of Archbishop Robert Sánchez, who was a strong advocate for Penitente spirituality. This advocacy would cease in 1993 with the untimely resignation of Archbishop Sánchez.

In contrast to the official story, historical evidence through community and documented sources highlight a Penitente presence some twenty years earlier. It is said that Don Bernardo Abeyta, recognized as an active member of the Penitente Brotherhood, is remembered as someone who on Good Friday in 1810 would discover, through a series of miraculous events, the holy shrine of El Santuario de Chimayó. The Brother Abeyta story acknowledges an earlier Penitente presence. It also lends more authority to the healing qualities of the sacred earth in Chimayó and aligns the brotherhood with an indigenous (Pueblo) past. A comparison of both the official and the community stories places the origins of the Penitente presence in this North American region to be in the early nineteenth century.

The official record does not identify a founder of the Penitente Brotherhood in the American southwest. However, both oral andcommunity stories point to Juan De Oñate, the first Spanish Colonizer in New Mexico.[Image at right] Oñate arrives in the region on March 20, 1598 and observes Holy Thursday rites with penitential expressions somewhere south of present-day Ciudad Juárez. This event is chronicled by Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá.

There is a deep and strong regional character that embodies the history of Penitente Brotherhood. The territorial challenges and changes to the region are intrinsically interwoven into the faith traditions resulting in multilayered and multi-vocal histories. The foundational history originates with a strong first-nation (Pueblo) presence that is challenged and changed with the arrival of Spanish colonizers, accompanied by Franciscan clergy seeking to exploit both the resources and people of the region. These contested and emerging identities transform again with a Mexican identity that at best, seeks to “integrate” the traditions, and at worst, creates an encounter of conflict and accommodation by those in power. Finally, this region becomes a U.S. territory, which impacts significantly on all of the previous communities found at the time. All of these different historical moments shaped the Penitente presence as we know it. For some, the roots of Penitente history are deeply indigenous (Pueblo) and point to a strong Genízaro presence. This situates penitente-like spirituality in the region as early as the late eighteenth century. For others, Penitente history is a deeply Spanish and Franciscan one that presents itself at the time of European contact in the Americas, with a strong Christian and Franciscan imprint that originates in Spain or Mexico. And for still others, the history of the Penitentes is one of insensitivity and disrespect, by American Roman Catholics and Protestants, toward regional Hispano religious and cultural influences that define a Penitente spiritual history of marginalization in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the final analysis, Penitente history is a combination of all of these influences. Future research will continue to reveal new and important narratives for understanding the fascinating and evolving history of the Penitente Brotherhood.


 The long-term presence of the Franciscan order in the Americas (American Southwest) since the sixteenth century has left a major imprint on the sacred expressions and worldviews of the region. The exposure of the Penitente Brotherhood to the Franciscan order, both in Mexico and present day Southwest, have deeply influenced the practices and beliefs of the hermandad or brotherhood. Three values are particularly important: charity, prayer, and the good example.

The most salient characteristic that defines a penitente is the practice of pentencia or penance. This act of penance is experienced and expressed through manifestations and oral teachings of caridad or charity that inspire and guide spiritual and material activity for the brotherhood and community at large. Hence, charity is a penitential act, therefore, to be a penitente, one must strive to practice acts of charity. Charity represents the means for understanding and living in the world.

The Penitente brotherhood credits the value of charitable work with having gathered and sustained New Mexican communities throughout its history. When members of the community were in need of spiritual help (“iban para las moradas por que no habio clero Católico”), “they would go to the moradas because no Catholic clergy was available,” says an elder member of the brotherhood (Lopez Pulido 2000). A morada is a sacred abode where members of the brotherhood gather and meditate on the passion of Christ. Charity is a sacralized form of human agency because it implores believers to “go out of their way” to help someone in need.

In addition, acts of charity are defined as a form of prayer. Charitable acts are interpreted as a form of prayer. Haciendo oración or praying is a form of human agency where a person is understood as literally praying. Prayer as agency is a spontaneous and creative act where one invokes the Penitente tenet of charity by providing assistance to others.

Finally, these acts of charity and prayer help to sustain the community as they serve to illustrate and model a good example, or buen ejemplo, for the members of the community to emulate. In sum, the person that prays produces acts of charity and model good examples for the community. It is through prayer and the good examples that one practices and models charity.

The sacred triad of charity, prayer and the good example represent the essential values of Penitente spiritual belief and teachings. It permeates all aspects of the lived experience for all members of the community and deeply tied to the history and way of life in the region. In a journal from the early 1900s, from the Morada de Los Pinos, New Mexico, we learn that times of hardship and personal problems were addressed by the membership to ease their member’s burdens. Members donated whatever money they could afford; if they couldn’t help monetarily, they would donate food items, labor, and the use of their horses and wagons to provide firewood to those in need. If a member had legal problems, the membership would fund legal representation to assure that the member received fair treatment (Archuleta 2010).


The Penitente brotherhood is devoted to the Christian Passion (Penitencia) and Holy Week observances in their annual cycle of worship. Both belief and practices center around recreating the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as emulated through the life of St. Francis of Assisi and as embraced by the Franciscan community. Penitentes partake in a range of activities and devotions to commemorate Christ’s passion. [Image at right] Passion plays, Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross), processions that dramatize the last days of Christ are common rituals among the brotherhood. These activities are accompanied by memorable chants and singing known as Alabados that provide a sentiment and mood for the experience. Whereas much has been written about the dark and somber context put forth by penitente practices and rituals, we must see it as double entendre where the faithful find strength and transformation through the suffering of Christ. This can be seen in a popular and enduring Alabado that proclaims:

My God is my redeemer in who I hope and confide in
Because of your passion – Jesús Mío [my Christ]
Embrace me in your love

To focus simply on ritual limits our understanding as to the significance of the Penitente worldview. Acts of penance are bestdefined both as reparation for personal sin and, perhaps more importantly, charitable suffering for the good of the community. Therefore, penance for the faith community is not just enduring pain and punishment; more significantly, it is delivering the community from pain and suffering (Padilla 2003). This is a critically important insight for understanding Penitente ritual.

Furthermore, as has been stated throughout this essay, Penitente sacred expressions are interwoven into their everyday life and represent part of the total culture. Aside from the music (Alabados), it can be found in the diet, cultural traditions, and artistic expressions. Consider that traditional religious New Mexican art originates in the second half of the eighteen century with the advent of the native-born New Mexican artists known as santeros or woodcarvers. These woodcarving artists began producing religious art influenced by the Baroque style brought by Spanish friars to the region in the previous century. One of the most important artistic image to emerge was the santo de bulto [Image at right] represented by three-dimensional religious figures that adorn churches, private chapels, plazas and homes. The Hermanos Penitentes were the first to preserve this traditional artistic expression as they carefully conserved the reredoses, retablos and bultos in their homes and moradas. Santero and other religious art are integrated in the creation and maintenance of community because it was part of the everyday spiritual life of the community. The santo de bulto provided meaning and guidance for acts of pilgrimage, processions, penance and prayer in their sacred world. This art form is known throughout the world and a major cultural marker when one thinks of New Mexican religious and cultural history.


Historically, the Penitente brotherhood is organized through their moradas [Image at right] found in numerous communities or villages in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Membership is determined on community concepts of maturity. The HermanoMayor or elder brother is deemed the superior in charge of the chapter and all its concerns. He serves as administrator, arbiter, and overseer of all rituals. There exist three main ranks in the local Penitente chapters: Brothers of Blood, Brothers of Light, and Brothers who have returned to the light. Brothers of Light are the official brothers of the morada. Brothers of Blood are brothers engaged in penance. And Brothers who have returned to the light are those who have emerged from their novitiate in active penances. Ten to twelve official positions within the brotherhood have been identified by scholars (Weigle 1976:143-47).

The membership consists mainly of Hispano, Catholic laymen who are devoted to the teachings of the church and Jesus. Women are involved as auxiliary members as members who support the men’s activities during Holy Week. The women groups are known as Carmelitas, Veronicas, Auxiliarias and Paduanas. According to some scholar, these women focus their attention on church-related activities such as embroidering altar cloths with religious representations, making straw-inlaid crosses and dressing the Santos or saints. Yet, more recent scholarship sees them as active leaders for both family and community spirituality that have played a central role in Penitente spirituality as presented in this essay (Aragon: 1998; Padilla 2003).

The Penitente brotherhood is a vital civil and ecclesiastical organization that has guided communities in prayer, worship, and catechism over the centuries. It is tied to both the deeply personal and applied characteristic of this faith expression as well as a faith tradition that was challenged by religious authorities from the Roman Catholic faith. As affirmed throughout this essay, Penitente spirituality is grounded in the daily activities and experiences of ordinary women and men and is characterized by a personal emotive style.


The two biggest challenges for the Penitente brotherhood are their flagellant depiction and characteristic in relation to their ability to remain an active, living and thriving community, with their traditions and practices remaining intact.

A constant theme in the telling and retelling of Penitente history is the prominence placed on a religious community that is exclusively described as flagellant. The early nineteenth century encounters with the brotherhood put forth flagellation narratives that were constructed by vagabonds and church officials who were from outside the region. Such narratives endure into the contemporary period. Both popular opinion and official sanctions help framed a religious and ethnic community that was both “deviant” and “blood-thirsty” forcing the membership to go underground through the twentieth century. The community response was to develop a religious organization that emphasized secrecy and private worship. This, in turn, created even more curiosity and unflattering depictions by outsiders or those unfamiliar with the history of the culture, region and traditions. In many ways, such consequences have led to steady decline in the brotherhood.

Some reports place the Penitente brotherhood numbers as low as 600 members, while others estimates that between 1,000 and 1,500 Hermanos are still active. This represents a major decrease from a community that numbered in the thousands in the mid-twentieth century. According to Archuleta, (2010) the most active moradas are located in areas of northern New Mexico in communities like Arroyo Seco, Abiquiu and Tierra Amarilla. Moradas in San Antonio, Garcia, San Luis, Fort Garland, Agua Ramon, Walsenburg, and Trinidad remain active in the southern Colorado region. A review of the webpage for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe reveals no presence or evidence of an active Penitente community. As has been the case in the past, one would assume that there is much activity occurring at the local community level throughout New Mexico and Colorado, but this is not reflected in the formal structures of the archdiocese in the contemporary period.


Image #1: Photo of Bishop José Laureano Antonio Zubiría y Escalante of Durango.
Source: Wikipedia.

Image #2: Photograph of a statue of San Juan Pueblo DonJuan De Onate, first Govenor of New Spain.
Source: Wikipedia.

Image #3: Photograph of a Penitentes in Semana Santa, Oaxaca, México.
Source: Wikimedia.

Image #4: Photograph of an example of a santo de bulto, in this case Our Lady of the Rosary (Nuestra Señora del Rosario).
Source: The Regis Collection.

Image #5: Photograh of a Penitentes morada at Taos.
Source: University of Arizona library.


Aragon, Ray John de. 1998. Hermanos de la Luz: Brothers of the Light. Santa Fe, NM: Heartsfire Books.

Archuleta, Ruben E. 2010. “Los Penitentes Del Valle: Understanding the Penitente Church in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico” Accessed from on 10 May 2016.

Chávez, Fray Angélico. 1993. My Penitente Land: Reflections on Spanish New Mexico. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico: 1993.

Chávez, Fray Angélico. 1954. “The Penitentes of New Mexico.” New Mexico Historical Review 29:7.

“El Santuario de Chimayo – American Latino Heritage: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.” n.d. Accessed from on 10 May 2016.

Espinosa, J. Manuel. 1993. “The Origins of the Penitentes of New Mexico: Separating Fact from Fiction.” Catholic Historical Review 79: 454-77.

“Influence of Genezarios on Penitential Practices.” Accessed from on 10 May 2016.

Kutsche, Paul and Dennis Gallegos. 1979. “Community Functions of the Cofradia de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno.” Pp. 91-98 in The Survival of Spanish American Villages, edited by Paul Kutsche. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Colorado College.

López Pulido, Alberto. 2005. “Penitentes.” Oxford Encyclopedia of Latino/Latino U.S. New York: Oxford University Press.

López Pulido, Alberto. 2004. “Palabras En Madera – Words in Wood: The Woodcarvings and Teachings of Hermano Juan Sandoval.” Self-Published.

López Pulido, Alberto. 2000. The Sacred World of the Penitentes. Washington DC: Smithsonian Press.

Padilla, AnaMaría. 2003. “Rezadoras Y Animadoras: Women, Faith, and Community in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.” U.S. Catholic Historian 21:73-81.

Torrez, Robert. n.d. “Penitente Brotherhood in New Mexico.” Accessed from on 10 May 2016.

Weigle, Marta. 1976. Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press.

Wroth, William. 1991. Images of Penance, Images of Mercy: Southwestern Santos in the Late Nineteenth Century. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Alberto López Pulido

Post Date:
11 May 2016