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Convent Prisons - How Did They Work?

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Dr. Horvat,

I would appreciate it if you could explain the rationale for prisons in convents, like the one mentioned several times in the book The Admirable Life of Mother Mariana by Fr. Manuel Pereira, which you translated. I never heard of them before.

Let me take advantage of this message to express my gratitude for the important work you did in bringing this moving book to the English-speaking public. May Our Lady of Good Success reward you for that effort.

     Kind regards,


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Dear Dr. Marian Horvat,

When Mother Marianna was in jail - I am concerned about the following: The door was locked!

1. How did they get their food and drink? Was it brought in?
2. Where was the bathroom (outhouse or whatever they called it)?
3. Were they given provisions to take care of their female regular necessities?
4. In the photographs on line, why are the faces of all the founding sisters covered up and not exposed like other Saints and Venerables?

     In Jesus and Mary,

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Dr. Horvat responds:

Dear Mr. E.J. and Mrs. A.M.,

Thank you for your e-mails and words of support.

It is not well known in the United States that it was quite common to have prisons in contemplative Catholic convents and monasteries from the early age of Monasticism, through the Middles Ages, and up to modern times. In some strict Spanish convents and monasteries, they existed up to Vatican II.

The legitimacy of the prisons

Does the monastery prison violate human rights? When a person entered the religious life, he (or she) knew well in advance that he would be punished and possibly put in prison or isolated in a cell for crimes, rebellions or major infractions against the rule. Therefore, exercising his full right to choose, he freely accepted that arrangement, just as today a soldier knows that if he breaks army rules he can go to jail. Therefore, before any other considerations, let us set aside the empty and revolutionary accusation of the abuse of human rights.

The monastery prison was considered a very holy and wholesome place that allowed religious who seriously violated the rule to make amendment for their faults in this life rather than the next.

The primary aim of isolating the monk was the reformation of the penitent. The secondary aim was the general good of the monastery, that is, to prevent the crime or rebellious spirit of the guilty monk or nun from contaminating the rest of the community. It was a most salutary Catholic custom, and the monks and nuns themselves were grateful for it.

For those who had to suffer there for unjust accusations, as Mother Mariana did, they could unite their prayers and sufferings to those of Our Lord, the Innocent One par excellence, Who suffered unjustly so many terrible punishments for our sins.

The other members of the community always offered special prayers for the repentance and reformation of those who were in prison.

Monastic prisons, a long tradition in the Church

Incarceration was seen to be an appropriate response for certain faults and crimes since the very beginning of both Eastern and Western Monasticism. The Rules of St. Pachomius (the earliest known rule), St. Basil, and St. Benedict all specify the punishment of isolation and exclusion from the common life. St. Benedict uses the metaphor of the good father who punishes an errant child as rationale for the Abbot who punishes the bad monk by isolating him, reducing his rations and inflicting the punishment necessary for his repentance.

By the time of St. Gregory the Great in the 5th century, confinement in cells for specific periods of time was common procedure for both monks and disobedient clergy. There are historians who affirm that, at the height of the Middle Ages, every contemplative religious house had a prison, or at least the recourse of sending errant nuns and monks to a mother house or larger sister branch with an appropriate prison. (1) For example, for the very serious crime of murdering another monk, a 12th-century Cistercian ordinance establishes the guilty monk should be kept in confinement and fed on bread and water for the rest of his life. (2)

By the way, penal exclusion was an alternative to the more brutal forms of secular punishment typical of the time. You may be surprised to learn that the modern English penitentiary system developed in the 18th century by John Howard borrowed much from the structure and discipline of the ecclesiastic penal system. In fact, Howard’s conception of a prison with individual cells was based on Pope Clement XII’s prison of San Michelle, built in 1703 to reform juvenile delinquents, which applied the monastic discipline for purposes of civil punishment and correction. (3)

One can clearly see how the modern prison system mimics the special monastery “cells” - whence the name, the emphasis on silence, isolation and self-denial with the aim of bringing self-reflection, correction and a return to society. The whole notion of solitary confinement was admittedly based on a monastic principle. (4)
1. John Berkman, “Being Reconciled: Penitence, Punishment and Worship,” in Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
2. Ibid., p. 104.
3. Ibid., p. 103.
4. Ibid., pp. 95-119.
Practical information regarding prison life

Even though they inspired the modern prisons, the religious prisons were actually quite different from today’s jails. They were also the opposite of the Inquisition-style torture chambers that Hollywood invents for its movies to feed anti-Catholic hatred.

Except in extreme cases (e.g., demonic possession, murder, or violent rebellion), the nuns and monks who were punished in the monastic prisons or isolated cells were not bound and chained. They were brought food and drink; in most cases they were expected to assist at the praying of the Office and the Mass (the deprivation of assisting at Mass was the unusual punishment - and the most difficult one - that Mother Mariana had to suffer because of the malice of the revolted sisters).

If the punished monk or nun became ill, they were given medicines and treated appropriately, or moved to the infirmary when necessary. The role model of the punishing Abbot or Abbess was the Good Shepherd, who makes every effort to return the lost sheep to the flock.

Regarding the first question of Mrs. A.M., it is certain that regular meals – albeit reduced rations – were delivered to those who were imprisoned. Regarding questions two and three, I don’t have at hand any specific data on the general provisions made for personal hygiene in monastery prisons.

The books about Our Lady of Good Success that I translated focus on the extraordinary lives of those Conceptionist Founding Mothers. The ordinary life of the Convent appears in passing - for example, references to the infirmary in several descriptions of sick Mothers; mentions of the prison during the four incarcerations of Mother Mariana and the Founding Mothers and on a few other occasions. There were no references to matters of personal hygiene.

However, the sanitary system of the Royal Convent of Quito most probably followed the plans and methods used in that time in the noble houses and convents of northern Spain where the Founding Mothers lived before coming to the New World to build their Convent in Ecuador.

If you are very interested in this topic and willing to do some research (for which I lack the time right now), you could find various floor plans in the archives of the still existing Spanish convents and monasteries in that area. A similar research could be done on the many religious institutions established in Quito in the 16th century.

The veiled faces of the Founding Mothers

Regarding the covered faces of the Founding Mothers, like Mrs. A.M., I would like to see the faces uncovered. It is an undisputed fact that the bodies are all incorrupt. The Bishop and religious authorities testified to this under oath when the bodies were discovered in the early 1900s. The present day Mother Abbess affirms that they were not even in glass cases until the 1970s when visitors started to arrive at the Convent because of the prophecies of Our Lady of Good Success. During the process of beatification that started in the 1980s when Mother Mariana was named Venerable, the present Bishop verified that the bodies are incorrupt.

It would be a marvelous thing to see the faces of these incorrupt Founding Mothers, but the present day Church is not very enthusiastic about highlighting such marvels and miracles from the past, especially since these particular prophecies of Our Lady of Good Success point an accusing figure directly at a revolution and serious crisis inside today's Church.

I hope this answer will be of assistance.


     Marian T. Horvat

Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted September 11, 2008

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