October 24, 2021
The Dominican convent in our town, a Unesco World Heritage site, was built around 450 years ago. Surrounding it was a substantial wall enclosing a large square space, with small shrines at three of the corners, and the convent itself occupying the fourth one. There was substantial damage in the 2017 earthquake, and while repairs slowly progress, services are held in a temporary structure in the square space in front.
The rainstorm that hit the town yesterday was extremely heavy, and while the water raged down the streets, a part of the wall collapsed. No-one, I understand, was injured, since the street vendors in front of it had taken shelter. Someone drowned in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, up in the hills, but the wall was the only loss in town.
Historical monuments are meant to stir our imaginations, but the small details often offer the most intriguing bits of information. Looking at the rubble this morning, I found myself pondering the construction methods of those times. It looks as if stones were rather randomly cemented into place, then a layer of cement was put over it to keep the rain out. Initially, it had a defensive function as well as a perimeter-defining one, since the local people were by no means won over to Catholicism for some decades, or even centuries. It must have been a hundred years after the construction before the handful of monks in the convent felt safe from the people around them.
There was a reluctance to worship indoors once conversion occurred, since indigenous worship had always been done by means of parades and dances held under the open skies. Local people argued that a roof separated them from the God they were asked to worship, and so the Church decided there was no harm in continuing outdoor services. The large courtyard facilitated a Christian version of this.
A church like the convent cannot last forever, and only the of the corner shrines is still largely intact. But seeing the fallen stones was a reminder of the impermanence of even the most solid seeming structures. I have walked past that wall a hundred times, and taken it for granted.
But not today.