A congregation of ex-conventos

My favorite is the ex-Convento de Churubusco that has been re-christened Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, an elegant euphemism for invasions. The convento was a bastion where the Battle of Churubusco took place in August 1847, when the USA invaded Mexico. In that museum, I saw an old map where Texas was called Nuevas Filipinas.

I also was very impressed by the ex-Convento de Tepotzotlán that was founded by the Jesuits in 1586. Aside from the Church of St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuits had a seminary until the order was expelled from all the colonies of Spain in 1767. When the Jesuits returned in 1871, they retrieved the Convento de Tepotzotlán only to be driven out, in 1914, by Gen Francisco Coss. It has since been named Museo Nacional del Virreinato, which includes the church. Aside from the finest inventory of liturgical objects and colonial art, there are ivory pieces, which came from Manila via the galleon trade.

Independence from Spain was the fruit of Latin America’s anti-colonial movements, which began in 1810 and ended in 1821. To the liberal governments that took over in mid- 19th century, the separation of Church and Statewas primordial. Convents, monasteries and churches were closed down and ecclesiastical patrimony was nationalized. However, from 1876 to 1911, during the reign of Pres. Porfirio Diaz, the government would turn a blind eye to the established policy of separation of Church and State.

The dictator Porfirio Diaz allowed the Church and its ministers to acquire property, engagein real estate speculation and money lending. The agricultural sector was a constant client. In the state of Michoacan,for example, the clergy in partnership with the private sector set up real estate and banking corporations. The archbishop became an active promoter of Christian education in order to neutralize the influence of non-sectarian schools established after Independence. Towards the end of the “ Porfiriato”, there a numberof Catholic schools exclusively for girls were established. So long as they spread Christian democracy,the Church never provoked the ire of the State. In fact, the First Marian Congress as held in Morelia in 1904.

As expected, winds changed during the Mexican Revolution that followed the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Once again, the activities of the Church were restricted to the spiritual realm. As it turned out, the situation of the Catholic Church would change depending on the incumbent ruler. Pres. Francisco Madero continued the Porfiriato’s “policy of maximum tolerance which allowed the Church to openly engage in banking and real estate; it could even meddle in politics without being shoved back to its place.

When Victoriano Huerta and the“constitutionalists” came to power, theyaccused the clergy of supporting the previous administrations, especially the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, so, once again, convents and schools were ordered closed, confessionals were burnt, church properties including religious art objects were summarily confiscated. Whenever the Church wasbranded as the “enemy of the Revolution”, its properties were immediately confiscated and activities totally restricted.

Be that as it may, it was only in 1935 when Gen. Lazaro Cardenas became president that the Ley de Nacionalizaciion de Bienes was passed on 26 August. This new law declared thatthe nation owned all the bienes of the Church–temples, parish houses, seminaries, bishops’ residences, convents, orphanages, sectarian schools and real estate used as administrative offices. Once again the separation of Church and State was strictly upheld and enforced. I think it was during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas that many conventos became ex-, were given adaptive reuse and converted into museums with various historical, cultural and educational themes.

When I arrived in Mexico in 1976, I was looking around for schools for my children only to be informed by Philippine embassy officials that Catholic schools were merely tolerated, implying that these could be closed at short notice.However, there was no religious persecution in Mexico as evidenced by theprofound devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe, probablystronger than it was during the anti-colonial wars of Padre Miguel Hidalgo. Every December, hordes of pilgrims trekking from their hometowns to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe “invade” Mexico City and cause humongous traffic jams.

In 1992, when Mr. Salinas de Gortari became president, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was amended. The government formally recognized the existence of religious organizations; the Church as an institution is allowed to open schools, own real estate in accordance to law. Significantly, Mexico re-established diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

Nothing has changed for the Church with the incumbent Pres. Peña Nieto. Next week, members of the Union Nacional de Trabajadores, the largest and most militant federationof labor unions in Mexico, are going to the Vatican upon the invitation of the Papacy, which probably means Pope Francis himself. “What are you going to talk about?”—I asked one of the labor union leaders—“ Life is not about riches…” the Vatican invitation said, so they will discuss rights of workers to a better life and to form unions that are truly pro-labor. I wonder if Pope Francis will ask them about the congregation of ex-conventos.