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THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE

LADIES OF THE VELA PERPETUA:


GENDER AND DEVOTIONAL CHANGE
IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY MEXICO*
A stock item in the rhetorical arsenal of the Mexican left is the Vela
Perpetua, a predominantly female lay organization whose central
purpose is to keep vigil over the Blessed Sacrament from morning
to night. The Spanish-language version of the satirical website
Uncyclopedia, for example, called the recent (200012) regime
of the conservative party (Partido Accion Nacional, hereafter
PAN) a secular state directed by Catholics of the Vela
Perpetua.1 Former president Felipe Calderons ultra-conserva-
tive wing of the PAN, wrote one blogger, is worse than the daugh-
ters of the Vela Perpetua.2 Another lamented that Calderon was a
worthy representative of his party, the Vela Perpetua, in reference
to the administrations call for sexual abstinence and limitations on
easy access to birth control.3 Even PAN supporters, worried that
the party is perceived as excessively attentive to Catholic concerns,
have invoked the Vela: leading up to the 2006 election, one
sympathizer complained that the PAN still had the aura of a
party made up of ultra-reactionaries, the ladies of the Vela
Perpetua, and fanatics with bloody knees.4
The Vela Perpetua is useful as a device to ridicule the Catholic
right since it conjures up in one fell swoop extremism (an all-day
vigil, every day), futility (there is no socially productive outcome
of the vigil) and pious intolerance, all bound up with a helpfully

* I would like to thank William B. Taylor, Mary Kay Vaughan, Margaret Lavinia
Anderson, Silvia Arrom, Kathyrn Kish Sklar, Paul Ramrez, Jessica Delgado, Vera
Candiani, and the participants in the following seminars: the Miller History Center
seminar at the University of Maryland, the Mexican History seminar at the University
of Chicago, the Religion in the Americas seminar at Princeton University, the Berkeley
Latin American History working group, and the Latin American Historians of
Northern California (LAHNOCA) working group.
1
5http://inciclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/PAN4.
2
Raul Rivera L., 29 June 2006, at5http://kushkush.wordpress.com/about4.
3
Alfonso Maldonado, Atolito con el dedo, 22 Jan. 2007, at 5http://fraterlucis.
blogspot.co.uk/2007/01/atolito-con-el-dedo.html4.
4
Alberto Carbot, 15 Oct. 2005, at 5http://gentesur.com.mx/articulos.php?id_sec
1&id_art295&id_ejemplar494(no longer available).

Past and Present, no. 221 (Nov. 2013) The Past and Present Society, Oxford, 2013
doi:10.1093/pastj/gtt015
198 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

derogatory image of feminized Catholicism. It also conveys, well,


perpetuity. Everyone in Mexico can share the joke whether the
laughter is mocking, as in the examples above, or gentle, as in, my
mother was a member of the Vela Perpetua and she used to make
me go with her to mop the church floor because the Vela is so
familiar, in the fullest sense of the word: it is an institution with a
deep genealogy of devout mothers, grandmothers and great-
grandmothers.5 In other words, there is a timeless quality to
most peoples notion of the Vela.
But in fact the Vela Perpetua has a surprisingly rich and com-
plicated history. Founded in 1840, it did not acquire its present
reputation until much later.6 In its early years the Vela was
innovative, even radically so. This was especially the case in its
implicit challenge to the Churchs rigidly hierarchical gender
ideology: the constitution of the Vela Perpetua mandated that
women, and only women, were to serve as the officers of this
mixed-sex lay devotional organization. The requirement of
female leadership meant something virtually unheard of in
Catholic lay societies: that women were in a position to govern
men.7 With some ambivalence, the ecclesiastical hierarchy
accepted this reversal of gender roles, since the Vela offered the
Church an unexpected opportunity to rebuild urban lay associ-
ations at the grassroots level after a period of grave financial losses.
Women, with no ambivalence whatsoever, flocked to the Vela as
a way to support the Church and to claim a kind of religious
citizenship greater equality and greater power within the
Church that historically they had been denied.
Since there is no published scholarly work on any aspect of the
history of the Vela Perpetua, one aim of this article is simply to
5
Here I paraphrase the words and I hope convey the tone of the director of the
archiepiscopal archive in Guadalajara, Licenciada Glafira Magana Perales, as we dis-
cussed my research over lunch in February 2007.
6
For early anecdotal evidence of the Vela Perpetua as an object of ridicule, note the
following exchange, which took place during a 1928 congressional debate. Mid-
speech, Gonzalo N. Santos could not remember the first name of the nineteenth-
century conservative general Marquez; when he was reminded that it was
Leonardo, another deputy responded, to laughter: Gracias, companero de la Vela
Perpetua! Diario de los debates de la Asamblea de Representantes, XXXII Legislatura, i
(19268), n. 61, Sesion de la Comision Permanente del Congreso de la Union,
Mexico, 13 Feb. 1928.
7
A qualifier: it was virtually unheard of for Hispanic women to govern Hispanic
men. Mulatto and indigenous confraternities were somewhat more flexible as regards
female authority.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 199
present that story, especially its early history in the small towns
and cities of the central-western states of Guanajuato, Michoacan
and Jalisco (a part of Mexico known as the Bajo), where it caught
on quickly and spread rapidly.8 This I do in some detail, as the
archives permit an unusually intimate glimpse into the origins,
founding and day-to-day functioning of this new organization. A
second aim is to deepen the remarkably thin scholarship that
addresses the question of whether and how the practice of
Catholicism at the parish level changed in the wake of the pro-
longed wars for Mexican independence that began in 1810.9 Any
change in Catholic devotionalism is a matter of some significance
not only for religious history but also for political history, given
the extent to which Mexican politics was shaped by fierce debates
over the proper role of the Catholic Church in the new nation.
Finally, the article is intended to contribute to the scholarship on
the feminization of both Catholicism and Protestantism in the
West, especially where that scholarship intersects with broader
histories of Catholic devotionalism and the gendering of politics
and the public sphere in the nineteenth century. These contribu-
tions are spelled out in the conclusion.

I
BACKGROUND AND ORIGINS OF THE VELA PERPETUA
Urban confraternities in colonial Mexico
The predecessor of lay associations like the Vela Perpetua was the
urban cofrada (confraternity), whose central purpose was to sus-
tain devotion to a particular saint or image of Christ or the Virgin
in the many churches in large towns and cities.10 This involved
8
The only work, which remains unpublished, is Luis Murillos The Politics of the
Miraculous: Local Religious Practice in Porfirian Michoacan, 18761910 (Univ. of
California, San Diego Ph.D. thesis, 2002), ch. 4.
9
William B. Taylor, Shrines and Marvels in the Wake of Mexican Independence,
in his Shrines & Miraculous Images: Religious Life in Mexico before the Reforma
(Albuquerque, 2010); Terry Rugeley, Of Wonders and Wise Men: Religion and
Popular Cultures in Southeast Mexico, 18001876 (Austin, 2001).
10
Urban cofradas were commonly referred to as cofradas de espanoles to distin-
guish them from the cofradas de indios. Indigenous cofradas shared some character-
istics with the urban or Spanish version, but functioned differently in light of the fact
that they were usually closely associated with the single church in a given village and
mapped closely onto the latters political hierarchies. Their economic bases also dif-
fered, generally consisting of cattle and sometimes ranches, rather than the urban
property and loan capital that supported most urban cofradas. On Mexican urban
(cont. on p. 200)
200 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

maintaining the chapel or altar dedicated to the object of devotion


throughout the year, and at least once a year organizing a func-
tion, typically a special mass, procession and fiesta.11 The
expenses incurred by the cofradas in these important public dis-
plays of piety could be significant: they frequently included
invited preachers, fireworks, candles, musicians, singers, adorn-
ment of the processional route, bullfights, and elaborate refresh-
ments. In addition, all cofradas were dedicated to their members
good deaths, which occasioned more expense, such as a yearly
anniversary mass to pray for all dead cofrades and transporting of
the Host to the homes of the moribund. Moreover, a large subset
of urban cofradas (estimated by one historian to be about two-
thirds) also operated as mutual aid/burial societies, and these
involved additional expense they guaranteed members a
coffin, a shroud, burial in the churchyard, and a one-off cash
payment to survivors.12 To fund these many activities, cofradas
often came to depend not only on members fees and alms but
also on rental and interest income from bequests and donations of
real property, and most cofradas required not just a treasurer, but

(n. 10 cont.)
cofradas, see Nicole von Germeten, Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social
Mobility for Afro-Mexicans (Gainesville, 2002); Alicia Bazarte Martnez, Las cofradas
de espanoles en la ciudad de Mexico, 15261860 (Mexico City, 1989); Juan Jose
Pescador, De bautizados a fieles difuntos: familia y mentalidades en una parroquia
urbana. Santa Catarina de Mexico, 15681820 (Mexico City, 1992); Francis Joseph
Brooks, Parish and Cofrada in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Princeton Univ. Ph.D.
thesis, 1976); Clara Garca Ayluardo, Ceremonia y cofrada: la Ciudad de Mexico
durante el siglo XVIII, in Rosa Mara Meyer Coso (ed.), Identidad y practicas de los
grupos de poder en Mexico, siglos XVIIXIX (Mexico City, 1999); D. A. Brading, Church
and State in Bourbon Mexico: The Diocese of Michoacan, 17491810 (Cambridge, 1994),
ch. 7; Brian Larkin, Confraternities and Community: The Decline of the Communal
Quest for Salvation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico City, in Martin Austin Nesvig
(ed.), Local Religion in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque, 2006); Rosa Mara Martnez de
Codes, Cofradas y capellanas en el pensamiento ilustrado de la administracion
borbonica, 17601808, in Mara del Pilar Martnez Lopez-Cano, Gisela Von
Wobeser and Juan Guillermo Munoz Correa (eds.), Cofradas, capellanas y obras
pas en la America colonial (Mexico City, 1998).
11
Cofradas also participated in processions and fiestas organized to mark civic
religious occasions, such as the birth of a royal personage or the transfer of nuns to a
new convent: Linda A. Curcio-Nagy, The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City:
Performing Power and Identity (Albuquerque, 2004).
12
Rugeley, Of Wonders and Wise Men: Religion and Popular Cultures in Southeast
Mexico, 74, based on his count for Informe que presento el Arzobispado de
Mexico, sobre las cofradas y hermandades de las iglesias y capillas de Nueva
Espana: Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico City (hereafter AGN), Cofradas,
vol. 18, exp. 7, 257311.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 201
also a business manager to handle their complicated financial
affairs.13 They also developed a rather elaborate system of self-
government, with as many as twenty-four officers selected in
sometimes highly contested elections; indeed, the prestige of
cofrada office was one of the ways social hierarchies in the
urban context were maintained.14
By the mid eighteenth century, many of these functions of the
cofradas had come to be seen as incompatible with the new sen-
sibilities of the enlightened era, and beginning in the 1760s they
came under attack from both the Spanish State and the Church.
Reformers disapproved of the cofrada-sponsored rituals, fiestas
and processions, which they saw as wasteful, vice-ridden, and
characterized by uproar [and] puerile ostentation.15 Instead,
they favoured a more sedate and private devotional style in
Pamela Voekels words, they wished to create a new piety, or,
as Brian Larkin puts it, to redefine the balance in Catholic prac-
tice between ritual action and pious contemplation in favor of the
latter.16 Furthermore, reformers wanted to purify the Church by
13
To clarify, most licensed cofradas required a business manager. OHara found
many more cofradas in late eighteenth-century Mexico City than were identified in
the 1793 colony-wide cofrada census on which Rugeley based his count: Matthew D.
OHara, A Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico, 17491857 (Durham,
NC, 2010), esp. ch. 4.
14
Bazarte Martnezs Las cofradas de espanoles en la ciudad de Mexico is especially
strong on the social rewards of cofrada membership.
15
The words of Bishop Fray Antonio de San Miguel of Michoacan, quoted in D. A.
Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State,
14921867 (Cambridge, 1991), 495.
16
Pamela Voekel, Alone before God: The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico
(Durham, NC, 2002); Brian R. Larkin, The Very Nature of God: Baroque Catholicism
and Religious Reform in Bourbon Mexico City (Albuquerque, 2010), 8. Other discus-
sions of clerical and state efforts to modernize pious practices include D. A. Brading,
Tridentine Catholicism and Enlightened Despotism in Bourbon Mexico, Jl Latin
Amer. Studies, xv (1983), 11; Brading, Church and State in Bourbon Mexico: The Diocese
of Michoacan, ch. 8; Brian Conal Belanger, Secularization and the Laity in Colonial
Mexico: Queretaro, 15981821 (Tulane Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1990); Margaret
Chowning, Convent Reform, Catholic Reform, and Bourbon Reform in
Eighteenth-Century New Spain: The View from the Nunnery, Hispanic Amer. Hist.
Rev., lxxxv (2005), 1; OHara, Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico. On
reforms of the Mexican church more generally, see N. M. Farriss, Crown and Clergy in
Colonial Mexico, 17591821: The Crisis of Ecclesiastical Privilege (London, 1968); Oscar
Mazn Gomez, Entre dos majestades: el obispo y la Iglesia del Gran Michoacan ante las
reformas borbonicas, 17581772 (Zamora, 1987); William B. Taylor, Magistrates of the
Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Stanford, 1996); Luisa
Zahino Penafort, Iglesia y sociedad en Mexico, 17651800: tradicion, reforma y reacciones
(Mexico City, 1996); Juvenal Jaramillo Magana, Hacia una iglesia beligerante: la gestion
episcopal de Fray Antonio de San Miguel en Michoacan, 17841804. Los proyectos
(cont. on p. 202)
202 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

reducing its involvement in worldly activities like managing prop-


erty and making loans; since a majority of cofradas did both, they
were early targets of state efforts to force church institutions to
divest themselves of their real estate.17 Reformers also called
for devotionalism to be centred on the parish, which was for
them the appropriate locus of community piety (as opposed to
the churches of the regular orders), and on the sacraments (as
opposed to a saint or image). The well-trained and dedicated
parish priest, they argued, could guide and where necessary
rein in the cofradas officers, whose prestige was linked to the
flamboyance of cofrada-sponsored celebrations. In sum, the
cofradas, as wealthy, property-owning, prestige-granting, inad-
equately supervised purveyors of baroque piety at its most dis-
quieting, were key targets of reforms articulated and
implemented by both Church and State.18
Direct precedent
These features of the urban cofradas and the efforts of both
Crown and Church to reform them are relatively well known.
What is not well known is that with few exceptions, the mixed-
sex urban cofradas in the eighteenth century (and almost all
cofradas, whether urban or rural, had both male and female mem-
bers) comprised fairly large female majorities. This characteristic
is not obvious from the paintings and descriptions of processions,
or from the legal records concerning urban cofradas, since the
leaders in the processions and the officers who acted on behalf
of the cofradas were always men. But my research has established
that regardless of region, decade, type of cofrada and members

(n. 16 cont.)
ilustrados y las defensas canonicas (Zamora, 1996); Carlos Herrejon Peredo, Del sermon
al discurso cvico: Mexico, 17601834 (Zamora, 2003). There is a larger literature on
State and Catholic reformism in eighteenth-century Spain.
17
Debates over the forced sale of church property began in the mid eighteenth
century, but legislation was not forthcoming until provoked by fiscal crisis. On the
forced sale of church property in Spain as of 1798, see Richard Herr, Rural Change and
Royal Finances in Spain at the End of the Old Regime (Berkeley, 1989), esp. ch. 3. On the
forced sale of cofrada property in Mexico beginning in 1804, see Gisela von Wobeser,
Dominacion colonial: la consolidacion de vales reales en Nueva Espana, 18041812
(Mexico City, 2003), 154 and 228.
18
For more on the Mexican reforms, see Brooks, Parish and Cofrada in
Eighteenth-Century Mexico; for a shorter summary, see Brading, Church and State
in Bourbon Mexico: The Diocese of Michoacan. On their conception and implementation
in Spain, see William Callahan, Confraternities and Brotherhoods in Spain, 1500
1800, Confraternitas, xii (2001), 17.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 203
social status, membership in eighteenth-century urban cofradas
averaged roughly 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male.19
The explanations for the large female component in eight-
eenth-century Mexican confraternities are complex, ambiguous
and beyond the scope of this article, but the female majorities are
relevant here because of their probable role in shaping the cre-
ation of a new lay association that was a direct predecessor of the
Vela Perpetua. The Real Congregacion del Alumbrado y Vela
Continua del Santsimo Sacramento was founded in Madrid in
1789 when two members of the court of Charles IV aware, they
said, of King Charles and Queen Luisas particular dedication to
the Blessed Sacrament decided to establish a congregation to
formalize perpetual all-day vigils over the Blessed Sacrament in
the royal chapel.20 The Real Congregacion had roots in the
Catholic reform movement described earlier. In fact, in the eyes
of reformers, it was an ideal new institution, a modern confra-
ternity.21 It was sacramental, it was parish-based, it was property-
less, and it was self-supporting in its simple financial structure.
Furthermore, the kind of piety its members expressed in their
simple vigils was also modern, in the sense that it was quiet,
tasteful, and oriented to pious contemplation, not to ritual activ-
ities or showy processions through the streets.22 The king was so
19
Full statistics and some explanation for female domination of the cofradas can be
found in my La femenizacion de la piedad en Mexico: genero y piedad en las cofradas
de espanoles. Tendencias coloniales y pos-coloniales en los arzobispados de Mexico,
Michoacan, y Guadalajara, in Brian Connaughton (ed.), Religion, identidad, y poltica
en Mexico en la epoca de la independencia (Mexico City, 2010). Since publication of that
work, I have collected new data from the archives of the bishoprics of Durango and
Oaxaca, but it does not affect these ratios significantly.
20
Tezontepec, El Sr. Cura sobre Velacion del Santsimo, 1876, Archivo Historico
del Arzobispado de Mexico, Mexico City (hereafter AHAMex), Base Siglo XIX, caja
106, exp. 20. This document presents the most complete history of the Vela. The
original documents and many of the written exchanges can be found in El Exmo y
Illmo S. Arzobispo sobre alumbrado perenne del Smo. 1793: AGN, Bienes
Nacionales, leg. 851, exp. 17.
21
The definition of a modern confraternity, as given by the reformist archbishop
Francisco de Lorenzana, is paraphrased by Belanger in Secularization and the Laity in
Colonial Mexico: Queretaro, 96: one devoted to the Santsimo Sacramento or
Animas, closely tied to the parish and providing financial support for the curate . . .
dedicated to the support of sacramental functions and the visitation of the sick . . . and
suffrage to the episcopacy, closely supervised and less wasteful . . . a way to draw the
laity away from the idea of one central church and toward fealty for a new local parish.
See also Larkin, Very Nature of God: Baroque Catholicism and Religious Reform in
Bourbon Mexico City, 151.
22
Larkin mentions a 1793 sermon almost certainly delivered on the occasion of the
founding of the Real Congregacion in Mexico City (though he does not identify it by
(cont. on p. 204)
204 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

pleased with the Congregacion that he proclaimed that it should


be extended to all parishes in his kingdoms.
The Spanish version of the Real Congregacion had a bloated list
of fifty-one officers, all men.23 But the archbishop of Mexico, to
whom the project was presented in 1791, argued from the begin-
ning that in Mexico both male and female officers were needed, so
that zeal and devotion should be excited among the Women, and so
that there should be officers of their sex who attend to this and to
the increase in the size of the Congregacion.24 Apparently the
Crown questioned the inclusion of female officers, because a
later document signed by the archbishop defended his decision,
reassuring the royal officials that the women would have no power
to meet or in any way involve themselves in the governance of the
Congregacion, and therefore their inclusion constituted not a
substantial but rather a minor alteration to the Spanish version
of the Congregacions constitution one that had been made, the
archbishop continued, in light of the circumstances of this
Country.25 Unfortunately, he did not specify what he meant by
this phrase, but he may well have been referring to the prominent
role played by women in Mexican cofradas, both as members (as
my research shows) and as alms collectors for and patrons of
cofrada activities.26
The Real Congregacion began its daily vigils in the Mexico City
church of San Sebastian in March 1793, and we know that it was

(n. 22 cont.)
name), in which the preacher warned his listeners that . . . purely external piety failed
to serve and honor God: Larkin, Very Nature of God: Baroque Catholicism and Religious
Reform in Bourbon Mexico City, 1645.
23
Nominacion y aumento de oficiales de la Junta Primitiva: AGN, Bienes
Nacionales, leg. 851, exp. 17. Around half were members of the titled nobility.
24
Consulta del Provisor: AGN, Bienes Nacionales, leg. 851, exp. 17. The number
of female officers was half that of the male officers.
25
Archbishop Nunez de Haro to Viceroy Marques de Branciforte, 19 Sep. 1794:
AGN, Bienes Nacionales, leg. 851, exp. 17.
26
Evidence of female patronage and participation, as seen in alms collection lists, can
be found everywhere, but an especially large number of such lists was preserved in
Oaxaca: see Benjamin T. Smith, The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico: Religion, Society,
and Politics in the Mixteca Baja, 17501962 (Albuquerque, 2012). Women also played
important roles in more informal religious organizations, though this is perhaps particu-
larly true of indigenous women: see Paul Ramrez, Between Pestiferous Textiles, Torn
Families, and Bourbon Health Policy: The Tumulto and Smallpox Epidemic of Teotitlan
del Valle, Mexico, 17961797 (unpublished m.s.); Paul Ramrez and William B. Taylor,
Out of Tlatelolcos Ruins: Patronage, Devotion, and Natural Disaster at the Shrine of
Our Lady of the Angels, 17451781, Hispanic Amer. Hist. Rev., xciii (2013), 33; Smith,
Roots of Conservatism in Mexico: Religion, Society, and Politics in the Mixteca Baja.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 205
still functioning as late as 1812.27 We do not know how many
other churches followed the kings instructions to found a Real
Congregacion, but I have identified one other in Mexico (in the
cathedral of Durango), and it is almost certain that the Congre-
gacion was established in at least a few others, since the ladies who
formed the Vela in 1840 made a vague reference to their project as
imitating the vigil before the Blessed Sacrament as it was prac-
tised in other cities.28
Might we suppose from the experience of the Real Congrega-
cion that in the 1790s women were on a path to becoming non-
honorary officers in mixed-gender cofradas? Certainly the arch-
bishop recognized the importance of womens religious energy
and commitment when he insisted that the Mexican version of the
Real Congregacion have female officers, however subordinate
and powerless. But the ideological impediments to women gov-
erning men (as shown by the archbishops careful reassurances
that the presence of the Real Congregacions female officers was
intended simply to encourage other women to join, not that they
should lead) were probably too powerful to permit such a radical
innovation, barring catastrophe.

The financial and leadership crisis of Bajo cofradas


In 1810, catastrophe struck. The paralysis of the economy during
the Wars for Independence (181021) was devastating, and the
end of the most intense period of fighting in 1817 did not bring
much relief.29 Depressed conditions continued into the 1830s,
especially in the Bajo, where a sophisticated and diverse economy
27
There is an oblique reference to the Real Congregacion in Juan Bautista Daz
Calvillo, Noticias para la historia de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios desde el ano de 1808,
hasta el corriente de 1812 (Mexico City, 1812): a vigil before the image of the Virgin de
los Remedios was described as an imitation of the one that the congregacion del
santsimo sacramento carries out.
28
Morelia, 1840. Sobre ereccion de la Congregacion del Alumbrado y Vela
Continua del Santsimo Sacramento en la Parroquia de San Miguel Allende:
Archivo Historico del Arzobispado de Michoacan (hereafter AHAMich),
Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 237, exp. 134.
29
During the wars, desperate cofradas tried both borrowing and selling property.
Many examples of cofrada borrowing are contained in Gobierno, Archivo Historico
del Arzobispado de Guadalajara (hereafter AHAG), caja 15 (180915). Sales of silver,
damask and utensils include: Huerta to Promotor Fiscal, 1 Jun. 1814: AHAG,
Gobierno, Cofradas, caja 15, exp. 1814; La Cofrada del Rosario pide licensia . . .
Morelia, 1833: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Solicitudes, caja 839,
exp. 13; Jose Mara Contreras y Miguel Valdespino piden permiso . . . Morelia, 1847:
AHAMich, Diocesano, Justicia, Procesos Legales, Cofradas, caja 689, exp. 44.
206 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

of large and small farms, textile factories, cattle ranches and other
commercial enterprises was dependent on the now stagnant
silver-mining economy, also based in the Bajo.30
The post-1810 depression greatly reduced the income of the
cofradas. Members fell into arrears on fee payments, alms were
hard to come by, debtors were unable to service their debts, and
tenants failed to pay their rent (especially when roofs leaked or
adobe walls collapsed due to long-standing maintenance prob-
lems).31 The account books of the Cofrada del Divinsimo Senor
Sacramentado in Piedragorda (Guanajuato) tell a typical story. In
1832, the pessimistic parish priest summarized the situation of the
cofrada: the income allocated to support its principal functions of
Holy Week, the Ascension and Corpus Christi, he wrote, was
entirely insufficient, and likely to remain so. Interest on three
outstanding loans had not been paid for over twenty-five years;
interest on three others had been paid only intermittently; and
the cofradas urban property was in ruins and produced no rent.
In sum, the report concluded, this confraternity only counts as
income 160 pesos a year, with which it must cover necessary ex-
penses of at least 600 pesos.32 The cholera epidemic of 1833 made
the cofradas situation even worse. Epidemics had always been hard
on cofradas because of their obligations to provide good deaths
30
The insurgency depressed the economy of Mexico in general, but the collapse of
the silver economy exacerbated its effects in the Bajo. See Brian R. Hamnett, Roots of
Insurgency: Mexican Regions, 17501824 (Cambridge, 1986); Margaret Chowning,
Wealth and Power in Provincial Mexico: Michoacan from the Late Colony to the
Revolution (Stanford, 1999); John Tutino, The Revolution in Mexican
Independence: Insurgency and the Renegotiation of Property, Production, and
Patriarchy in the Bajo, 18001855, Hispanic Amer. Hist. Rev., lxxviii (1998), 367;
Marta Eugenia Garca Ugarte, Hacendados y rancheros queretanos, 17801920 (Mexico
City, 1992); D. A. Brading, Haciendas and Ranchos in the Mexican Bajo, Leon, 1700
1860 (Cambridge, 1978); Sergio Valerio Ulloa, Historia rural jalisciense: economa
agrcola e innovacion tecnologica durante el siglo XIX (Guadalajara, 2003).
31
In the diocese of Michoacan, non-payment of interest was so common that,
beginning in 1823, some branches of the Church forgave interest that had not been
paid since 1810 and reduced mortgage rates for borrowers who were, as we have
learned to call them post-2008, under water. Margaret Chowning, The
Management of Church Property in Michoacan, Mexico, 18101856: Economic
Motivations and Political Implications, Jl Latin Amer. Studies, xxii (1990), 459. On
the broader effects of non-payment of ecclesiastical interest, see Francisco J.
Cervantes Bello, La piedad en la catedral angelopolitana: capellanas, aniversarios
y misas, 18301840, in Manuel Ramos Medina (ed.), Memoria del I coloquio historia de
la iglesia en el siglo XIX (Mexico City, 1997).
32
Notisia que el Cura de Piedragorda remite a la Sria del gob Diocesano de las
cofradas legalmente erectas en la Parroquia de su cargo, segun orden de 1832, y sus
rendimientos: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Constituciones, caja 818, exp. 9.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 207
for their members and pay out benefits to their survivors and of
course costs went up when a disproportionate number of members
died.33 Now, despite widespread reluctance on the part of members
and officers to sell off income-producing property, many cofradas
were forced to sell houses, inns and parcels of land.
The available records do not permit us to measure with any pre-
cision the effect of these financial problems on membership levels
in the confraternities. But they do allow us to ask whether or not the
gender balance changed after 1810.34 Indeed it did, tipping even
further in the direction of female majorities, a trend that held
throughout the country and not just in the Bajo. In Morelia in
1840, for example, the Archicofrada de Nuestra Senora de la
Merced had 771 female members (82 per cent of the total mem-
bership of 836); in the same year the Archicofrada del Rosario had
525 members, of whom 435 (83 per cent) were women; and the
Cofrada de Nuestra Senora del Transito had fifty-four male
members and 133 female members (71 per cent female).35 Of
the fifty-five members of the Cofrada del Santsimo Sacramento
in Aguascalientes who joined after 1815, forty (73 per cent) were
women.36 The elite Cofrada de la Concordia del Sr. S. Jose in
Mexico City had 182 female members and forty-one male mem-
bers in 1813. In the 1750s female membership of this cofrada had

33
On how epidemics strained cofrada stability even before the extra burden of the
independence wars, see Susan Schroeder, Jesuits, Nahuas, and the Good Death
Society in Mexico City, 17181767, Hispanic Amer. Hist. Rev., lxxx (2000), 43.
34
Neither patentes (certificates of membership) nor account books are good sources
for studying changing membership levels. In the former case, the size of each bundle of
patentes in the archives is a function of the archival habits and length of career of the
treasurer, not the absolute number of deaths (much less the absolute number of join-
ers). Account books reflect the particular territories covered by collectors over a lim-
ited span of years, making them an excellent snapshot of a neighbourhood, but limiting
their usefulness for gauging overall levels of membership. Membership lists may the-
oretically give us some insight into change over time, but there were very few cases in
which I was able to compare lists within a single cofrada before and after 1810. All
three of these sources, however, can be used to generate gender ratios, since they
typically include hundreds of names of members, which are almost always easy to
identify as men or women.
35
Lista de los actuales cofrades en la Archicofrada de N.S. de la Merced, 1840:
AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Informes, caja 834, exp. 51; Lista de
los cofrades de esta Archicofrada del Santsimo Rosario: AHAMich, Parroquial,
Disciplinar, Cofradas, Informes, caja 834, exp. 53; Lista nominal en donde constan
los hermanos de esta cofrada de N.S. del Transito: AHAMich, Parroquial,
Disciplinar, Cofradas, Informes, caja 834, exp. 53.
36
Cuentas de la Cofrada del Santsimo Sacramento, Aguascalientes, 181550:
AHAG, Gobierno, Cofradas, caja 15 (180915), exp. 1815.
208 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

been around 60 per cent; now it stood at 82 per cent.37 A sample of


160 patentes for the Cofrada del Transito in Durango indicates that
84 per cent of the people who joined between 1810 and 1850 were
women; in 1800 membership had stood at 63 per cent female.38
Although womens membership increased relative to mens in all
cofradas, the elite ones which I define as those in which more
than half of their members took the honorific don or dona
became particularly skewed in favour of women. Whereas before
1810 elite and non-elite cofradas had almost identical female majo-
rities of 61 per cent, in the post-1810 period women comprised an
average of 74 per cent in sixteen elite confraternities, while in nine
non-elite confraternities they comprised 67 per cent.39
It seems clear that men were abandoning and/or failing to join
the cofradas throughout Mexico. But if feminization of the
cofradas was happening everywhere, there was nonetheless a
regional dimension to this process. Outside the Bajo at least
in the dioceses of Mexico, Oaxaca, Durango and Yucatan the
financial situation of the cofradas seems by the mid 1830s and
early 1840s to have stabilized, and, perhaps as a result, male lead-
ership continued to be the order of the day.40 In other words,
women constituted large majorities, larger than during the colo-
nial period, but enough men stuck with the cofradas to form an
officer corps. In the harder-hit Bajo, however, a significant
number of prominent urban cofradas had passed beyond the
point at which stabilization was possible. Many had at least par-
tially ceased to operate, only intermittently sponsoring annual
functions; the leadership groups rarely met; and most of their
resources were channelled towards paying the death benefits of
the diminishing number of members. Leadership, formerly a
37
Libro tercero en que se escriven los hermanos de la Concordia del Sr S. Joseph
fundada en la capilla del venerable orden 3ro de penitencia de NPS Agustin de
Mexico: AGN, Templos y Conventos, leg. 315, exp. 7.
38
Libro en el que constaran todos los Yndividuos que se alistaren en esta cofrada
del Transito de NS, fundada con autoridad Real en el convento Hospital Rl de San
Cosme y San Damian de la Ciudad de Durango, y lo que cada uno diere por su
asiento: Archivo Historico del Arzobispado de Durango (hereafter AHAD), con-
sulted at New Mexico State University on microfilm, roll 519, frames 587618; roll
520, frames 10023; roll 521, frames 426898.
39
The average was 71 per cent female in five other cofradas that lack good data
regarding social status.
40
This conclusion is based on my research in the diocesan archives of Mexico City,
Oaxaca and Durango. For the diocese of Yucatan, I rely on Rugeley, Of Wonders and
Wise Men: Religion and Popular Cultures in Southeast Mexico.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 209
privilege, had become a burden. In an extreme but telling case,
the officers of the Archicofrada de la Santsima Trinidad in
Tacambaro, in an attempt to save money, took upon themselves
the work of sacristans and servants, which one deputy, Francisco
A vila, found embarrassing and not appropriate to my station.
When the others tried to expel him for failing to perform his
duties, he lost his temper, pounded the table and shouted, For
the love of God, the Blessed Virgin and all the saints, am I to allow
this absurdity to destroy my familys reputation?41 In San Miguel
de Allende, where the Vela Perpetua was founded, several for-
merly wealthy cofradas were reduced to mayordomas (that is,
their annual functions were managed by the mayordomo but the
group itself was disbanded) while others, there and elsewhere,
were converted to obras pas (simple pious works) (that is, their
remaining funds were to be used only for spiritual obligations
such as anniversary masses).42
From the point of view of beleaguered and overworked priests,
the weaknesses of the colonial cofradas were obviously worrying.
Because of their built-in expenses (for yearly celebrations and
members death benefits), their financial problems were intract-
able. But without bringing the finances under control, retention
of both male and female members (but especially male officers)
was difficult, and in the case of men was complicated by the emer-
gence of new civic and secular associations that offered them
some of the same rewards as cofrada membership and leadership
(namely, prestige, sociability and power).43 To make matters
worse, the cofradas were attempting to remain viable in an
41
Francisco A vila to Provisor, 7 July 1832: AHAMich, Diocesano, Justicia,
Correspondencia, Provisor, caja 655 (182935), exp. 121.
42
Jose Alejandro Quesada to Licenciado D. Jose Maria Arizaga, Srio del Gobierno
Diocesano, 12 Feb. 1845: AHAMich, Diocesano, Justicia, Procesos Legales,
Cofradas, caja 689, exp. 41; Sobre que se declaren obras pas las cofradas de San
Miguel Allende excepto las de la Pursima y San Pedro . . . 1852: AHAMich,
Diocesano, Justicia, Procesos Legales, Cofradas, caja 690, exp. 49; Director of the
Cofrada del Rosario to Bishop Portugal, 1839: AHAMich, Diocesano, Parroquial,
Disciplinar, Cofradas, Solicitudes, caja 839, exp. 23.
43
Carlos A. Forment, Democracy in Latin America, 17601900, 2 vols. (Chicago,
2003), i, Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru, identifies over 400 civic and
economic associations that were established in Mexico between 1826 and 1856, almost
all of which excluded women. Other important works on the masculinization of the
Mexican public sphere include Erika Pani, Ciudadana y muy ciudadana? Women
and the State in Independent Mexico, 181030, Gender and History, xviii (2006), 5;
Silvia M. Arrom, The Women of Mexico City, 17901857 (Stanford, 1985); Jean Franco,
Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico (New York, 1989), ch. 4.
210 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

unfriendly ideological and cultural context. Most were property-


owning in an era in which church ownership of property was ever
more sharply under attack; furthermore, they were oriented
towards collective and public devotional practices (fiestas and
processions) at a time when a more modern (interior, austere
and individual) religious culture promoted for decades by
reformers within the Church itself was being embraced by
many elite and middle class Catholics across the political spec-
trum.44 Although priests may have complained about their cele-
bratory excesses and their tendency to evade clerical control,
cofradas had been key organizers of the kinds of public displays
of piety that had kept the Church at the centre of the community.
They focused the loyalties of cofrada members on the Church and
structured a relationship between laity and priest. Their decline
left a void.

II
FOUNDING OF THE VELA PERPETUA
The first town to come up with an institutional innovation that
addressed the crisis of the cofradas was the Bajo city of San
Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato). San Miguel was typical of the
many smallish Hispanic towns that dominated the landscape of
44
More traditional practices seem to have remained popular among rural and in-
digenous populations. On the ways in which modern elements of Catholic practice or
doctrine were selectively embraced by both liberals and conservatives, see OHara,
Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico; Brian Connaughton, Ideologa y
sociedad en Guadalajara, 17881853 (Mexico City, 1992); Pamela Voekel, Liberal
Religion: The Schism of 1861, in Martin Austin Nesvig (ed.), Religious Culture in
Modern Mexico (Lanham, 2007); Brian Connaughton, Conjuring the Body Politic
from the Corpus Mysticum: The Post-Independent Pursuit of Public Opinion in
Mexico, 18211854, The Americas, lv (1999), 459; Gustavo Santillan, La secular-
izacion de las creencias: discusiones sobre tolerancia religiosa en Mexico, 18211827,
in Alvaro Matute, Evelia Trejo and Brian Connaughton (eds.), Estado, iglesia y sociedad
en Mexico, siglo XIX (Mexico City, 1995); Enrique Marroqun, La genesis del estado
liberal, 18241835, and Luis Ramos, Ascenso liberal: intervencion francesa.
Consolidacion del estado mexicano, 18401876, both in Mara Alicia Puente
Lutteroth (ed.), Hacia una historia mnima de la iglesia en Mexico (Mexico City,
1993); Ruben Ruiz Guerra, Los dilemas de la conciencia: Juan Bautista Morales y
su defensa liberal de la iglesia, and Jean-Pierre Bastian, La lucha por la modernidad
religiosa y la secularizacion de la cultura en Mexico durante el siglo XIX, both in
Medina (ed.), Memoria del I coloquio historia de la iglesia en el siglo XIX; Pablo Mijangos
y Gonzalez, The Lawyer of the Church: Bishop Clemente de Jesus Mungua and the
Ecclesiastical Response to the Liberal Revolution in Mexico, 18101868 (Univ.
Texas at Austin Ph.D. thesis, 2009).
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 211
the Bajo: it was closely connected to the silver economy, and over
the years silver wealth had funded the construction of churches
and convents, as well as the establishment of many cofradas.45
Among these pious Bajo towns, San Miguel had a particular
reputation for piety, with more cofradas per capita than any
other town in the bishopric of Michoacan.46 But as we have
seen, many of them were dysfunctional by mid century. As the
San Miguel priest, Jose Alejandro Quesada, wrote: In happier
times this city abounded in residents who were as devout as they
were wealthy, and they formed various cofradas that manifested
their piety. The Revolution of 1810 caused them to lose much of
their fortunes and now, with the passage of time, the situation is
very different . . .47 The town was particularly ripe for a solution
to this situation.
In April 1840, a petition signed by thirty-two ladies of San
Miguel was sent to their parish priest, Licenciado D. Jose
Manuel Fernandez. It began: We who sign below desire to pro-
mote in this City the cult of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament
with a continuous Vigil . . .48 What the ladies proposed was de-
ceptively simple. Thirty-one senoras would be dubbed cabezas de
da. Each cabeza would be responsible for one day of the month,
and would sign up two people to keep vigil over the consecrated
host for every half hour, beginning at 6 a.m. and continuing until
6 p.m. (In other words, each of the thirty-one cabezas had to
recruit forty-eight people to fill her day.) The cabezas would
elect a hermana mayor and a treasurer (and, later, most Velas
added a secretary). Men could join; they would hold vigil
on Holy Thursday. All vigil-sitters would pay half a real
45
For more on San Miguel and on the differences between the patterns of settle-
ment and urbanization in the Bajo and in the more indigenous parts of Mexico, see
John Tutino, Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajo and Spanish North
America (Durham, NC, 2011).
46
On the piety of San Miguel, see Tutino, ibid.; Francisco de la Maza, San Miguel de
Allende (Mexico City, 1939), 58; Margaret Chowning, Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled
History of a Mexican Convent, 17521863 (New York, 2005). On the number of con-
fraternities in Michoacan, see Brading, Church and State in Bourbon Mexico: The
Diocese of Michoacan, 135.
47
Jose Alejandro Quesada to Licenciado D. Jose Maria Arizaga, Srio del Gobierno
Diocesano, 12 Feb. 1845: AHAMich, Diocesano, Justicia, Procesos Legales,
Cofradas, caja 689, exp. 41.
48
Morelia, 1840. Sobre ereccion de la Congregacion del Alumbrado y Vela
Continua del Santsimo Sacramento en la Parroquia de San Miguel Allende:
AHAMich, Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 237, exp. 134.
212 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

(one-sixteenth of a peso) every time they sat. These simple rules


were set out in straightforward fashion. The petition shrewdly
made a vague reference to a precedent for an organized vigil
before the Blessed Sacrament, almost certainly the old Real
Congregacion, with its male leadership and female auxiliary
arm. No fuss was made of the most extraordinary thing about
the proposal the radical concept of active, exclusively female
officers who would govern male vigil-sitters.
When the ladies petition reached the offices of the bishop, no
one knew quite what to do. The first to see it was the bishops chief
legal advisor (promotor fiscal), who tepidly applauded the idea
before passing the petition on to the bishop.49 Ordinarily, the
bishop would simply have approved the recommendation of his
promotor, but on this occasion he asked another advisor, his pro-
visor, to have a look at it. This official was clearly ambivalent, and
we can guess why. On the one hand, the Velas constitution came
squarely up against the venerable principle of gender hierarchy in
church institutions, and in cofradas in particular: despite the loss
of so many men and despite the presence of large female majo-
rities, cofradas simply did not elect female officers. On the other
hand, the priest of San Miguel was a long-standing and trusted
servant of the Church; and the ladies who had signed the petition
were socially prominent and undeniably pious. The new organ-
ization did, after all (the petition was careful to point out), adopt
the practices of an established organization, presumably the Real
Congregacion, and, like it, had qualities that made it attractive to
liberal churchmen (one of whom, Juan Cayetano Gomez de
Portugal, was the presiding bishop): it venerated the Blessed
Sacrament, the object of parish devotion that enlightened clerics
most approved of, and it embraced a quiet, personal and inter-
nalized devotional style. It tapped the energies of women whose
continuing loyalty to the cofradas had demonstrated their com-
mitment to the Church and to lay associations, but gave them a
much more appropriate vehicle through which to channel those
energies. It promised to bring as many as 1,500 people a month
into parish churches outside of the mass, to establish a presence in

49
Promotor Fiscal (Licenciado Pelagio Antonio de Lavastida) to Bishop Portugal,
8 May 1840: AHAMich, Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 237,
exp. 134.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 213
the church every hour of the day, and to do so without the need for
overworked priests to cajole or organize.
The provisor could not decide. Why not, he must have thought,
buy some time by sending the petition to the civil authorities?
Hence his decision: Notwithstanding the opinion of the
Promotor, he wrote, contradicting that advisors positive recom-
mendation, the Recopilacion de Indias as well as . . . the Nueva
Recopilacion make it clear that before any Cofradas . . . can be
founded, no matter how pious the purpose . . . they must be
approved by the Civil Authority.50 In this way the provisor
passed the buck to the Department of Guanajuato, requiring
the ladies of San Miguel to re-submit their request to the gov-
ernor. They did so. The governor, apparently also torn, decided
to appoint a special departmental junta to discuss the case.
Finally, the matter was decided when the junta evaluated the
Vela petition positively. Their reasoning went thus: both the
priest and the prefect, individuals who inspire our confidence,
approved; the Vela did not mix the spiritual with the political or
civil; it did not threaten to disturb the peace; and the idea of a
congregation dedicated to perpetual vigil had precedent.51 And
so the Vela Perpetua, in its modern, female-led form, was born.
This complicated set of delays and the confusion on the part of
the church hierarchy make it clear that the Vela was recognized as
different to anything that had come before. But once it was
approved, the San Miguel Vela became a model for the future.
The administrative run-around was never repeated. When, after a
dozen or so Velas had been founded in the diocese of Michoacan,
they spread to that of Guadalajara in July 1843, the prior approval
of the bishop of Michoacan smoothed the path for the bishop of
Guadalajara. Eventually, when in 1848 Senora Salvadora Garca
de Vara proposed the first Vela Perpetua for the sagrario of Mexico
City Cathedral, she made a point of stating that she had modelled
her constitution on that of the Vela in Guanajuato which had in
turn been modelled on the San Miguel Vela.52 The path to the
50
Provisor y Vicario General (Licenciado Mariano Rivas) to Bishop Portugal, 23
May 1840: AHAMich, Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 237,
exp. 134.
51
Junta Departamental to Bishop Portugal, 27 Jun. 1840: AHAMich, Diocesano,
Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 237, exp. 134.
52
Sobre que se establezca la Vela Perpetua en el Sagrario. 1848: AHAMex, Base
Siglo XIX, caja 77, exp. 12.
214 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

Vela Perpetua that had begun with the Real Congregacions


founding in 1793 in Mexico City came full circle.
In telling this story I have referred to actions taken by the priest
and the ladies of San Miguel as though they occurred in concert.
We do not and cannot know for certain who first conceived the
idea of the female-led Vela Perpetua, or, in the case of the many
new Velas that were founded over the next decade, who, in any
given town, first suggested that a Vela after the San Miguel model
should be founded. Fernandez, the parish priest in San Miguel,
had presented the Vela as the ladies idea. When he forwarded
their petition to the bishops office, he appended this message:
Persuaded by the justice of this petition and happily inspired by
it, I confess that it fills me with edification and I judge that it would
be scandalous not to foment it or to refuse to cooperate.53 The
pleased-but-surprised tone of the priests comment suggested, or
was meant to suggest, that the ladies were out ahead of him. The
priest in remote Tepic, in contrast, wrote that he had convoked a
sufficient number of Senoras to form a Vela in December 1843,
implying that the founding of the Vela was his idea, and this im-
pression is strengthened by the fact that he had some trouble
keeping the officers from resigning (one of the few cases where
there was not great initial enthusiasm for the Vela Perpetua).54 In
Patzcuaro, the priest designated himself organizer: Desiring to
promote the cult of the Santsimo Sacramento . . . I have endeav-
oured to excite the zeal of the leading ladies of that city to establish
the Congregation called the Alumbrado y Vela Perpetua del
Santsimo.55 Further examples of both approaches abound:
the priests in La Barca and Tlasasalca seem to have been the
instigators, while the ladies of Lagos took the lead.56 It was the
cura of Zinapecuaro who in 1847 petitioned the ecclesiastical
53
Licenciado Jose Manuel Fernandez to Bishop Portugal, 16 Apr. 1840:
AHAMich, Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 237, exp. 134.
54
Rafael Homobono Taver to Bishop Aranda, 16 Dec. 1843: AHAG, Gobierno,
Parroquias, Tepic, caja 3 (184154), exp. 1843; Andres Gonzalez to Bishop Aranda:
AHAG, Gobierno, Parroquias, Tepic, caja 3 (184154), exp. 1845.
55
Domingo Mara Montero de Espinosa to Sr. Provisor y Vicario Gral, 29 Apr.
1842: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Gastos, caja 829, exp. 7.
56
Sobre que se establezca la Vela Perpetua [en] La Barca: AHAG, Gobierno,
Parroquias, La Barca 181954, caja 2, exp. 18436; Sobre . . . la Vela Perpetua
[en] Lagos: AHAG, Gobierno, Parroquias, Lagos, caja 3 (18429), exp. 1843;
Solicitud del Parroco de Tlasasalca sobre establecimeinto de la Vela Perpetua al
Smo Sacramento en su parroquia, 1856: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar,
Cofradas, Fundaciones, caja 829, exp. 14.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 215
authorities to establish a Vela there, while in Yuririapundaro the
priest wrote that varias Senoras principales of the town planned
to solicit the foundation of a Vela; and in Zinaparo, Tinguindn
and Jungapeo, too, petitions were presented as a result of the
desire of the populace that a Vela be established in their
towns.57 In Mexico City, as we have seen, one woman was per-
sonally responsible for obtaining the permission of the priest,
ecclesiastical authorities and civil authorities, and the priest of
the Sagrario, Manuel Ignacio de la Orta, went along with it (In
this era when impious men heedlessly vilify the Sacrament . . . far
from opposing such a laudable proposal, I am very agreeable).58
But, in all of these cases, we should be careful not to read the
language of the documents as transparent. A priest who claimed to
be the organizer of the Vela might think it unseemly to cede the
power of agency to his (female) parishioners, even if they were the
driving force, while a priest who assigned agency to the ladies might
have felt that it was important to preserve the idea that lay organ-
izations were the product of lay organizing, even if it was he who
quietly promoted the Vela. Perhaps the most important point is
that there was collaboration between priests and the upper- and
middle-class ladies who overwhelmingly comprised the leadership
of the early Velas. In other words, we gain little by trying to put too
fine a point on the question of agency. It does not matter much
whether or not the ladies came up with the idea themselves, or
whether the priest put the idea in their heads. The one thing that
does seem important is that the church hierarchy was not
involved.59 This was not an association or set of practices intro-
duced by bishops and upper-echelon clergy that they hoped would
57
Vicente Reyes (cura Zinapecuaro) to Provisor, 1847: AHAMich, Parroquial, Dis-
ciplinar, Cofradas, Informes, caja 835, exp. 89; Sobre fundacion de la Vela Perpetua en
la Parroquia de Tinguindin, 1854: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas,
Informes, caja 835, exp. 89; Varias senoras prales [de Yuririapundaro] . . . 1847:
AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Informes, caja 835, exp. 89; Deseando
varios vecinos del pueblo de Jungapeo . . . 1853: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar,
Cofradas, Fundaciones, caja 829, exp. 11; Jose Noguera Cura de Tlasasalca to Provisor:
AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Fundaciones, caja 829, exp. 11.
58
Sobre que se establezca la Vela Perpetua en el Sagrario, 1848: AHAMex, Base
Siglo XIX, caja 77, exp. 12.
59
Though Bishop Pedro Espinosa of Guadalajara used his first pastoral letter to
encourage the founding of Velas in every parish, by the time Espinosa took over the
bishopric in 1854, there were already dozens in existence. See Espinosa, Nos el Dr. D.
Pedro Espinosa, por la gracia de Dios y de la Santa Sede Apostolica Obispo de Guadalajara
(Guadalajara, 1854), 89.
216 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

funnel down to the parish level, as had been the case with the new
pious practices (simple funerals, individual prayer) promoted by
the reforming bishops of the eighteenth century.
Both the priests and the ladies of the parish stood to gain from
their new collaboration. From the priests point of view, the Vela
brought enthusiasm and energy to parish organizations, and, as
we will see, it provided a new source of much-needed funds. From
the ladies point of view, the Vela Perpetua offered opportunities
to deepen their faith by contemplating the miracle of the
Eucharist outside of the mass. Vigil-sitters, unlike participants
in the mass, could think of themselves as visiting Jesus, keeping
him company when the church (especially in small provincial
towns) might otherwise be empty, and thinking of him as a
friend.60 There was also, however, the clubbiness of the frequent
meetings, the snob appeal of the company of other elite and
middle-class women, the social interaction that was part of the
rather daunting task of organizing an all-day, every-day vigil, the
challenge of good management and professional record-keeping,
the pride that came from funding parish projects, and the pleasing
sense of self-importance that arose from being given the respon-
sibility to protect and accompany the Blessed Sacrament on a
daily basis, an honour previously entrusted only to men and
only on special occasions. (This complex mix of faith, sociability
and the opportunity for women to exercise their talents and am-
bitions also characterized many womens motivations for entering
convents, as many students of female monasticism have attested.)
By 1858, at least ninety-three Velas had been founded in the many
small Hispanic cities and towns that were the dominant forms
of settlement in the dioceses of Michoacan and Guadalajara
60
The chaplain of the cathedral of Durango, in support of the Real Congregacion,
observed that vigils allowed Jesus to be mas acompanado, and in 1873 a new devotion
was founded explicitly to accompany the Blessed Sacrament during siesta time, when
Jesus would otherwise be alone. Chaplain of Durango Cathedral to Sr. D. Jose Merlo,
12 Aug. 1793: AHAD, roll 183, frames 5435; El Capellan de la encarnacion sobre
que la Asociacion del Santsimo . . . se agregue a la de Santa Clara, 1884: AHAMex,
caja 163, exp. 47 (this document includes the reglamento of the 1873 Guardia del
Santsimo). The nature of the relationship between Jesus and the vigil-sitters is
emphasized in a devotional tract specifically approved for members of the Vela
Perpetua, in which it was suggested that vigil-sitters meditate on a poem entitled
La amistad de Jesus Sacramentado (The Friendship of Jesus in the Eucharist):
Miguel Mara Zavala, El tiempo precioso, o sea, modo de emplear mas provechosamente
la media hora que estan delante de Nuestro Sr. Jesucristo Sacramentado, las personas que
pertenecen a la Vela Perpetua (Queretaro,1868).
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 217
(about one-third of the towns where Velas were founded had
populations of less than six thousand and almost all of them
had fewer than twenty thousand inhabitants). There was simply
no precedent in the history of Mexican cofradas for the enthusi-
asm with which the Velas were received or the rapidity with which
they proliferated.

III
THE VELA PERPETUA IN OPERATION
How did the key innovation of the Vela its female leadership
work in practice? As we have seen, the Velas required that their
officers and the cabezas were women.61 The original San Miguel
regulation had specifically permitted men to join, but limited
their participation as veladores (vigil-sitters) to Holy Thursday.
Later Velas in Michoacan, however, had both male and female
daily veladores, under the governance of the cabezas de da and the
hermana mayor. The two-by-two pairs were never mixed, and it
became quite common for men to serve as veladores from 6 p.m. to
9 p.m.: this was welcomed by the women as a way to extend the
devotion into the evening hours. Most of the Velas did not record
the names of all the people who signed up to sit vigil (they were
required only to record the names of the cabezas de da), but in
1843 the Vela in Morelia did so, and the list of approximately
1,350 people included some 960 women and 390 men (about
the same percentage of women as was the average for the post-
1810 cofradas: 71 per cent). Dona Josefa Juarez, for example, had
signed up thirty-five women and eleven men to fill the hours for
which she was responsible on Day One of every month.62
It is striking how easily the men who became members of the
Vela Perpetua appear to have accepted female leadership. I have
not turned up a single complaint by male veladores against the
women who governed them, and I have found several cases in
61
In one case the constitution appears to have been misinterpreted: in 1847 in
Cotija, Michoacan, twenty-one senoras and ten senores were listed as cabezas de da,
and they elected a man, Jose Mara Oseguerra, as treasurer: Cotija, 1847. Alumbrado
y Vela perpetua del Santsimo Sacramento: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar,
Cofradas, Informes, caja 835, exp. 89.
62
Licenciado Manuel Tiburcio Orozco, Canonigo, Provisor y Vicario Gral inter-
ino, por el Sr. D. Juan C. Portugal, aprobacion de la fundacion del alumbrado y vela
perpetua en honor del SS en varias parroquias de este obispado . . . 29 July 1843:
AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Asociaciones, caja 817, exp. 1.
218 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

which men seem to have gone out of their way to express not just
acceptance, but admiration for their female leaders. In San Diego
del Bizcocho (Guanajuato), for example, an 1853 complaint
against the priest (for charging too much for his services) was
signed by eight men who identified themselves as members of
the Vela Perpetua. It read:
Ever since this holy devotion was established in this place . . . it has been
embraced by all of the parishioners with the greatest enthusiasm, and
people of both sexes enlisted with great passion and good will . . . The
Senora who is in charge of the funds employs and distributes them with
complete dedication to the devotion.63
The Michoacan model of a single, mixed-sex Vela with female
officers, however, continued to make some clerics nervous, as it
had when the San Miguel foundation was originally proposed.
Though ecclesiastical authorities had tolerated the upending of
the principle of gender hierarchy that was implicit in the consti-
tutional structure of the Michoacan Vela, four years later, in the
town of Lagos in the bishopric of Guadalajara, the first separate
Vela for men was founded, creating a constitutional model that
avoided what one priest in Mexico City (writing about a later
female-dominated organization) called the very improper and
very inconvenient spectacle of women governing men.64 Over
time in the bishopric of Guadalajara, the separate Velas de
Senoras and Velas de Senores model came to dominate, and
it was increasingly adopted in Michoacan as well.65 The Vela de
Senoras remained the more central institution, since its obliga-
tion was to hold vigil during the hours that the church was open,
from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Vela de Senores operated as a kind of
mens auxiliary, extending the vigil from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., as the
63
Queja de algunos vecinos de San Diego del Biscocho contra el Parroco D.
Esiquio Degollado. 1853: AHAMich, Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Subserie,
Fundaciones, caja 829, exp. 11.
64
D. Manuel Monsuri sobre aprobacion del reglamento de la Asociacion de la Sma
Virgen de los Dolores, Agosto 1887: AHAMex, Base Labastida, caja 189, exp. 24.
65
Though less of a challenge to the gender hierarchies so embedded in Catholic
doctrine and practice than the early Michoacan Velas, the creation of separate mens
and womens Velas represented almost as much of a break with colonial tradition.
Cofradas that were single sex by constitution were relatively uncommon in Mexico in
the late colonial period. The principle of gender inclusiveness was reiterated in Micho-
acan just ten years before the first Vela was founded: an 1829 circular insisted that all
cofradas should be open to ambos sexos, as well as all castes (calidades). Constituciones
Generales para todas las Cofradas del Obispado de Michoacan . . . 1829: AHAMich,
Parroquial, Disciplinar, Cofradas, Constituciones/Consultas/Correspondencia, caja
818, exp. 6.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 219
male members of the Velas had done in Michoacan, though there
they had done so under the leadership of women, not as a separate
organization.
The functioning of the Velas in the diocese of Guadalajara
allows us to compare the popularity and the organizational effect-
iveness of the separate Velas for men and women. As they had in
Michoacan, women clamoured to join. Although only two
women were required to fill each shift, in Lagos in the 1840s
four or five women at a time were keeping vigil, giving rise to
anxiety that all five would not earn the indulgences that were
automatically granted to the two mandatory veladoras. (Com-
plaining that the women had refused to listen to him, the priest
requested that the bishop reassure them that everyone who sat vigil
would earn the indulgence.)66 The Vela in the city of Guadalajara
also attracted more veladoras than were required by its constitu-
tion, and on top of their monthly fees, members of this Vela seem
almost to have competed with each other to contribute items,
ranging from the expensive to the modest, to adorn the chapel
where the Blessed Sacrament was displayed.67 The inventory that
was passed from one treasurer to the next in 1850 went on for
several pages, with careful annotations of what each member had
given and how much it was worth. The items included numerous
candelabra, a 250-peso rug brought from Mexico City, orna-
mented wooden chests and tables, a German clock that was in
constant need of repair, crystal vases, numerous altar cloths and
embroidered linens, and many arrangements of artificial
flowers.68
Several of the womens Velas were singled out for praise by the
bishop for their efficient organization. Of the Guadalajara Vela,
for example, Bishop Diego de Aranda wrote: The efficacy in the
management of [the societys] interests and the orderly presenta-
tion of documents that support the account books . . . reflect the
66
AHAG, Gobierno, Parroquias, Lagos, caja 3 (18429), exp. 1844.
67
Libro en que se lleva la cuenta de las limosnas colectadas para el culto Divino en
la Cofrada de la Vela Continua del Santissimo Sacramento de la Yglecia de la
Universidad de Guadalajara, y de su imbercion, desde 1 de julio de 1843: AHAG,
Gobierno, Cofradas, Vela Perpetua (18431907).
68
Inventario general de entrega que hago de las cosas pertenecientes a la vela del
Santissimo Sacramento en representacion de la Sra. mi Madre Da. Maria Ygnacia
Ortiz de Alba, ya difunta, Hermana Mayor que fue de dicha vela; Vela Perpetua en la
Universidad, julio de 1843: AHAG, Gobierno, Cofradas, Vela Perpetua, caja 1
(18431907), exp. 1850.
220 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

splendid education and piety that characterize not only the


Hermana Mayor and Treasurer, but also all of the ladies that
form that society.69 Of the treasurer of the San Juan de los
Lagos Vela de Senoras, his secretary gushed: The Bishop gives
thanks to Senora Dona Mara Aleja Jimenes de Castro for the
exactitude, fidelity, order, and good management with which
this devotion . . . has been conserved.70
The Velas de Senores, by contrast, were constantly in danger of
collapse. They had persistent staffing troubles. The lists of cabe-
zas that the priest was supposed to turn over to the bishopric
sometimes left half or more of the days of the month blank.
Their collections, while expected to be smaller than those of the
Senoras since they had (and needed) many fewer participants,
were frequently disappointing. Much more often than the
womens groups, their accounts were described during pastoral
visits as poorly prepared, and they were much more likely to be
characterized by the priest as decaida in decay. Sometimes the
bishop contrasted the mens groups to the womens in an appar-
ent effort to shame the men into action. The womens group in
Arandas was managed with great care, the bishop commented,
but the mens group lacked cabezas for some days of the month,
and sometimes collected as little as 2 reales, either because the
veladores did not show up or because no one kept track of the
funds.71 The women of Aguascalientes presented accounts that
showed a surplus of 452 pesos, reflecting the well-formed and
duly documented accounts produced by Dona Ygnacia
Olavarrieta; Archbishop Pedro Loza sent the mens account
book back to the treasurer to clean it up.72 The mens groups
were usually founded later than the Velas de Senoras in any
given parish, often by just a few months but sometimes by
years, suggesting some foot-dragging. Often the priest did
double duty as the president and treasurer of the Vela de
Senores, perhaps a sign that the men of the parish were less com-
mitted to taking on leadership roles than the women. In Zapotlan
69
Vela Perpetua en la Universidad, julio de 1843. Libro en que se lleva la cuenta de
las limosnas . . .: AHAG, Gobierno, Cofradas, Vela Perpetua, caja 1 (18431907),
exp. 1850.
70
San Juan de los Lagos: AHAG, Visitas Pastorales, Guadalajara, caja 9 (18418).
71
Arandas: AHAG, Visitas Pastorales, Guadalajara, caja 9 (18418), exp. 1846.
72
Aguascalientes, visita por el Ilmo arzobispado Pedro Loza: AHAG, Visitas
Pastorales, caja 10 (1871).
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 221
el Grande in 1873, for example, the bishop scolded the priest for
not presenting the accounts of the Vela de Senores, nor did the
cura give a reason for this, despite the fact that he . . . has been
[acting as treasurer] since who knows when and has been receiv-
ing the alms of the veladores, as apparently there is neither a
Hermano Mayor nor a treasurer.73 So, the Velas de Senores
tended to flounder. Over time most mens groups stayed on the
books, and some were reasonably successful, but they were
almost invariably eclipsed by the womens Velas.
As the Velas increasingly became an integral feature of the pious
landscape in the centre-west, inevitably some of the women who
led them came into conflict with the parish priests, who felt they
had a right to exercise more control than the ladies were willing to
concede. Usually the disputes concerned money. The generally
well-educated women who led the Velas were determined to pro-
tect their autonomy in the distribution of funds. But the more
these funds grew, the more the priests were tempted to try to
dictate their use. Rafael Herrera, the priest of San Diego del
Bizcocho, asked the Vela to pay for the sacristan and to increase
the Velas contribution to the mass to 4 pesos, in light of the fact
that it had accumulated so much money. The ladies responded,
[Our] treasury is not your store, accusing him of abusing his
power and of interfering in their elections. Though after several
testy exchanges he eventually wrote that he desire[d] to put an
end to disputes with women, he could not resist remarking that if
he had in fact interfered in the last elections, Dona Florentina
Garate would never have been elected Hermana Mayor.74 In
1850 the priest of Jaral, Jose de Jesus Robledo, was locked in a
similar battle with the hermana mayor:
The administration of this institution has passed from the hands of the
priest to the hands of a woman, who functions as an arbiter of and superior
to the priest. She is the one who ordains and disposes whatever she judges
to be convenient to the Vela . . . She has bought some items for the cult, but
these are only to be used when she allows it, or if I beg and plead, so that
the Host . . . is subject to the will of the Senora. In verbal conferences and
in two letters I have reproached her for her absolutism, telling her that she

73
Zapotlan el Grande, visita por el Ilmo Sor. Aranda: AHAG, Visitas Pastorales,
caja 10 (1871), libro 3.
74
Rafael Herrera to Sras Cabezas de Dia, 22 Aug. 1863: AHAMich, Parroquial,
Disciplinar, Cofradas, Informes/Patentes, caja 836, exp. 124.
222 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221
has been put in charge of the veladoras, but she has not been put in charge
of the Church.75
In another case, this time involving the socially prominent
ladies of the Patzcuaro Vela, the hermana mayor, Dona Mara de
la Luz Sierra, threatened to resign over the issue of who controlled
the funds of the Vela. She argued her case in a lengthy and well-
crafted letter to the priest, Victoriano Trevino. The disinterested
and politic manner with which Trevinos predecessor had pro-
moted the Vela, she wrote, had allowed it not only to cover its
costs but also to undertake the ambitious work of rebuilding the
church, rescuing it from its miserable and abandoned state and
transforming it into the beautiful building we see today. But now
Trevino, who had previously offended the ladies of the Vela by
calling them impertinent old women, wanted to dictate which
projects the Vela would pay for. He demanded that instead of
paying for the repair of the roof of the sacristy, the Vela should
finance repairs on the roof of the baptistry. As the ladies saw it, the
sacristy roof repair would prevent a large part of the wall of the
church from falling into ruin, whereas the baptistry roof repair
only serves to protect a corridor that is of little use other than as a
place for you to drink your chocolate and distract your imagination
with the agreeable vistas that the location presents. I do not
consider myself capable of sustaining a harmonious relationship
with you, Dona Luz wrote, and so I have decided to relieve
myself of the task of leading the Vela in order to perform the
other tasks that by reason of my sex are indispensable. Trevino
backed down.76
Priests and lay leaders often clashed over issues of autonomy
(indeed, the late colonial reforms of the cofradas were in part
intended to re-establish control over lay organizations), but the
disputes between priests and officers of the Vela had an unmistak-
ably gendered quality, reminiscent of contests between ecclesias-
tical authorities and convent officers defiant, educated women
in leadership positions who had a certain class confidence. In my
research on a convent rebellion in eighteenth-century Mexico, for
example, the epithets directed by the authorities at the nun who
75
Jose de Jesus Robledo to Sr. Provisor Jaral, 10 Oct. 1850: AHAMich, Justicia,
Procesos Legales, Cofradas, caja 690, exp. 47.
76
Victoriano Trevino to Sra. Hermana Mayor de la Vela Perpetua, 3 Sep. 1850; Da.
Mara de la Luz Sierra to Victoriano Trevino, 5 Sep. 1850: AHAMich, Diocesano,
Justicia, Procesos Legales, Cofradas, caja 690, exp. 47.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 223
led the dissident faction (despot, caudillo) were similar to those
used against the Vela ladies.77 But female leadership in the Vela
Perpetua opened up a much broader terrain than the cloistered
world of the convent, on which complicated relationships
between priests and elite women could play out.

IV
THE VELA PERPETUA AND ITS PROGENY AFTER 1875
New Velas continued to be founded after the consolidation of lib-
eral rule in the 1870s, but they were now part of an increasingly
top-down process in which bishops, looking to rebuild grassroots
support for the Church after pro-Catholic conservatives had twice
been defeated in war, promoted simple lay associations like the
Vela that did not run afoul of liberal legislation against property-
holding cofradas. During his visitas in the 1870s, for example,
Guadalajaras archbishop Pedro Loza strongly encouraged every
priest whose parish did not already have a Vela to establish one as
soon as possible.78 When he next visited in the early 1880s, Velas de
Senoras, and sometimes Velas de Senores as well, had been estab-
lished in twenty-three of the twenty-seven parishes. In Michoacan,
an 1896 parish questionnaire shows that fifty-four of the sixty-four
reporting parishes had a Vela Perpetua. This ubiquity in
Michoacan and Guadalajara is not surprising given the Velas
early history there, but this was also the period during which the
Vela became a national institution. A parish census from the 1890s
shows it to have been one of the most common pious associations
in the archbishopric of Mexico.79 It was less widespread in Oaxaca,
where a similar questionnaire in 1896 registered seven Velas out of
thirty-one responding parishes, but most of the larger Hispanic
towns in that strongly indigenous archbishopric did have a
Vela.80 By the mid 1880s there were also Velas in a number of
77
Chowning, Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent; see in
particular Bishop Sanchez de Tagle to Licenciado Agustn de Aguera, 16 Feb.
1770: AHAMich, Diocesano, Gobierno, Religiosas, Capuchinas, caja 209, exp. 23.
78
Visita por el Ilmo arzobispado Pedro Loza: AHAG, Visitas Pastorales, caja 10
(1871).
79
Bundles of parish questionnaires: AHAMex, cajas 103, 105, 108, 159, 160.
80
Multiple questionnaires located in the Archivo Historico del Arzobispado de
Oaxaca (Oaxaca City) (hereafter AHAO), Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, cajas
747 and 748. I thank Edward Wright-Rios for sharing his detailed notes on this ques-
tionnaire, on which I base my count.
224 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

northern towns and cities, including Hermosillo, Guaymas,


Matamoros, Monterrey and Saltillo.81
However, by the turn of the century, in the towns and cities
where the Vela had first taken hold, it was no longer the only
association that channelled female religious energies. In La
Piedad, Michoacan, for example, in the early twentieth century
the Vela Perpetua, established in 1846, was still very strong (the
Vela de Senores had 1,060 associates and the Vela de Senoras
4,119), but there were also sixteen other Catholic associations,
eight of them all-female and eight that were mixed but dominated
by women.82 Unlike the Vela, many of these had charitable or
political purposes alongside their devotional functions: helping
the sick or poor, teaching the catechism, sponsoring Catholic
newspapers, and supporting adult education.83 The Damas
Catolicas, for example, which was founded in 1912, not only
provided multiple social services but also formed an integral
part of the Liga Nacional de la Defensa de la Religion, the
umbrella group that went head to head with the anticlerical revo-
lutionary governments in the 1920s and 1930s. Most ladies did
not give up their membership of the Vela Perpetua, but they seem
81
My assumption that the Vela spread beyond the archbishoprics whose archives I
have consulted (Michoacan, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Mexico and Durango) is based on
scattered library collections of devotionals, rulebooks, etc., including the following:
Discurso leido en la Capilla del Santo Cristo [de Saltillo] a las . . . hermandades del Sagrado
Corazon y de la Vela Perpetua . . . y demas asociaciones piadosas, el 10 de octubre de 1884
(Monterrey, 1884); Devocion que practican las hermanas de la Vela Perpetua de la ciudad
de Guaymas (Guaymas, 1874); Reglamento de la Vela Perpetua de Hermosillo (Guaymas,
1874).
82
Census of pious associations in La Piedad, 1904: AHAMich, Diocesano,
Gobierno, Parroquias, Visitas, caja 286, exp. 41.
83
The earliest of the charitable associations was the ladies branch of the
Association of St Vincent de Paul, which made its first appearance in the diocese of
Michoacan in the late 1840s. The Ladies of Charity followed in the 1860s. See Silvia
M. Arrom, Filantropa catolica en el siglo XIX: las asociaciones de voluntarios de San
Vicente de Paul, in Jorge Villalobos Grzywobica (ed.), Filantropa y accion solidaria en
la historia de Mexico (Mexico City, 2010); Silvia Marina Arrom, Mexican Laywomen
Spearhead a Catholic Revival: The Ladies of Charity, 18631910, in Nesvig (ed.),
Religious Culture in Modern Mexico. On the Damas, see Laura ODogherty,
Restaurarlo todo en Cristo: Union de Damas Catolicas, 192026, Estudios de Hist.
Mod. y Contemp. de Mexico, xiv (1991), 129; Patience Schell, An Honorable
Avocation for Ladies: The Work of the Mexico City Union de Damas Catolicas
Mexicanas, 19121926, Jl Womens Hist., x (1999), 78. See, also, on politically
minded Mexican womens groups, Kristina A. Boylan, The Feminine Apostolate
in Society versus the Mexican State: The Union Femenina Catolica Mexicana,
19291940, in Paola Bacchetta and Margaret Power (eds.), Right Wing Women:
From Conservatives to Extremists Around the World (New York, 2002).
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 225
to have transferred much of their energies and ambitions to or-
ganizations that were taking a more active role in shaping Catholic
politics, society and morality.84
Besides their social and political activism, the other defining
feature of these descendants of the Vela was that they participated
fully in the renewed public visibility of the Mexican Church, a
trend which began in the 1890s. After decades of state-induced
circumspection, the convents quietly reopened; the Church re-
acquired much of its property and wealth, thinly disguised as the
property of individual priests; the archbishops blessed state pro-
jects; and the State actively created a space for the Church to
operate.85 The streets leading to the cathedral in the diocesan
capital of Morelia were shut down for four weeks during the pil-
grimages in the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (June), with
not just municipal acquiescence but enthusiasm. Entire passen-
ger trains were taken over and schools and other public buildings
housed pilgrims (the vast majority of them women) during the
nationwide pilgrimage to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico
City.86 In this context, the Velas quiet, modest performance of
piety inside the churches may have seemed old-fashioned, just as
its lack of a social project stamped it as not being at the cutting
edge of Catholic social action. As the anticlerical left began to flex
its muscles in the first decade of the twentieth century, it was this
version of the Vela Perpetua no longer the most active or
vibrant of the female-led lay associations, narrow by comparison
84
On the continued vigour and centrality of the Vela Perpetua in the smaller towns,
see Murillo, Politics of the Miraculous: Local Religious Practice in Porfirian
Michoacan, ch. 4, which gives an excellent picture of the role the Vela played in the
church and town of Charo (Michoacan) in the late nineteenth century.
85
Chowning, Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, epilogue;
Jose Roberto Juarez, Reclaiming Church Wealth: The Recovery of Church Property after
Expropriation in the Archdiocese of Guadalajara, 18601911 (Albuquerque, 2004);
Edward Wright-Rios, Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in
Oaxaca, 18871934 (Durham, NC, 2009); Karl Schmitt, The Daz Conciliation
Policy on State and Local Levels, 18761911, Hispanic Amer. Hist. Rev., xl (1960),
513; Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, Visions of the Emerald City: Modernity, Tradition, and
the Formation of Porfirian Oaxaca, Mexico (Durham, NC, 2006).
86
See the detailed descriptions in the boletines eclesiasticos of the archdioceses of
both Michoacan and Guadalajara for the groups march assignments, beginning in
1902. On the gender composition of the pilgrimages to Mexico City, see Lista de los
feligreses que fueron en peregrinacion a la Baslica Metropolitana 2 Junio: AHAMich,
Diocesano, Gobierno, Parroquias, Informes, caja 61 (190014), exp. 3;
Peregrinacion a la Baslica de Guadalupe en 1895: AHAMich, Diocesano,
Gobierno, Parroquias, Visitas, caja 286 (183797), exp. 39.
226 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

to them in its continued devotion to the vigil that was available


to mock devotees of what critics wished to portray as a narrow,
conservative and feminized Church.

V
CONCLUSION
In a recent article that carries his extensive research on colonial
devotionalism into the first half of the nineteenth century,
William B. Taylor makes a powerful, archivally based, where-pos-
sible-quantified case for a post-independence increase in pilgrim-
ages to shrines throughout Mexico.87 Taylor sees this as evidence
of both the continuity of faith (against an older secularization
narrative) and the continuity of certain kinds of religious beliefs
(especially the belief that divinity inhered in the physicality of the
miraculous images). The most important change he detects after
1810 is the laicization of religious practices, as the loss of clerical
personnel compromised the Churchs ability to direct and control
the practice of faith, and laypeople increasingly began to take the
veneration of sacred images into their own hands.
Although both the laypeople who are Taylors main subjects
(the predominantly rural and indigenous visitors to shrines, of
both sexes) and the mode of their devotionalism (the occasional,
collective act of pilgrimage) are obviously quite different from
those of the Vela (with its mainly female, urban, Hispanic partici-
pants and its tightly scheduled acts of individual prayer and medi-
tation), there are nonetheless some interesting parallels between
these two changing versions of Catholic devotionalism in nine-
teenth-century Mexico. Most obviously, the rapid spread of the
Vela, like the increase in visits to shrines, helps to undermine any
all-encompassing secularization narrative. The Vela also repre-
sents a kind of laicization. The founding ladies did not reject or
ignore the need for ecclesiastical sanction, but their actions clearly
demonstrated lay initiative, lay creativity, and the breaking
of traditional gendered boundaries with regard to laywomens
leadership of lay associations. This last point, I have argued, rep-
resented a major disjuncture between the colonial period and the
mid nineteenth century, as the Church not only allowed
87
Taylor, Shrines and Marvels in the Wake of Mexican Independence.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 227
laywomen to lead new mixed-sex institutions, but, after initial
misgivings, actually encouraged them.
Clearly there is much room for further research on nineteenth-
century Mexican devotionalism, but at this point it appears that
while certain dichotomies (unstructured, bureaucratic; baroque,
reformed; traditional, modern; rural, urban; indigenous,
Hispanic; male, female) are helpful for an appreciation of the
extent to which the Vela was innovative, the most compelling
way to put my work and Taylors in conversation with each
other is to see the Vela as adding exciting new elements to the
existing repertoire of religious practices: new ways to grow closer
to God, new pious associations, new practitioners and new lea-
ders. The operative word is adding. It is important not to leap
from the novelty of the Vela to the conclusion that religious mod-
ernity in Mexico was some kind of zero-sum game, that trad-
itional practices such as those embraced by Taylors shrine
visitors were being displaced by new practices like those of the
Vela.88 However tempting it may be to see parish ladies as the
vanguard of religious modernity, taking over where the top-down
reformist project of the eighteenth-century bishops left off, mod-
ernization in religion, as in other dimensions of nineteenth-
century life, is a concept that must be used quite carefully and
with close attention to context.
In accounting for the emergence of new pious associations in
the Bajo and new roles for women in this process, I have drawn
particular attention to the financial and leadership crisis of the
colonial cofradas in that region in the decades after the outbreak
of the Wars for Independence in 1810. This is a strongly Mexico-
centric interpretation of nineteenth-century devotional history
and womens roles in the Church. But women also became
more prominent in both Catholic and Protestant churches else-
where in the Western world in the nineteenth century. How
should we take these other Western stories into account here?
88
On this point, Robert Orsi argues that we must find ways at a theoretical level to
escape the antitheses offered by liberal historiography where religion is concerned:
Robert A. Orsi, Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Modernity,
Historically Speaking: Bull. Hist. Soc., ix (2008), 12. The handful of studies on late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular religion in Mexico suggest that trad-
itional and modern elements continued to cross-fertilize religious practices. See, for
example, Wright-Rios, Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in
Oaxaca; Paul Vanderwood, The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious
Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century (Stanford, 1998).
228 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

Does the history of the Vela Perpetua in Mexico have anything to


add to them?
There is an unruly literature on what is variously known as the
feminization of the Church(es), the feminization of religion,
and the feminization of piety in the nineteenth century.89 Some
scholars have meant by feminization the softening of religious
language and even theology.90 Others have analyzed the discur-
sive feminization of the Church at the hands of anticlerical lib-
erals.91 A third approach and the one most compatible with
this article is to focus mostly on women as increasingly active
and visible participants in church institutions.92 But with the

89
On the definitional fuzziness of the term feminization of religion, see Caroline
Ford, Religion and Popular Culture in Europe, Jl Mod. Hist., lxv (1993), 152. For
objections to the term, see Ann Braude, Womens History Is American Religious
History, in David G. Hackett (ed.), Religion and American Culture: A Reader (New
York, 1995); David S. Reynolds, The Feminization Controversy: Sexual Stereotypes
and the Parodoxes of Piety in Nineteenth-Century America, New Eng. Quart., liii
(1980), 96. See also the useful historiographical appendix in Karin E. Gedge, Without
Benefit of Clergy: Women and the Pastoral Relationship in Nineteenth-Century American
Culture (New York, 2003); David F. Holland, A Mixed Construction of Subversion
and Conversion: The Complicated Lives and Times of Religious Women in America,
Gender and History, xxii (2010), 189; Janet Moore Lindman, Women, Gender, and
Religion in the Early Americas, Hist. Compass, viii (2010), 197.
90
Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977); Mark C.
Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven, 1989); Cecilia
Morgan, Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered Languages of Religion and
Politics in Upper Canada, 17911850 (Toronto, 1996).
91
Michael B. Gross, The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic
Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Ann Arbor, 2005).
92
Yves-Marie Hilaire, Une chretiente au XIXe sie`cle? La vie religieuse des populations
du dioce`se dArras, 18401914 (Villeneuve-dAscq, 1977); Gerard Cholvy and Yves-
Marie Hilaire, Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine, 3 vols. (Toulouse, 1985), i,
18001880; Yvonne Turin, Femmes et religieuses au XIXe sie`cle: le feminisme en religion
(Paris, 1989); Claude Langlois, Le Catholicisme au feminin: les congregations francaises a`
superieure generale au XIXe sie`cle (Paris, 1984); Jo Ann Kay McNamara, Sisters in Arms:
Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), esp. chs. 17, 18, 19;
Caroline Ford, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France (Ithaca, 2005);
Marina Caffiero, From the Late Baroque Mystical Explosion to the Social
Apostolate, 16501850, and Lucetta Scaraffia, Christianity Has Liberated Her
and Placed Her Alongside Man in the Family: From 1850 to 1988 (Mulieris
Dignitatem), both in Lucetta Scaraffia and Gabriella Zarri (eds.), Women and
Faith: Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge,
Mass., 1999); Mary Peckham Magray, The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women,
Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 17501900 (New York, 1998); Harry S. Stout
and Catherine A. Brekus, Declension, Gender, and the New Religious History , in
Philip R. VanderMeer and Robert P. Swierenga (eds.), Belief and Behavior: Essays in the
New Religious History (New Brunswick, 1991); Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle
Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 17901865 (Cambridge, 1981). On
the beginnings of this trend in eighteenth-century churches, see Michel Vovelle, Piete
(cont. on p. 229)
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 229
exception of the studies on nuns (whose numbers increased
throughout Catholic Europe in the nineteenth century) and
some of the more quantitatively oriented studies within the
third approach, most of the scholarly treatments of feminization
are not centred squarely on that theme; rather, they take up the
question of women in the Church in the course of pursuing a
different research agenda. To appreciate what the Vela can add
to our understanding of the feminization of the Western
Church, it makes sense to look at the institution from the
perspective of three better-developed literatures: the nine-
teenth-century devotional revolution in the Catholic world;
the masculinization of the public sphere in the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries in the West as a whole; and the
growing importance of women in letters, the professions, religion
and politics as the century progressed.
The devotional revolution in the nineteenth-century Catholic
world is a difficult-to-date phenomenon, characterized by the
increasingly rapid spread over the course of the century of popular
and accessible extra-liturgical devotions, such as venerating the
Sacred Heart of Jesus, reciting the Rosary, wearing the
Miraculous Medal, and pilgrimaging to approved shrines such
as Lourdes.93 Although the concept of devotional revolution, as

(n. 92 cont.)
baroque et dechristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe sie`cle (Paris, 1978); Philip T.
Hoffman, Church and Community in the Diocese of Lyon, 15001789 (New Haven,
1984); Stout and Brekus, Declension, Gender, and the New Religious History ;
Richard D. Shiels, The Feminization of American Congregationalism, 17301835,
Amer. Quart., xxxiii (1981), 46.
93
The phrase is from Emmet Larkin, The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850
1875, Amer. Hist. Rev., lxxvii (1972), 625. Historians who have studied devotional
change in the nineteenth century largely within the devotional revolution framework
include: Ralph Gibson, A Social History of French Catholicism, 17891914 (London,
1989); Ann Taves, The Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-
Century America (Notre Dame, 1986); Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience:
A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Garden City, 1985); Brian P. Clarke, Piety
and Nationalism: Lay Voluntary Associations and the Creation of an Irish-Catholic
Community in Toronto, 18501895 (Montreal, 1993). Others who are less reliant on
this framework, but who also highlight devotional changes in the second half of the
century, include Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (London,
1999); William A. Christian, Jr., Person and God in a Spanish Valley (New York, 1972);
Jonathan Sperber, Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Princeton,
1984); Raymond Grew, Liberty and the Catholic Church in Nineteenth-Century
Europe, in Richard Helmstadter (ed.), Freedom and Religion in the Nineteenth
Century (Stanford, 1997); William J. Callahan, Church, Politics, and Society in Spain,
17501874 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984); Thomas A. Kselman, Miracles and Prophecies in
(cont. on p. 230)
230 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

part of a broader story of Catholic resistance to modernity, has


often been gendered in the literature the muscular
Catholicism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
is depicted as giving way to a Catholicism that was sugary, sac-
charine, and riddled with emotionalism and sentimentalism
this labelling does not, of course, make for a rigorous analysis of
religious change in the nineteenth century. Rather, it is an effort
on the part of these authors to highlight what they see as politically
motivated pandering on the part of the Church to the (feminized)
masses.94 Instead, the primary feature of the devotional revolu-
tion literature that connects it to the scholarship on feminization
is that women were particularly drawn to these new devotions.
The explanations that have been given for this attraction are
essentially threefold. First, it is argued, women liked the new
devotions because they evoked maternal emotions (devotion to
the Sacred Heart, for example, played on the wounded heart as a
symbol of both love and suffering). Second, the new devotions
were more demonstrative than meditative, and they were easy to

(n. 93 cont.)
Nineteenth-Century France (New Brunswick, 1983); Mary Heimann, Catholic Devotion
in Victorian England (Oxford, 1995); David Blackbourn, Marpingen: Apparitions of the
Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century Germany (New York, 1994); Patricia Londono-
Vega, Religion, Society and Culture in Colombia: Antioquia and Medelln, 18501930
(Oxford, 2002); Elizabeth W. Kiddy, Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in
Minas Gerais, Brazil (University Park, 2007); Ralph Della Cava, Miracle at Joaseiro
(New York, 1970).
94
Muscular is used by Dolan in American Catholic Experience: A History from
Colonial Times to the Present, 232; Braude, Womens History Is American Religious
History, 173; and Reynolds, Feminization Controversy: Sexual Stereotypes and the
Parodoxes of Piety, 99, presumably borrowing the term from the late nineteenth-
century muscular Christianity movement, which positively associated Christianity,
manhood and sports. Sugary, saccharine, and riddled with emotionalism and sen-
timentalism are used by, respectively, Callahan, Church, Politics, and Society in Spain,
276; Gibson, Social History of French Catholicism, 182; and Dolan, American Catholic
Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present, 231. Besides the scholars of
devotional change listed above, other historians who detect a rupture between liberal
Catholicism and ultramontane Catholicism include: Nicholas Atkin and Frank
Tallett, Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750 (New
York, 2003); Austen Ivereigh (ed.), The Politics of Religion in an Age of Revival: Studies in
Nineteenth-Century Europe and Latin America (London, 2000), editors intro.; Dolan,
American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present; John T.
McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York, 2003); Jon
Gjerde, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. S. Deborah
Kang (Cambridge, 2012). While all three of the books on the US emphasize the
intellectual tradition of liberal or republican Catholicism, McGreevy, at 29, writes
that the division between liberal and ultramontane Catholics was never as clear in the
US as in France and Germany.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 231
practise: no priest was needed, it was not necessary to be literate,
and they did not impose a great time commitment making
them appropriate for women. Third, the emphasis of the devo-
tions on Gods love and an intimate relationship with Jesus and
Mary was especially appealing to women, as set against the
harsher, more distant and judgmental (masculine) God of pun-
ishments and threats.95
What does the Vela Perpetua add to the picture drawn in this
literature? Despite its strong female profile, its large number of
active participants, the relative ease with which its activities could
be performed, its demonstrative or performative elements (the
constant display of piety on the part of pairs of veladores, all day
and into the night), and its embracing of a close and companion-
able relationship with Jesus, the Vela fails to conform to the out-
lines of the devotional revolution narrative in several important
ways. First, the Velas social origins and primary participants were
not the stereotypically poor and illiterate women who are asso-
ciated with the devotional revolution. Second, its foundation in
1840 pre-dates most of the cases of devotional change in the
literature, and it certainly pre-dates the papacy of Pius IX, who
is closely associated with the promotion of the new devotions.
Third, its origins were local (an alliance of women and parish
priests), not papal or episcopal.96 The history of the Vela
Perpetua, then, warns us against a too-facile association of nine-
teenth-century devotional changes with papal assertiveness and
lay passivity, and against seeing devotional change as the popular
manifestation of the doctrinal aggressiveness that was embedded
in the proclamation of the doctrine of Immaculate Conception
(1854), the Syllabus of Errors (1864), and the declaration of
95
See, especially, Taves, Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-
Nineteenth-Century America, but see also Gibson, Social History of French
Catholicism, and Dolan, American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times
to the Present. Although the nineteenth is the quintessential century of feminization,
the emphasis on a loving God, as Taves observes, came to prominence in the eight-
eenth century with the teachings of Alphonsus de Liguori. Thinking of Jesus as an
intimate friend rather than a judge also began to take hold among Protestants (for
example John Wesley) in the eighteenth century: Ted A. Campbell, The Religion of the
Heart: A Study of European Religious Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
(Columbia, 1991).
96
Not until 1870 were the indulgences granted to the Real Congregacion traced
back to papal briefs and connected to the contemporary Vela Perpetua: Sumario de las
indulgenias concedidas a los congregantes de la Vela Perpetua del Santisimo Sacramento [en
la] Parroquia de S. Sebastian (Mexico City, 1870).
232 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

papal infallibility (1870).97 Further, since the Vela arose along-


side other devotional changes in Mexico that also fail to fit neatly
into the social profile of the devotional revolution (notably the
increase in visits to shrines documented by Taylor), the Mexican
case in general supports the idea that the concept of religious
modernization (from which the idea of devotional revolution
derives, the revolution being one way for the Church to resist
modernization)98 is freighted with more baggage than it can easily
handle.
In contrast to the literature on devotionalism and devotional
revolution, which has not employed gender frameworks with
much rigour, studies of changes in the public sphere in the nine-
teenth century the second body of scholarship that is in natural
conversation with the feminization literature have been quite
attentive to gender. The story of these changes is told differently
for every part of the Western world, but the outline is roughly
similar. It begins with the enlargement of the masculine public
sphere in the eighteenth century with the proliferation of civic
associations, scientific societies, Masonic lodges, taverns and
inns, social clubs, cafe culture, and newspapers and picks up
steam with the development of republican discourses that defined
citizenship around military service and electoral politics. These
discourses relegated women, ideologically at least, to a separate,
domestic sphere. At the same time, republicanism and liberalism
also marginalized the Church by withdrawing state protections
for it, with disestablishment either a reality or a serious threat
almost everywhere. The responsibility for defending Christian
values, still deemed important by most people (even in France,
where the de-christianization movement seems to have sunk the
deepest roots), was thus shifted from the state to the family and
to women. This freed men up to pursue the messy, newly
97
Heimann and Komonchak also de-emphasize the role of the papacy in promoting
the new devotions: Mary Heimann, Devotional Stereotypes in English Catholicism,
18501914, in Frank Tallett and Nicholas Atkin (eds.), Catholicism in Britain and
France since 1789 (London, 1996); J. A. Komonchak, Modernity and the
Construction of Roman Catholicism, Cristianismo nella storia, xviii (1997), 353.
98
Komonchak argues this explicitly in Modernity and the Construction of Roman
Catholicism. Some authors emphasize the ways in which the Church used modern
tools (the press, railroads, schools) to revitalize itself in the second half of the nine-
teenth century, without arguing that it was using them for anything other than resisting
these ideologies. See the articles in Ivereigh (ed.), Politics of Religion in an Age of
Revival: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Europe and Latin America.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 233
competitive avenues of political, social and economic advance-
ment opened up by the spread of the market economy, the dem-
ocratization of politics, and the continued widening of the
masculine public sphere.99 The feminization of the Church(es)
and of the day-to-day practice of religion, then, is seen as a by-
product of the actions of men, who either left the Church or (more
commonly) embraced a new division of religious labour in which
responsibility for instilling religious values and supporting the
churches and church institutions was turned over to their wives,
mothers and spinster aunts.100 Many historians, failing to work

99
The historians of Europe and the US who address the masculinization of the
public sphere and its connection to political and economic changes in the late eight-
eenth and early nineteenth centuries are too numerous to list. Key works include: Joan
B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca,
1988); Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the
English Middle Class, 17801850 (London, 1987); Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of
Womanhood: Womans Sphere in New England, 17801835 (New Haven, 1977);
Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary
America (Chapel Hill, 1980). The historians who link these processes to religious
change are fewer, though still more than I can list here. For France, the seminal
work is Olwen Hufton, The Reconstruction of a Church, 17961801, in Gwynne
Lewis and Colin Lucas (eds.), Beyond the Terror: Essays in French Regional Social
History, 17941815 (Cambridge, 1983). See also Suzanne Desan, Reclaiming the
Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France (Ithaca, 1990);
Ford, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France; Grew, Liberty and the
Catholic Church in Nineteenth-Century Europe; Paul Seeley, O Sainte Mere:
Liberalism and the Socialization of Catholic Men in Nineteenth-Century France, Jl
Mod. Hist., lxx (1998), 862; Bonnie G. Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The
Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1981); Ryan,
Cradle of the Middle Class; Stout and Brekus, Declension, Gender, and the New
Religious History ; Morgan, Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered
Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada; Barbara Welter, The
Feminization of American Religion, 18001860, in Mary S. Hartman and Lois
Banner (eds.), Clios Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women
(New York, 1974); Gail Bederman, The Women Have Had Charge of the Church
Work Long Enough: The Men and Religion Forward Movement of 19111912 and
the Masculinization of Middle-Class Protestantism, Amer. Quart., xli (1989), 432;
Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 16001850: The Puritan
and Evangelical Traditions (London, 1999); Terry D. Bilhartz, Sex and the Second
Great Awakening: The Feminization of American Religion Reconsidered, in
VanderMeer and Swierenga (eds.), Belief and Behavior: Essays in the New Religious
History; Brian Clarke, The Parish and the Hearth: Womens Confraternities and
the Devotional Revolution among the Irish Catholics of Toronto, 185085, in
Terrence Murphy and Gerald Stortz (eds.), Creed and Culture: The Place of English-
Speaking Catholics in Canadian Society, 17501930 (Montreal, 1993).
100
For an interesting twist on this story, emphasizing the ways in which women who
socialized their sons into Catholicism often succeeded, producing a Catholic male
bourgeoisie by the later part of the century, see Seeley, O Sainte Mere: Liberalism
and the Socialization of Catholic Men in Nineteenth-Century France.
234 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

up much interest in the women who were left behind after this
feminization by subtraction, have told this as a story of secular-
ization or even declension.101
In some ways I have made a similar argument for what hap-
pened in Mexico. Elite and middle-class men drifted away from
impoverished church organizations that could no longer provide
them with prestige, social connections or material benefits, and
into new civic associations that could. They may or may not have
rejected Catholicism most probably did not but they did in
effect hand over to women the lions share of responsibility for
keeping the churches full and the faith tended to at the commu-
nity level.102 My emphasis, however, has been on what happened
after men subtracted themselves. Following Braude, I argue that
the Vela Perpetua reveals the importance of paying close attention
to the various ways in which both women and the Church
responded and adjusted sometimes in a defensive and reac-
tionary way, but sometimes with imagination, flexibility and cre-
ativity to male abandonment of the institutions and practices
they had once proudly led. The feminization of the Church, in
short, is not what was left when men found more self-advancing
or more modern associations to join; rather, it is an important
story in its own right.
Finally, a third literature relevant to the question of feminiza-
tion deals with the ways in which women, having been relegated to
the domestic sphere in the early republican era, were beginning by
mid century to enter the public sphere in new and powerful ways.
This literature tends to see the feminization of the Church as a
subset of the feminization of public life that is, as part of the
process by which women, benefiting in particular from greater
educational opportunities, became more vocal and visible,
moving into multiple public spaces, including the Church, and
cashing in on the moral authority that had been assigned to them
earlier. Where the increasingly public relationship between
101
Important critics of this declensionist narrative and the way it diminishes the
historical significance of women include Braude, Womens History Is American
Religious History; and Stout and Brekus, Declension, Gender, and the New
Religious History .
102
For Mexico, Voekel, Liberal Religion: The Schism of 1861 and Voekel, Alone
before God: The Religious Origins of Modern Mexico are persuasive on the subject of
continued religiosity on the part of anti-clerical liberals. Regarding France, the point
has frequently been made that anti-clericalism did not necessarily mean a rejection of
Catholicism.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 235
women and the Church is concerned, the story has been told very
well for the Protestant women of the United States, where histor-
ians have emphasized womens alliances with male clergy to
launch reform movements such as temperance or abolition.103
For Catholic women, however, stereotypes associated with the
devotional revolution literature that women who acted in
defence of the Church were compliant pawns of the priests,
either nuns or wives whose primary contribution was to nag
their husbands over the dinner table to defend the Church
have stood in the way of appreciating the ways in which women
used their religious leadership as a springboard to enter the public
sphere more broadly.104
The Velas history helps us overcome those stereotypes. It
shows, to my knowledge for the first time, provincial Catholic
women in the middle of the nineteenth century forming and lead-
ing mixed-sex pious associations not just heading charitable
organizations, for which female leadership was imaginable, but
governing men in cofrada-like associations, which had always
been led by men in the past. It thus opens up for analysis a range of
103
For the US, see Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catherine Beecher: A Study in American
Domesticity (New Haven, 1973); Daniel S. Wright, The First of Causes to our Sex: The
Female Moral Reform Movement in the Antebellum Northeast, 18341848 (New York,
2006); Kathryn Kish Sklar, The Throne of my Heart: Religion, Oratory, and
Transatlantic Community in Angelina Grimkes Launching of Womens Rights,
18281838, in Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart (eds.), Womens
Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation (New Haven, 2007);
Mary Ryan, A Womans Awakening: Evangelical Religion and the Families of Utica,
New York, 18001840, Amer. Quart., xxx (1978), 602; Jane Rendall, The Origins of
Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France, and the United States, 17801860
(Basingstoke, 1985); Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women,
Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, 1980);
Anne M. Boylan, The Origins of Womens Activism: New York and Boston, 17971840
(Chapel Hill, 2002); T. Gregory Garvey, Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum
America (Athens, Ga., 2006).
104
Gibson, Social History of French Catholicism, 57, 153, is particularly insistent that
women were under the thumb of the cure, and would accept male authority, in a way
that men would not. Exceptions are Hufton, Reconstruction of a Church, and
Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary
France, who see Catholic women as taking on influential public roles during and in
the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, acting where men wouldnt in
public defence of the church. But they also see female leadership and female public
religious roles as fading relatively quickly and failing to establish an enduring base for
female leadership in religious matters. Other exceptions are Smith, Ladies of the Leisure
Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century, and Margaret
Lavinia Anderson, Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial
Germany (Princeton, 2000), which credit Catholic women with leadership roles in
the Church, but for a later time period.
236 PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER 221

actors and processes that has largely been hidden from view, and
allows us to think of the Vela Perpetua as a possible incubator for
womens entry into public life. The experience of lay leadership,
including learning how to confront and bargain with bossy
priests, seems likely to have emboldened Catholic women to
enter not just parish politics, but national politics. We know
that as early as the late 1840s Mexican women were intervening
in political debates concerning the Church (especially in petition
drives protesting freedom of religion) not just as residents of a
town or city, but as female residents of a town or city (las senoras
de Morelia, las senoras de Guadalajara).105 In this light, the
implied dichotomy in the European and US literature between
Catholic women who were docile and in thrall to the priest, and
reforming women who stormed onto the political stage in alliance
with Protestant ministers, seems exaggerated. It also militates
against subsuming the feminization of the Church into the
broader feminization of public life. A too-wide lens may cause
us to lose focus on an important element of womens public
lives in the nineteenth century: that when they penetrated the
public sphere, they did so as Catholic women who had been not
just politicized but also socialized into politics by the earlier ex-
pansion of their role in the Church.
The history of the Vela Perpetua, in sum, encourages us to look
more closely at the ways in which women actively helped the
Catholic Church craft survival and revival in a difficult century,
and at the ways in which the Church came to accept its need for
this help. The Church did not set out to entrust its lay associations
to women, nor did women take on these leadership roles in the
expectation that they would be able to translate the skills they
gained and the responsibilities they shouldered into political
action, even a kind of citizenship. But that is what happened.
Much of the scholarship that touches on the feminization of
the Church does so in a way that lacks analytical rigour at best,
and at worst is dismissive of the importance of studying Catholic
105
See the multiple petitions penned by women in the period 184956 arguing
against religious freedom in Mexico, in Antonio Martnez Baez, Representaciones
sobre la tolerancia religiosa (Mexico City, 1959). There were also protests by women
against the expulsion of bishops in the 1850s and 1860s, against the expropriation of
clerical property, against the liberal prohibition on accompanying the Host to the
houses of the moribund, and against the closing of the convents, all cited in Voekel,
Liberal Religion: The Schism of 1861.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE VELA PERPETUA 237
women. Indeed, from the perspective of the present, the Vela
Perpetua may seem trivial or even risible, but its history shows
that there are complex and telling stories about the persistence of
Catholic political power in Mexico (and elsewhere) that can be
extracted from this most unlikely vein.

University of California, Berkeley Margaret Chowning