A funeral home based in Santiago de Compostela began, last week, the exhumation of the cemetery of the old Santa Clara estate, in the center of Pontevedra. Fifteen tombs, where 58 nuns had been buried, were the last human trace of convent life in the place, a huge property of 15,500 square meters in the center of Pontevedra. Since December 2021, in an operation that has meant the second confiscation of the land after that of the 19th century, it belongs to the city council, which offers guided tours and musical cycles in the Gothic church.
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Sister Purification, 80, and Sister Sagrario, 78 and abbess, were the last in the Philippines. They left the place in 2017, two years after the burials in the cemetery ceased. Then, the convent of the order of the Poor Clares in Santiago -and command for Galician territory- decreed its closure. Almost 750 years had passed since the first documentary mention of the Pontevedra site, dated in 1271. They left behind “a kind of labyrinth that was built little by little”, in the words of Manuel Rial, guide and heritage manager who is in charge of showing Santa Clara to those interested.
“The Poor Clares, a cloistered order that was not always so, resemble the Franciscans. And, together with these and the Dominicans, they were one of the three mendicant orders that settled outside the walls in Pontevedra”, he expands. Mendicant and with a vow of poverty, yes, but without giving up expanding properties, producing income, even using the so-called Royal Privilege, granted in 1312 and renewed until 1814, already in the time of Fernando VII. Thanks to this legal figure, the nuns could choose 20 men from the regions that went from Padrón (A Coruña) to Ponte Sampaio (Pontevedra) to tend their land. These ranged from O Ribeiro, in Ourense, to O Morrazo or O Salnés, on the coast. “It was a kind of casting,” explains Rial, “and those who accepted, were exempt from being mobilized in case of war, were less subject to taxes.”
The first confiscation
The 10,000 square meters of gardens and orchards produced about a thousand liters of wine per year. Each Poor Clare had a daily allowance of two liters. “For personal consumption,” says the guide, one of the best connoisseurs of a place yet to be investigated historically. There were, and still are, chestnut trees, kiwis, apple trees. The nuns made hosts and their specialty, apple candy. And they were engaged in other businesses. In 1875 they opened a school that lasted until the Franco regime. It was one of the compensations demanded by Cardinal Payá to manage, before the Restoration regime and specifically before Alfonso XII, the return of the convent to the Poor Clares. One of the numerous, complex and finally reversed confiscation processes had placed it in the hands of the State, which used it as an orphanage. No matter its new role, the convent returned to order.
It had only been abandoned in 1719, when the nuns fled due to English attacks on the cosyta. They took refuge with the family of Frei Martín Sarmiento, an enlightened monk and one of the forerunners of the Galician cultural renaissance of the following century. The French invasion also unleashed panic among those admitted. But little else. Rial says that the Civil War passed without too many shocks and that the dictatorship contributed to its last boom period. “It happened in everyone, also in the seminars. There was a period of re-Christianization after the victory of fascism,” he notes. That led to the last moment of vocational splendor in Santa Clara: about 50 nuns shared cells and enclosure in Pontevedra. And, among other tasks, they offered laundry, ironing, folding and starching services, which were used by the military quartered in Marín (Pontevedra). “The good times before the final decline,” he adds.
This downhill included real estate business – the sale of a part of the plots to build, approximately 7,000 square meters – and the progressive disappearance of applicants to take the habits. Until 2017, when Sister Sagrario and Sister Purification left the facilities and went to Santiago. With them also went the file. The convent remained closed until, at the end of 2021, the Pontevedra City Council acquired it for 3.2 million euros. Inside, the organ remains, a magnificent example from the 18th century, the altarpieces and the choir chairs, this material on loan. The cemetery, since last week, is empty.
It was the last of the occupied dependencies. They had begun to be so at the end of the 19th century, when hygienist measures recommended that nuns be stopped from being buried in the hitherto usual places, the lower choir or even the cloister, one of the most unique elements of the architectural complex. Some tombstones can still be seen there. But the Pope of the time authorized the new cemetery, whose tombs are hardly marked with numbers. No proper names. “They are smooth tombstones, as a sign of absolute humility,” explains Rial. And now empty, once the funeral home has transferred the remains to the convent of the Poor Clares in Santiago de Compostela, the order’s main headquarters in Galicia.