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Friday, September 12, 2008

A Tale of Two Tenerife Women

On the right, above the archway, is the small opening from where, it is said,
Sister Ursula, enclosed in the convent, watched church services for the rest of her life.


Sister Ursula's Forbidden Lover

The first story relates to something in the church attached to the Convento de las Catalinas, opposite the Plaza del Adelantado, on the Calle Nava y Grimon in La Laguna. To the right of the main altar, above an archway, is a small opening or window that allows a person enclosed in the room behind to attend mass. Tradition links this opening to an event that occurred in the year 1651, when Jerónimo de Grimón y Rojas, the son of the owners of the house now known as the Palacio de Nava (Nava Palace), the grey stone building next door to the Santa Catalina Convent, ran away with his lover, Sor Úrsula de San Pedro (Sister Ursula of Saint Peter), a nun from the said convent.

The couple had tried to leave the island in an English ship anchored in the bay of Santa Cruz, for which she was disguised as a page, but just before sailing, they were discovered by the forces of the law. Sister Ursula was sent back to the convent and the unfortunate Jerónimo was accused of abduction of a nun and condemned to death. The sentence was carried out in the spring of that year and Sister Ursula was obliged to witness the execution, which took place in the Plaza del Adelantado, from the Ajimez (tower) of the convent.

The head of her lover was stuck on a spike and put on display in the Plaza del Adelantado as a chastisement to the public, for several days. From then, enclosed in the religious order for life, Sister Ursula's only contact with the world outside the cloisters of the convent was to witness church services via that small window above the arch, beside the altar.

The story of Catalina Lercaro

The other tale has become a well-known La Laguna legend. Catalina Lercaro was the daughter of one of the most powerful families in Tenerife: the family of Lercaro-Justiniani of Genoese origin, whose palace in La Laguna, the Casa Lercaro, is now the Museo de Historia y Antropología de Tenerife (Museum of History and Anthropology of Tenerife)

In the rear patio of the palace, one can still see the curbstone of an old well - the well is now non-existent or has been filled in - down which the young girl is said to have thrown herself, rather than have to consummate the marriage that her father arranged for her with a much older man, who it appears was a slave trader. Legend also says that she was interred in this same patio, because, having committed suicide, she was not entitled to a sacred burial. Further, there are many who claim that the ghost of the disgraced Catalina still walks abroad in the old mansion in which she lived and died.

These two stories give us a very clear image of the situation of women in Spanish and Canarian society from the 16th to 18th Centuries, when the only thing girls were prepared for was a marriage (that was usually little more than a "business contract"), passed from the guardianship of father to husband. Women in that era were expected to be obedient, chaste, retiring, shameful and modest, as well as quiet and to be locked away inside homes, always dependent upon a man. Yet marriage was still preferable to spinsterhood, which was seen as the failure of the woman, the only solution to which was that they should profess their "calling" and join a convent, forever, which very few ever escaped.

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