Religious education in New Spain in the Holy Schools of Christ

The Schools of Christ opened their doors to various social strata to contain fresh currents of thought. Learn about their objectives, hierarchical organization, and laws by browsing the files in the General Archive's Religious Cults collection.

Religious education in New Spain in the Holy Schools of Christ
Title page of a document that speaks of the chapel Santa María de Nativitas in the neighborhood of Santa María Concepción Tlacuilolan, AGN, Maps, Plans and Illustrations (MAPILU), record 0950f.

The extensive documentary heritage of the Novo-Hispanic period that is kept in the General Archive of the Nation (AGN) is organized into collections. The Religious Cults Collection is one of them. Its documents are put together in a single volume and split into four files that explain how the so-called Schools of Christ were formed.

The Schools of Christ originated in Spain in the middle of the 17th century, and by the first decades of the 18th century, they were established in New Spain. The Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced was the first institution to be established within the Chapel of San José in the year 1721 and was instituted by and for outstanding Spaniards. However, as the years went by, some more accessible institutions were opened, mostly made up of workers.

Initially, they received 72 members, the same number of disciples that the Bible says Jesus Christ sent to preach, but that quickly increased to more than one hundred members per institution. In the article "Santas Escuelas de Cristo en la segunda mitad del siglo XVIII en la Ciudad de México" in the magazine Fuentes Humanísticas, Alicia Bazarte and José Antonio Cruz explain that these schools had the objective of "promoting doctrinal orthodoxy among the different social groups of the viceroyalty, who had to submit to physical mortifications and make prayer and reflection on the death of Christ their doctrine."

The opening of the Holy Schools of Christ for the other social sectors of New Spain was a strategy to contain the ideas that emerged during the Enlightenment, as religious ideas were questioned and new explanations were sought about the universe, man, and the spirit through reason.

Faced with the new knowledge that was spreading around the world, this school tried to implement a model for a "rational" and "more or less democratic" religious education based on the teachings of St. Philip Neri, which included living and praying together without having to make any kind of vow or give up their property. This made it easier to use a method of teaching that was aimed at the masses because of its method of reaching the most people.

In light of these new buildings and the changes made by the Church to give the secular clergy more independence from congregations and brotherhoods, the King of Spain issued a Royal Decree on May 16, 1797, asking the civil and religious authorities of New Spain to report on the number of Schools of Christ in the capital, where they were based, how many followers each one had, and if they had any plans to expand.

Don Antonio del Puerto y Gómez, who was part of the trade branch of the Novo-Hispanic capital, was responsible for taking this census and collecting the reports sent by the fathers in charge of the 12 schools that had a seat in the Novo-Hispanic capital. This information allows us to have an idea about the functioning and general characteristics of each of the institutions.

Each school had an administration made up of ecclesiastical deputies (depending on the institution, those who declared themselves part of the lay society could be added) and a permanent secretary who was in charge of the book of agreements and the attendance control of the disciples.

The aspirants were required to comply with a regulation that stipulated the following: to be free of vices, to distinguish themselves by their devotion and participation in prayer, and to give the best example to their fellows. The so-called "Obedience Brother" was the most important person. He was in charge of evaluating the disciples and running the weekly meetings every Thursday.

In these schools, the oratories had to have on the altar a large crucifix, an image of the Virgin Mary, to St. Philip Neri, and other patron saints to conduct the weekly sessions. In these meetings, acts of prayer were carried out, since it was one of the virtues that the aspirants had to acquire to achieve the love of God. There were also practices such as the "bench practice", in which one of the participants had to sit on a bench in front of the altar and publicly confess his sins.

Likewise, in the reports, we can find singular details that some of these schools presented, such as the privilege of males, since, except for the schools of the Holy Spirit and the Hospital of Jesus Nazarene, there is no record that women were allowed to enter. Note that the only thing we know about is that the Holy School of the Holy Cross asked for a license to enroll two women, Gertrudis Padilla and Petra Villalba, who did things like giving thanks and indulging.

The Holy School of Jesus the Nazarene was one of the most numerous, and in it, they tried to reform some points due to the non-attendance of the congregants; thus, it was decreed the expulsion of those who had six to eight faults, without the option of being accepted again.

In the Holy School of Mary of the Assumption, they admitted adepts without distinction of classes, as in all the others, due to the poverty of the people; within the Holy School of Saint Mary, its members had to have the permission of the wife or master; and as far as the constitutions of the Holy School of Christ of the convent of the Holy Spirit were concerned, it was emphasized that, in case some disciple was delinquent, he would be sanctioned by the teacher and by the Brother Obedience.

With the arrival of the 19th century and the beginning of the independence movement, the spiritual and corporal practices carried out by the members of the Schools of Christ were eradicated; however, some resisted until the middle of the century. In the end, it was the deep-rootedness of Catholicism that finally decreed the end of these institutions.