The vanished convents of Tenerife
While travelling around Tenerife you might have noticed that there are churches and chapels and wayside shrines all over the island. But what are missing are monasteries and convents. In Britain, usually under the care of English, Scottish and Welsh Heritage, many of these buildings survive in ruins that can be seen by the public, but where are their equivalents in Tenerife? The answer is they have either vanished completely or have been changed beyond recognition.
The Reformation in England took place in the late 1530’s, in a land-grab and power-grab by Henry VIII as self-appointed head of the newly-formed Church of England. The religious communities in the monasteries and convents were dissolved and the buildings given over partly for secular use as grand houses and partly for use as quarries for building stone. But it was not until 300 years later that the same thing happened in Spain.
In 1835 during the first Carlist War (a civil war for the Spanish throne), there was an outpouring of anger by the common people against the church and the religious orders that supported the repressive Carlists. While the churches and convents were being burned the new prime minister, Juan Mendizabal, took advantage of this mood to confiscate religious property. In mainland Spain monasteries and convents were either turned into barracks or demolished, while in the Canary Islands the buildings experienced a variety of fates.
After the conquest of Tenerife in 1494, three religious orders established themselves on the island, Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominicans, whose friars went out into the community to teach and to preach. The friars lived in convents rather than monasteries, which were for closed orders of monks. Here is a list of some of their establishments, what happen-ed to them and where they can be seen.
In ADEJE a Franciscan convent was founded on 10th August 1679 by a member of the de Ponte family, Don Juan Bautista de Ponte. When the building lost its religious purpose it was used at one time as a warehouse and now, being situated next door to the town hall, it is used for formal ceremonies.
The Franciscan convent in GARACHICO, begun in 1524 on land donated by the Genoese merchant Cristobal de Ponte, the founder of the town, was destroyed by fire in 1709 and rebuilt forty years later. Today, with its double cloister, it is a cultural centre. The Dominican convent, begun in 1601, survived the volcanic eruption of 1706 and today it is an art museum and auditorium. The Augustinians arrived in 1621, their convent was destroyed by fire in 1697, rebuilt by 1742, destroyed by fire again in 1825, again rebuilt, and is now a private house.
In ICOD there seems only to have been the Franciscan convent, located on Calle San Francisco, that was begun 1641 with chapels being added from 1706. Now the building houses the town library.
LA LAGUNA, being the former capital of the island, is where the religious commu-nities were first established.
In what became known as the Plaza de San Francisco, construction of a convent for Franciscan friars began in 1506. In 1810, like so many of the others of its kind, the original building was destroyed by fire and had to be almost completely rebuilt to be used today as a church.
Not far away, on Calle Viana, is a building not found so often – a nunnery. The convent of St. John the Baptist was built for the Franciscan nuns of St. Clara, or the Poor Clares, in 1577 as the first nunnery in the islands. The Poor Clares were a closed order and the lattice-windowed balcony high in a corner tower was the only place from which the nuns were allowed to look out onto the world. In 1697 it too had to be rebuilt after a fire. Part of it is open to the public as a museum.
The Augustinian friars, who, along with the Franciscans, arrived with the conquis-tadors, also began con-struction of their convent in the year 1506. It was destroyed by fire as late as 1964; the ruins can be seen on Calle San Augustin.
The third convent in the then capital was built by the Dominicans in the 16th century and it is still in use today as town council offices in Calle San Domingo.
Another convent for nuns, this time the Dominican nuns of St. Catalina, was built in the 17th century on Calle Nava y Grimon opposite the Plaza Adelantado. It fell into disuse and disrepair but recently a large part of the complex has been beautifully renovated, potentially for tourist use or as an artistic and exhibition space. Part of the complex is still a nunnery and, like the nunnery of the Poor Clares, it has a viewing gallery in a corner tower.
At LA OROTAVA the Dominican friars built their convent in 1620 that now houses the Iberoamericana artesan museum. The Augustinians also came here in the 17th century and their convent is now the church of St. Augustin. The Franciscan nuns of St. Clara, the Poor Clares, were in La Orotava where part of their former land is now home to the tranquil, shady botanical garden.
PUERTO DE LA CRUZ was at first not much more than a fishing village and very much in second place to La Orotava, being the port for La Orotava. The street name ‘Calle Santo Domingo’ is the only clue to the existence of the Dominican convent that used to be on the site of the Town Hall.
Like Puerto de la Cruz, SANTA CRUZ was the port for La Laguna. The Dominican convent to where Nelson’s troops retreated in the attack of 25th July 1797 was demolished to make way for a market, or recova, which is now an exhibition hall across the street from the Teatro Guimera.
In the Plaza de San Francisco, next door to the Church of San Francisco, the Franciscan convent was demolished to be replaced by the city library, which in turn moved to the TEA centre on the other side of the Barranco de Santos.
Finally we come to the convent in BUENAVISTA, the sight of which inspired this article. The remaining roofless walls, with their large repairs and blocked doors and windows, stand testimony to the convent founded for the Franciscan order in 1648. The sixteenth of its kind to be founded in the Canary Islands, it was established for twelve friars, who, not being in a cloistered order, went out among the people to beg for alms, to hold services and to teach. In the middle of the 19th century, when the order was dissolved, the building was dismantled and converted into a cemetery that in turn was closed in 1946.
Only the front portico remains standing with dignity, where the Franciscan emblem of the hands of Jesus and St. Francis, each with their stigmata, can be seen in the pediment in front of and behind the cross. This is the most poignant of all the former convents, it has survived, but only just, and sadly it has no purpose today.
There we have it, a whistle-stop tour of the convents of Tenerife. There are bound to be others that I’ve missed, and there’s a lot more to tell, but it sheds a little bit of light onto an aspect of the visible history of Tenerife that might otherwise go unnoticed.