One of the most distinct and important religious societies in northen New Mexico and southern Colorado is Los Hermanos Penitentes. The full name is Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, "The Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth" or sometimes La Cofradia de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, "The Fraternity of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth". This society has had a strong influence on the culture and beliefs of the small villages and towns of the Upper Rio Grande Valley.
The roots of the Penitentes goes back about 800 years ago to Spain and Italy where members would practice self-flagellation and other forms of physical torment as penance for their sins. Many believe the philosophical basis came as a result of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi. In any event, the Penitentes have been in New Mexico for over 400 years.
Following Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1821 the Catholic Church removed the Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit priests from the provinces of Mexico. This left many areas in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado without any priests. The Penitentes assumed the crucial role in keeping the Hispanic religious traditions alive and helping their communities with charitable acts. Don Bernardo Abeyta, who found the crucifix which led to the building of El Santuario, was a penitente.
Following the Annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 which ended the Mexican-American war, the United States took possession of much of what is now the Southwestern U.S. However, many of the residents of New Mexico and Colorado still had strong allegiances to both Spain and Mexico. The U.S. Government sought to try to eliminate that allegiance and, with the help of the Catholic Church in the person of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, began a program to "Americanize" the Catholic Religion. In response to this the Penitentes became a more secretive society.
The society, along with many of its practices, were formally banned by the church and so the Penitentes built "moradas", small, windowless buildings of adobe or stone away from the churches where they practiced their religious beliefs. They still played a crucial role in their communities, though, and much of the distinct culture of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado can be directly attributed to the efforts of the Penitentes in keeping the Hispanic traditions alive and well.
By the mid-1900s the Catholic Church and the Penitentes were reconciled. At El Santuario and in the mountainous areas surrounding Chimayo the Penitente Brotherhood is still quite strong. Penitentes are now welcomed in many formal church ceremonies, especially during Holy Week, where they often lead the processions which mark the ceremonies.