“Tony, Tony, look around. Something’s lost and can’t be found.”
The Lash of the Penitentes is a 1937 oddity that is both a documentary and a B-movie. The circumstances surrounding the production of the film are shrouded in mystery and only a few scenes have survived, but it illustrates a murder mystery that took place in the Sandia mountains where I grew up.
The film depicts the penitente brotherhood as a secret, self-flagellating sect and, to this day, the order lives up to its reputation. The pilgrims who walk north to Chimayo every Good Friday still whip and crucify themselves along the way. Through self-imposed suffering, they atone for their sins.
Back in the old days, San Antonio was a remote village and the priest only came down from Santa Fe once a year to hold a service. It was up to Los Hermanos Penitentes to care for the church and uphold Christianity at the edge of the frontier.
As the West became less wild, San Antonio’s church began holding more traditional services and an ordained priest became a regular fixture every Sunday. Over the years, however, the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church have led to another priest shortage. Nowadays, San Antonio is lucky to have a service once a month.
As you can see from my video, there’s a tension between San Antonio’s shepherd and his flock. The priest chides his congregation for mumbling an “Amen” in the middle of his blessing, but in exercising his authority he exposes his own inefficacy. San Antonio’s church still exists, not because of the Catholic Diocese, but through the stewardship of the community’s ancient mayordomo leadership.
That is not to say that San Antonio’s residents are unfaithful. Indian raids, droughts, and most recently development have threatened the village’s survival. Each time there is a crisis the townspeople appeal to St. Anthony, the patron saint for lost things. Miraculously, the same families who settled here in the early 1800s are still around today. The fragility of the village cannot be underestimated, but the stubbornness of faith has kept its unique culture alive. As our society becomes increasingly secular, the folklore that defines our shared history is often lost. Against all odds, San Antonio de Padua has managed to preserve its traditions.