One sunny afternoon, Miro, Dave (from gobackpacking.com) and I met in the heart of Lima, to explore the historical grounds of the Franciscan Monastery. Why? Not because we were excited about the church grounds.
We were there for the bones! Yes, the BONES!
We wanted to see for ourselves, the remains of 25,000 past residents of Lima and try to understand why they were buried under the city.
That and because the idea of exploring the catacombs had sort of a macabre promise, as I pictured Bela Lugosi taking my hand and leading me through the maze of bones, with the intention of biting my neck and adding my body to the pile.
I have to say, none of that happened and the idea of what I thought it would be like was much more interesting then what it was in reality. Photography was not permitted in the monastery or the catacombs so I’ll fill you in with the history here, so you can create an image in your own mind’s eye. (You are more than welcome to borrow my B-movie set imagery if you like, but no biting allowed.)
San Francisco Convent
A visit to the Church & Catacombs at the San Francisco Convent in Lima is an adventure that takes you through the city’s long history. The church itself, is a classic example of Baroque architecture that has withstood several powerful earthquakes and wars and structure, bears signs of both.
The outer courtyard is occupied by hundreds of pigeons, which Miro (and I ) had the opportunity to chase.
We entered the church, paid our fee, then waited in a large hall which reminded me of the entrance to the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. We waited there for an English speaking group to assemble and an English speaking guide. The three of us thought, “this could be torturous, we (3 Jews) don’t really want the church tour, take us straight to the bones!!!”
Patience was required.
Our group eventually gathered and an ‘English speaking’ guide materilaized. The tourture we were about to receive had nothing to do with zombies or vampires or bone hungry werewolves, it had to do with our guide’s horrible articulation of English.
“Kill me now, was all I could think.
The pigeonless inner cloisters, were well manicured and revealed layers of crumbling fresco paintings in different states or restoration. Throughout the church, the ornate detail of the sculpture and wood working was impressive. We were guided through rooms of the convent, grand meeting rooms with deep cherry-wood high-back chairs with elaborate ceiling frescos. We explored gallery after gallery of religious painting telling every imaginable story from the bible. We even strolled through a hall memorializing the slain Franciscan monks of past depicting the method they were killed. ( I thought that was kind of interesting. )
We learned the church also holds ancient manuscripts that are considered treasures but no one offered to show them to us. Then, the payoff before the final act, a very interesting painting of The Last Supper housed in one of the galleries. In this unusual painting Jesus and his Disciples are actually eating a roasted cuy (guinea pig). Now that made the tour almost worth it!
Finally after what seemed like decades, we got to the main attraction. The catacombs. The guide indicates that we are about to enter very first burial grounds of Lima. First we are guided into the catacombs to see what looks like a 10 foot by 3 foot cavernous abyss which we were told was equivalent to 5 building storys deep filled with bones. In my opinion, the monks had to be crazy. After the bodies had decomposed the monks separated their bones and placed all skulls in one cavern, all femurs in another, and well… you get the point. We were told the bodies were covered with a lime juice and sand solution to help the decomposition and mask the smell.
Seriously, I can’t even imagine how the people who’s job it was to separate the bones from the freshly decomposed managed.
We passed through a dozen or so caverns filled with singular bone types, stories deep. As we came through the other side of the catacombs we saw a circular tomb with bones arranged from the skulls in the inner circle alternating with a concentric circle of what appeared to be femurs, then back to skulls and so on.
“We seemed to find a conceptual art piece here, ” I thought. I wonder if this was the madness or revenge from the person who was tasked with separating the bones in the first place. Your guess is as good as mine.
We were told there are believed to be secret passages as well, adding to the mystery of visiting this church. These passages were used during the Inquisition and connected the estuary and church.
Saint Jude Tadeus finds his final resting place here and a grand feast is held in his name each year. A dazzling silver stand is carried by as many as 40-45 men during the festival. Saint Jude Tadeus is not alone as it is estimated that this catacomb may hold up to 25,000 people.
You can find more information on the San Francisco Convent at this wikipedia page here.