Alone at the Altar
Single Women and Devotion in Guatemala, 1670-1870
Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the book's methodology, arguments, and scholarly significance. Most works on women and early modern religion focus on nuns, holy women, or religious "deviants," and emphasize rising hostility toward female autonomy as officials moved to enclose unmarried women and intensive female religiosity (e.g. mysticism, asceticism). This book takes a different approach and examines ordinary laywomen, particularly the broad population of non-elite women who frequently lived outside of both marriage and convent in colonial Spanish American cities. Through an analysis of approximately 550 wills, as well as a variety of other source materials such as hagiographies, religious chronicles, and ecclesiastical records, this study argues that the complex alliances forged between non-elite single women and the Catholic Church shaped local religion and the spiritual economy, late colonial reform efforts, and post-Independence politics in Guatemala's capital.

1 City of Women, City of God: Poor, Single, and Holy in Santiago de Guatemala
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 examines the hagiography of local holy woman Anna Guerra de Jesús who migrated to Guatemala's capital in the late seventeenth century. While the early modern Catholic ideal of feminine piety prized enclosure, obedience, and virginity, Anna was neither nun nor virgin, but rather a poor abandoned wife and mother. And although Church decrees clearly required actively religious laywomen to live in cloistered communities, Anna became an independent beata (laywoman who took informal vows) and Jesuit tertiary. This chapter explores Anna's lived religious experience as a poor migrant and abandoned wife and mother, her engagement with female mysticism and devotional networks, and her alliances with powerful priests and religious orders. It also places Anna's story within the context of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Santiago de Guatemala, particularly urban demographic shifts and social tensions, as well as movements for spiritual renewal and enthusiastic lay female piety.

2 Unlikely Allies: Missionaries and Laywomen
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Evidence from wills highlight the striking number of non-elite women living outside of marriage who successfully professed as lay Franciscan tertiaries, that is, as members of the powerful Franciscan Third Order. Chapter 2 explores how and why priests in Guatemala's colonial capital, especially Franciscans and Jesuits, allied with poor single and widowed laywomen and supported active and unenclosed female religiosity. Santiago de Guatemala's status as a distant provincial capital, removed from the Inquisition's close oversight and without the institutional resources necessary to enforce female enclosure, led to greater tolerance of lay female religiosity and single women compared to larger cities like Mexico City and Lima. At the same time, global missionary movements forged diverse models of female piety and sustained support for active female ministries. These findings suggest the need to modify interpretations of early modern Catholicism as primarily hostile towards single women and lay female religiosity.

3 Sex, Honor, and Devotion
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Chapter 3 traces how non-elite single women navigated their moral status and developed alliances with the Catholic Church in the shifting religious landscape between 1700 and 1770. Although scholars have examined the ways in which elite women in colonial Spanish America took advantage of loopholes and the distance between public honor and private sexual matters, the experiences of non-elite women remain unclear. Wills highlight how laboring unmarried women invoked feminine ideals other than chastity and enclosure through their enthusiastic participation in confraternities and Third Orders, contributions to the spiritual economy as pious benefactors, and complex alliances with local priests. Much as scholars recognize that race in colonial Latin America was a flexible category and individuals might count multiple racial identities simultaneously or change their racial identity over time, these findings illustrate how poor single women took advantage of alternative feminine ideals and claimed moral status within their communities.

4 To Educate and Evangelize: Laywomen, Clergy, and Late-Colonial Girls' Schools
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Chapter 4 examines the case studies of three new primary schools for non-elite girls in and around late-colonial Guatemala City, as locals called the recently relocated capital. These educational initiatives illustrate both change and continuity, blurring the perceived battle lines between baroque and enlightened pieties. Enlightened feminine ideals based on the social utility of educated mothers and Bourbon reform efforts operated in conjunction with on-going alliances between laywomen and clergy and an attachment to monastic models of feminine piety. These schools also show how laywomen acted as pioneers and innovators, shaping educational reform through creative engagement with Bourbon reforms, Enlightenment ideas, and progressive Catholicism. The formation of Guatemala City's "Teacher's College" for native women in the Beaterio de Indias also challenged entrenched racial ideologies and illustrates a critical shift toward acknowledging native laywomen's capacity to serve as teachers and spiritual leaders.

5 The Controversial Ecstasy of Sor María Teresa Aycinena
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Chapter 5 explores the devotion and controversy surrounding Sor María Teresa Aycinena, a Carmelite nun, who in 1816 in the midst of the Independence wars, reportedly began to experience the stigmata, visions, mystical crucifixions, and miraculous images formed with the blood of her wounds. The powerful archbishop, priests, and lay devotees, many of them women, supported the Carmelite nun as a holy woman, but her divine revelations fueled controversy and political conflicts. Modern scholars treat the case only in passing, accepting the liberal nineteenth-century view that Sor María Teresa and her lay devotees were conservative political pawns. This case certainly highlights the early politicization of networks between priests and laywomen, but it also reveals how religious motivations significantly shaped clerical support of the mystic nun, while the Church's weakened position created openings for assertive female claims to spiritual authority and a renewal of devotions long popular with laywomen.

6 "With Knives Drawn": Gender, Devotion, and Politics After Independence
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Chapter 6 analyzes how non-elite women outside of marriage navigated the shifting religious and political landscape in the decades after Independence. Laboring women undeniably faced new challenges, including their exclusion from republican citizenship, pastoral instability, and the decline of confraternities, which undermined traditional forms of spiritual and social support, and the renewed emphasis upon female sexual purity by both Church and State. While laboring women could not live up to the elite ideal of "Republican Motherhood," they found new ways of establishing their moral status as public defenders of the faith. Their actions shaped the development of popular conservatism in Guatemala, which successfully reigned from 1838 to 1871. Non-elite women also forged alliances with Jesuit missionaries and took advantage of new devotional opportunities as nineteenth-century Church officials, more dependent than ever upon laywomen, mostly abandoned early modern restrictions on active lay female religiosity.

chapter abstract

The Epilogue considers how the Liberal Reform Era of the 1870s, dramatically undermined both laboring single women and the Catholic Church. Liberals directly undermined laboring women's economic opportunities, enhanced male privileges, and promoted an exclusive nuclear family ideal, and at the same time targeted laywomen's longtime devotional allies, expelling male religious orders, closing female convents, and abolishing lay brotherhoods, Third Orders, and most public displays of religiosity. But by the 1920s, a lay-led religious revival, supported by the Vatican, was underway and dozens of new Catholic associations emerged specifically for women. Today, laboring women are at the forefront of a new spiritual revival in Guatemala City, the rise of Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, and charismatic Catholicism. This study's long historical perspective suggests that the success of these movements derives from their ability to build upon Guatemala's local religion, particularly forms of devotional expression and networking historically favored by laboring women.