Picture it, the year is 1552, you're young Spaniards fresh off the conquest and you've just been asked to construct your order's first church in a foreign, and often strange, new world. Your objective is to create a space conducive to converting, ministering and protecting the indians, meeting the needs of the religious and secular communities as well as being a safe haven from potential attack. This was the position in which ex-Conquistador turned architect, builder and Friar, Juan de Mérida and Fathers Hernando de Guevara and Francisco de la Torres found themselves.
They chose to build their church in a small community called Sisal just outside Valladolid and away from the primary Spanish settlement. Not only would the location allow them to protect their indigenous charges from abuse by local landowners that was already becoming evident, it would also allow them to create a wholly self-sustaining community. Naturally, this didn't sit too well with local landowners who perceived the friars as unfairly meddling with their indian labor. Numerous hostile conflicts occured before and during construction of the church as a result of the choice to situate the church in Sisal. The monastery was built over a large cenote call "Sis-Ha" (cool or cold waters in Mayan) that connected to a quick flowing underground river. From the directional orientation of the church to the many cave-ins during construction, each architectural problem was dealt with as it arose. By 1560, however, after the conflicts, cave-ins and assorted other delays and set-backs, the church was finally completed and consecrated.
The finished church had a rather squat, fortress-like appearance and certainly lacked the ornate flourishes of churches found in other parts of Mexico and also lacked the typical East/West orientation. The austere construction continued into the interior of the church as well which was, and still is, a plain affair that is devoid of the usual adornment found in many Mexican churches.
One of the things that makes the ex-Convento San Bernardino de Siena an interesting and worthwhile visit is that it looks very much like it did when it was completed. There has not been much modification or addition to the original structure so it's pretty easy to get a good idea and feel for what the church must have been like in 1560.
Though walled up now, an open chapel was built on the south side (to the right in the photo above) of the building for the indigenous parishioners.
400+ years of wear and tear have been kind to the ex-Convento. The severe lines have soften considerably, and, in the light afternoon sunlight, the stones and mortar settle into an attractive and mellow ocher glow.
Fans and students of religious iconography will find a number of statues and retablos inside the church worth checking out. Just to left of the church entrance is a small museum in the old cloisters area that reflects the daily life in the monastery, some treasures that were recently dredged up from the cenote as well as a few nice pieces of colonial religious art.
If the Franciscans were successful in building a stable and functional monastery, they were wildly successful in making it a totally self-sufficient one as well. Once the church was completed, extensive gardens and orchards were planted ensuring a steady source of food for both nourishment and trade. Remnants of the old orchards still stand and on certain parts of the grounds the gentle scent of orange blossoms hauntingly drifts through the air.
Since the church was build over a large cenote and underground river, they also had a steady source of clean water. There are 4 access points to the cenote, one of which was turned into the "noria" or well-house. Much of the original stone well-house still exists and it's an easy climb up to take a peek into the depths of the cenote though there really isn't much to see these days except a big grate covering a big hole.
In the early 2000s the depths of the cenote were plumbed and yielded a surprising cache of weapons. 167 guns and rifles were recovered from the deep water, along with part of a cannon. Many of the firearms are now on display in the monastery museum along with period photographs and information (in Spanish) about the local skrimishes in which they could have been used.
If walls could talk, as the saying goes, those of the ex-Convento San Bernardino de Siena could surly tell a tale to rival any present day telenovela. As it is, we are left with the purity of the architectural design and graceful old stone facade keeping silent testament to 450+ years of history.