When you think of nuns, often the image of “penguins” slapping parochial schoolchildren’s hands with a ruler comes to mind. But other Catholic orders dedicate themselves to tasks in service to others, or to making homemade goodies and medicines.
This is the work of three convents in Quito’s Centro Histórico: Santa Clara, Carmen del Alto and Santa Catalina. If Quito’s dry air is taking a toll on your skin, or you’ve picked up some sort of bug while out in the jungle, head over to their shops. If you’re more interested in sweets and other delectables than in natural medicine, these crafty nuns can fulfill your desires, too.
Convento de Santa Clara‘s (Rocafuerte and Cuenca), founded in 1596, is one block south of Plaza San Francisco. Among this convent’s offerings are a cucumber cream to soothe your skin at these high altitudes and a makeup remover. The sisters here also produce wine and have a bakery. While at the convent, stop by the church for a guided tour of the Baroque art collection (Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Entry: $1).
Two blocks to the east is Monasterio e Iglesia del Carmen del Alto (Rocafuerte and García Moreno). This is one of Quito’s oldest convents. It was originally the house of the city’s first saint, Mariana de Jesús (1618-1665). Upon her death, her family donated the building to the Carmelitas Descalzas, who enlarged the house according to the saint’s wishes. The work was completed in 1661. The convent is a closed cloister; the sisters do not enter public and pass their lives speaking only a few hours per day. The only parts the general public may visit are the church and the shop.
The Barefoot Carmelites of this convent specialize in raising bees, and many of their goods are made from that. They also make crafts which are for sale at their shop. The sisters are especially renowned for their embroidery work, sweets and holy wine (said to be the “star” creation of these Carmelitas Descalzas).
From the Iglesia del Carmen del Alto, walk two blocks east to Plaza Santo Domingo and cut across the square to Calle Flores (the street the Trole takes). Take Flores four blocks to Convento de Santa Catalina, on the corner of Calle Espejo. It is located in Barrio San Marcos, on the site where the Incan Aclla Huasi (House of the Chosen) was.
This convent has probably the widest range of health and beauty aids, some made by its community and others by outside producers. Besides lotions and creams, this religious order’s members craft products your great-grandmother probably whipped up in her kitchen. There is horseradish syrup for coughs, and all manner of teas and potions for other ailments. The honey-bees’ wax cream is exceptionally good for relieving dry skin and nice for massages. While at Convento de Santa Catalina drop by its museum (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Entry: $1.50).
These convents create products from their own huertas, or garden-farm plots. Besides being the way they fulfill their calling, this is also how the nuns can raise much needed money for their communities and projects. The shops are typically open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.