Standing atop the Monte Santo, resolutely facing north is the Nunnery of Santa Monica. Like a grand old matriarch, the building stands not just with grace and dignity but with formidable beauty and an air of insurmountable defenses; tenderly sheltering those within whilst repelling the whims and fancies of the fickle, shallow world.
This nunnery in Goa is named for St. Monica who was the mother of St. Augustine, and it could once accommodate more than 250 inmates. It was a sanctuary not only for nuns, but also for widows willing to devote themselves to the service of God, and for the temporary protection of well-born ladies whose husbands had travelled to far off lands on military conquests or expeditions.
The convent enjoyed the patronage of Royalty and was the first nunnery in the east. The convent houses the Miraculous or Weeping Cross in one of the chapels.
This convent, the Nunnery of Santa Monica was sanctioned in 1598 and the Archbishop Aleixo de Menezes laid the foundation stone in 1606. Construction was completed in 1627. Built like a fortress, this convent is significant for its massive walls and buttresses. The convent has a vast courtyard with a cloister. Its three stories have numerous cells and halls. Massive standing, rather than flying, buttresses characterize the exterior of the convent.
On Christmas Eve 1636, a massive fire partially destroyed the building but it was restored by Fr. Diogo de Santa Anna, who was the then administrator and “spiritual father” of the convent.
The architecture of the Church and convent reflect a combination of the Tuscan, Corinthian and composite styles. The façade of the Church has two main doorways with basalt frames. The three arched buttresses are solidly constructed and were a later addition to the structure. The road leading to the tip of Monte, runs through these buttresses.
The façade of the church prominently features a statue of Santa Monica as well as the symbol of the Holy Ghost. The doors also feature granite carvings of a Caravel, which is a small, highly manoeuvrable Portuguese sailing ship, and a dragon.
The façade of the convent bears a carving of the symbols of the Eucharist, the Paschal Lamb and Holy Ghost along with an inscription. The convent itself is quadrangular. It has three stories and is built around a courtyard, called the Vale de Lirios, which means lily of the valley. The courtyard also contained a cloister. In the centre of this courtyard was a well, known as the Font de Salvador.
The walls of the nunnery are massive and solidly constructed. They were said to be so strong that the relative strength of other buildings was measured against them, “my house is well-built, and it is as strong as the walls of Santa Monica”.
The convent itself is massive and consists of three floors. There were various cells and rooms to accommodate the residents of the convent. The Church of the Weeping Cross is attached to the south of the convent. It has four altars; the main one is dedicated to St. Monica, the others to St. Augustine the Bom Jesus and the Miraculous Cross. The vaults over some of the spaces were enriched with scenes from the bible, similar to that of the Sistine chapel in Rome.
On the 8th of February 1636, the statue of Christ on the Cross of Inside is said to have opened its eyes whilst blood flowed from the wounds as if it were living. The same miracle took place once more, four days later in the presence of the Viceroy, Archbishop and other high ranking church officials. The Archdiocese of Goa celebrates its festival on the 27th of November.
The convent contained within it eight dormitories. They were Madre de Deus which had eight cells; Santa Anna which had sixteen Divino Salvador which had eleven; Santo Agostinho which had sixteen, Sepulcro, Belem, Senora de Candeia and De Cima. These dormitories were only for the inmates of the convent and there were separate, special dormitories for the servants.
The ground floor of the convent had a gate known as the Porta de Fora, or the outer door. Through this, visitors were allowed to talk with the nuns. This opened onto the apartments call Aposentos de Portiero and Locutorio de Fora. Beyond this was the Portaria de clausara, the door of the cloister and the Casa de Rodo, and a nun remained in charge of the keys. The door between these two was the Porta de probicao and no one was allowed to enter without the express written permission of the Bishop. The penalty for violating this rule was instant excommunication.
The interior of the Church of the Weeping Cross blends the Doric and composite styles of architecture. The image of the Christ which was said to have wept blood was previously kept in the choir loft, but now occupies a place of honour in a tribune in the nave of the church.
The main altar of the church has magnificent retable divided in three. In the first section stands a statue of St. Augustine, flanked by St. Thomas of Vila Nova and St. Ambrosius, the second section has a statue of St. Monica, to whom the altar is consecrated, and she has on either side of her St. Rita and St. Melania and the third section has a representation of Calvary with the saints Peter and Paul on either side.
The pulpit too is artistically carved with sculptures of Our Lady of Piety, St. Augustine and two Augustinian bishops. On either side of the altar are carved angels, interestingly enough, with cashew shaped earrings.
The nuns in this convent were cloistered and lived a hard and frugal existence. They were allowed no contact with the outside world and even family visits were rarely permitted, and then only under strict supervision.
They were divided into two groups within the convent. The nuns of the black veil were only those ladies of Portuguese descent whilst the nuns of the white veil were of native Goan descent. Although the government recommended that this distinction be abolished they were largely ignored.
The nuns had a solitary and frugal existence within the walls of the cloister. After a novice entered the convent her hair was shorn before she took up the veil. Family members were only allowed two visits a month, at that no male family members apart from fathers, brothers and paternal uncles, and all the visits had to be supervised. They were not allowed any visitors on communion days, which were twice a week, feast days and other days of obligation or during the periods of Advent and Lent.
Along with meditation and prayer the nuns also occupied themselves with needlework, gardening and cooking. They made vestments for the priests as well as altar cloths and banners. It is said that one such banner was made for the Murmagao fort to give blessings, strength and courage during the Dutch invasion. The art of making artificial flowers is also attributed to them.
The nuns were accomplished cooks and made preserves of jams and jellies as well as syrups and sweets. Their gardens too were beautiful and well-tended, growing various types of fruits and flowers. The only male visitors, besides the close family members were the doctor, in case of illness and the Archbishop who visited the convent annually. The nuns even heard mass only from the choir loft, from where they could observe the mass without being seen.
The nuns also had penitence rooms where they practiced various disciplinary techniques including self-flagellation with ropes or leather straps.
Their numbers dwindled through the years until the convent was closed as a nunnery after the last sister residing there died, and was reinstated as a church in 1968.
One story, which has in fact been attested to by many and recorded in the Secretariat of the government of Goa, states that Sr. Maria de Jesus died on the convent premises, at the age of 78 with stigmata present on her hands and feet. This was apparently verified by the physicians of that time.
Today this convent has been converted into the Museum of Christian Art, whilst the old Monastery of Santa Monica houses the Mater Dei Institute, for the formation of the faith for women from all religious congregations in India.
On your way to the museum, it is well worth it to stop by the chapel of the Weeping cross, and to admire the massive and formidable building which has stood the test of time, relentlessly guarding its inmates from the vices and foibles of life in the outer world.