As faith declines in Spain, so do Seville's glorious convents

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Today is Good Friday, when Christians around the world commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, ahead of Easter Sunday.

One of the largest public displays occurs each year in Seville, Spain, but declining faith among the Spanish people is threatening a longtime pillar of the Catholic Church, its cloistered convents.

Jeffrey Brown has that story. It's part of our continuing series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everywhere you turn in Seville, tradition and history, reminders of a rich religious past.

But rarely seen, Seville's cloistered convents, cities within cities behind high walls, a piece of the fabric of the community, yet separate and apart, places like the convent of Santa Ines, founded in 1372 by Maria Coronel, whose body still lies in repose in the church's chapel.

Prioress Maria Rebecca Cervantes Cisneros joined the sisterhood when she was just 13 years old.

MARIA REBECCA CERVANTES CISNEROS, Prioress, Santa Ines Convent (through interpreter): Many people might say that a person doesn't know what she's doing at that age, but I think that it is a gift from God, and that he is free to call for you whenever he wishes. And, to this day, I do not regret having heeded that call.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yet, in Spain today, few women heed that call. Only about 15 percent of the population even attends mass.

Twenty-five years ago, there were 41 cloistered convents in Seville, the highest concentration in Spain. Today, just 15 active ones remain, and at Santa Ines, eight nuns, practicing what's known as their vocation, watch over this entire complex.

Six of them come not from Spain, but from Mexico, including the prioress.

MARIA REBECCA CERVANTES CISNEROS: Here in Europe, there's a very general crisis of vocations. Perhaps there's also a lack of knowledge. Maybe we need to promote ourselves more, because people aren't very familiar with us. Many people think that the life of a contemplative is like a useless life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Convents like Santa Ines here in Seville are hidden treasures from an earlier era, once small, but bustling communities, now fewer inhabitants now, and walls that are decaying.

The murals lining the courtyard, which illustrate biblical stories and are said to date to the 1400s, are cracking and flaking away. So, too, are many of its Spanish tiles. Some are held in place by fabric. The structural beams supporting the entrance to the outside world, through which everyday citizens enter daily to buy sweets through the turnstile, are cracked, in danger of collapsing.

Weeds grow out of every nook.

PABLO LONGORIA, World Monuments Fund: This is one of the two, three convents that is in worst shape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pablo Longoria directs projects in Spain for the world monuments fund, which last year added Seville's convents to its endangered heritage watch list.

With his help, we were given rare access during the season of Lent. Even still, many of the nuns preferred to remain away from our cameras.

PABLO LONGORIA: Convents are very old buildings that were usually kept by the donation of citizens, religious people that would give the convents money and products, and by the nuns. So, 50 years ago, you would have 80 nuns in this convent. Now you have eight left.

JEFFREY BROWN: With much less support.

PABLO LONGORIA: With much less support and with many more years. The average age must be 75 to 80 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: While Santa Ines has imported its nuns from Mexico, at Santa Paula, another convent less than a mile away, most of the 20 nuns are from India. Santa Paula was established in 1473 by the Order of Saint Jerome and, thanks to the largess of the noble family of a former prioress, is in better shape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is your favorite?

WOMAN: This.

JEFFREY BROWN: This one?

The nuns here sell their sweets from a shop, and even have a small museum often open to the public. But with only about a third of its former population, the problem of maintaining this huge place remains.

This massive church portal, designed by Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano and dating to 1504, combines Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance styles, but it's been slowly destroyed by water damage, spiders nests, an overall lack of care.

MARTA VILLANUEVA, Architect (through interpreter): It's more dark here. That's because of the water.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marta Villanueva has been coming here since she was a little girl, and followed her father into the field of architectural restoration. She's now working on a two-year project to restore this portal, funded by a $200,000 grant from the U.S.-based Annenberg Foundation.

MARTA VILLANUEVA (through interpreter): This facade is absolutely one of a kind. There are no others like it in all of Spain. The most unique aspect is the capacity it has to unite different currents, both aesthetically and in thought. It's a synthesis of the culture that was enriching all of Seville.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, she says, the needs of this convent and others far outstrip the means of the nuns' orders, which own them.

MARTA VILLANUEVA (through interpreter): This type of monument needs continual maintenance, and that requires means to see them through. The resources aren't always there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The World Monuments Fund is attempting to bring stakeholders together in Seville, the religious orders, the surrounding communities and the regional government, to catalogue the damage and prioritize the greatest needs.

PABLO LONGORIA: The best case scenario is, we find, through careful study of the building, a way to make it sustainable through time, a way in which the nuns can stay, they can keep their traditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many convents have been lost already, abandoned or converted into offices for the municipal government, museums or event spaces.

JAVIER RODRIGUEZ BARBERAN, University of Seville: You feel here like if you work in a part of the convent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Javier Rodriguez Barberan is a professor of art history at the University of Seville and, like many here, grew up around the convents.

JAVIER RODRIGUEZ BARBERAN: Imagine there are no nuns inside the convent. You can see beautiful building, you can see beautiful works of art, but it's no more a convent. It would be a museum. It would be a hotel. It would be a restaurant, I don't know, but no more a convent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which would mean the life of the place is gone.

JAVIER RODRIGUEZ BARBERAN: Exactly. Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: At Santa Ines, Prioress Cervantes is asking the regional government to make good on a decades-old pledge to help restore her convent. She hopes they won't have to close this sanctuary, but is at peace in any case.

MARIA REBECCA CERVANTES CISNEROS (through interpreter): Even though we are concerned about the shortage of vocations and such, I think you simply forget the present, leave it aside and give your life and devotion to the vocation we have received as a gift, and the rest is up to God.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Seville, Spain.

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