Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 11, 2008
St. Michael chosen to guard Mexican mission churches
Welcoming Maya children attest to the land’s heritage
St. Michael – September 29
By TED FITZGERALD
Fray Diego de Landa composed a text describing Maya life in all its aspects.
As in much of Mexico, the church dominates the town. Its age-stained yellow and ochre limestone walls tower over the grassy plaza and contrast with the modest one-storey homes nearby.
The interior is plain, relatively unornamented and suggests a comparatively poor congregation. The few furnishings seem lost in the great nave and a tiny corner of a large room is all that’s needed for a vestry. One modest bell occupies bell-towers originally designed for six.
Large rooms in the massive-walled convento (convent) adjoining the church are open to the elements. Windows of sand fill the corners and the great stone staircases are worn with time. A heavy sense of past events, many traumatic, pervades the echoing corridors and overgrown gardens of the complex.
Some idea of the great numbers of Maya that attended the church can be gained by the presence of the large “open chapel” fronting the convento. Inclusion of this in the complex was necessary to accommodate crowds greater than the capacity of the church.
The site’s main claim to a place in history rests in its association with an infamous Spanish clergyman, Fray Diego de Landa. In an attempt to eradicate perceived idolatry among the Maya, he was responsible for the destruction of all Maya books that could be found. This Auto de Fe of 1562 (act of faith) left the world with only three known Maya texts (codices).
Subsequently, de Landa was accused of mistreating the populace (Spanish law at the time contained many safeguards for the protection of native peoples), and was jailed in Spain for a year pending an investigation of the charges.
While incarcerated, he composed a text describing Maya life in all its aspects, as he had observed it at the beginning of the Spanish occupation. This undertaking favourably impressed the courts and resulted in his exoneration and eventual return to the New World as a bishop.
Ironically, de Landa has left posterity the only detailed account of pre-conquest Maya customs. However history judges this enthusiastic Franciscan, his Yucatan Before and After the Conquest is still a big seller in Yucatan.
Four hundred years later, the conquerors are history, Catholicism remains a cultural force in the area, and the Maya, despite initial high mortality under the Spanish, are still in Yucatan. The children of Mani will attest to that.
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