The Convent Route runs through the heart of the Mexican Yucatán. One of its highlights is the colonial Church of the Ascension in the village of Mama. Descriptions of the church make it sound fascinating:
Mama is famous for its large beautiful bell-globed Church of the Ascension. The complex offers a large garden, a well and a closed atrium along with frescos on the wall, statues of saints in the niches and a very ornate altar. It is believed this is the oldest church on the route. Built in the XVII century, its facade distinguishes from the rest of the temples by its marvelous Mayan handwork on the stones. The church has a display of paintings and saints on each wall. It has room for five bells and the convent’s inner patio contains the remains of four sundials.
We were in Mama on a Sunday in late November, so I was delighted to find the church open, but without a worship service underway.
The church is quiet when I enter, but it isn’t still. The morning’s worship service has ended, but a few people quietly roam about cleaning, decorating, and weaving wreathes.
No one seems bothered by my presence, so I work my way through the church, stopping to examine each side chapel (or retablo) along the way. Each is unique, but almost all have common elements, including elaborate painted decorations.
The church’s decoration is stunning, but when I look more closely I realize that many of the painted images are disfigured – the delicate work damaged by poorly executed repairs.
It’s sad, because the remaining bits of the original paintings are exquisite. I wonder how Mary and the baby Jesus feel, their luminous eyes glowing through rough layers of thick paint – the beauty of the original depiction now deeply buried.
The areas that were not repaired make it clear that very little remains of the original painting, but this seems like a case where the cure was far worse than the disease. I just hope that these clumsy “repairs” can be removed someday.
The original paintings aren’t the only thing that is obscured today. I can’t see the original altar either, as it is completely swathed in fabric.
I’m not sure if the patriotic bunting is part of the celebration of the Festival of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (which is just beginning) or if they are a remnant of the celebration Mexican Revolution Day (which was celebrated a short while ago). In either case, the altar – which must be spectacular if it is anything like the rest of the church – is completely hidden from view.
Near the altar a flower-bedecked niche holds an image of Mary.
I’d guess the festival of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception has begun!
There is a small transept running through the front of the church, an area that is bathed in light from the large doors that open into the yard.
As beautiful and interesting as the church is, it’s not the church I am expecting. As I look out across the yard, I realize there is another structure buried in the overgrown garden behind the fence. It looks ancient, with worn stones and a domed roof. I am sure it is the ancient church I have come to see.
There is no way to get there from here, but there is another building behind this church. It has a loggia that reaches almost to the fence that separates the church yard from the overgrown garden. But maybe if I can get to that loggia. . .
I walk to the other side of the church and exit. There are two side doors into the church, the one I came through and one that leads into a room where the priest stores his robes.
Beyond that, at the far back of the church yard, another door stands open.
On the other side of that farthest door lie cool hallways and dark rooms used to store statuary, decorations, candles, banners, and more.
These rooms open up to a central patio. I am in a cloister; this must have been the convent.
It is restful and calming, a quiet holy place far from the outside world.
Along the far side, the cloister leads to the overgrown gardens.
The gate is locked.
Like all churches on the Convent Route, there is no guarantee of when (or even if) the ancient bell-globed Church of the Ascension will be open. There are at least two gates leading to the old church; neither appears to have been opened in a very long time. The “modern” church and adjoining convent also seem to date to the colonial period. Both are interesting. Since they are well-used by the community, they are likely to be open at least part of each day. It appears that this church was at least partially restored in 1999. I don’t know whether the “restoration” I saw in the side chapels dates to that time or another attempt to preserve this fragile beauty. It would be wonderful to see the church’s original beauty preserved and even restored.
Attempting to drive the Convent Route
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