The last nun

Santa Joana, Princess of Portugal, in times less happy than our own

On Tuesday, the day the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of the end of the monarchy, a friend gave me a whirlwind tour of Aveiro, the Venice of Portugal. Once you’ve seen the canals, you head for the museum, which is housed in a former convent, built in the 1460s during the reign of Afonso V. Every Portuguese king had a semi-official moniker. The first, Afonso Henriques, was the Conqueror. His grandson was Afonso II, the Fat. Among their successors over the centuries were the Beautiful, the One of Good Memory, the Farmer. Afonso V was the African. I suppose it’s likely that the House of Aviz had unacknowledged African roots, but Afonso V was called the African because he fought some successful battles in Morocco. Before Afonso V had fathered a son, he named his daughter Joana heir to the throne. But Princess Joana refused to marry any of her many suitors, and in 1472 she entered the newly built Convent of Jesus of the Dominican Order in Aveiro. A religious cult grew up around Joana, and it enhanced the prestige of the place where her elaborately carved marble tomb remains on view. Few, though, talk about the convent’s last resident.

The brief but surprisingly informative museum brochure tells us that in 1834, more than 300 years after Joana’s time and amidst a wave of anti-clerical sentiment, Portugal’s religious orders were made to disband by a government minister named Joaquim António de Aguiar. Monasteries were shut immediately, and the properties seized by the state. Aguiar became known as “Monk Killer.” But each convent was permitted to function until the death of the last nun living there. The last nun at Aveiro lived until 1874, forty years after the edict. How long Maria Henriqueta de Jesus lived cloistered alone in the massive convent, under the eyes of government officials waiting for her to die, the brochure does not say.

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4 Responses to The last nun

  1. Emily Bruce says:

    Wow…very moving story. I hope she had some source of comfort.

  2. Wahutu j. Siguru says:

    Funny thing came to mind whilst reading this. There was an African King named Afonso, I don’t recall if it was in Angola or the Kongo but i remember the name since he actually sent his son to Europe to study little did he know they would turn into slaves. Now I have to go look for where i read that and where that actually occurred since i know I will obsess over it!!

    • David Morton says:

      Yeah, that Afonso was a sixteenth-century king of the Kongo, an area that falls within modern-day Angola, and actually he figures pretty prominently in Portuguese history because he so enthusiastically adopted the Catholicism introduced to him by Portuguese mariners. More than four hundred years later, as Portugal attempted to hold onto Angola, the Lisbon regime liked to talk up Afonso–to emphasize that that the brotherly relationship between the Portuguese and the Africans of Angola went back centuries. The slave-trading it was better not to mention.

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