At first, it isn’t evident how much remains of the original Santa Catalina Virgen y Martir Convent. Because of its prime real estate location, most of what was once the church and convent has over the years been divided into private lots. The cloisters of Santa Catalina are now private property, owned by a local family and turned into Restaurant Hotel Convento Santa Catalina.
Ruins of the church nave – adjacent to the arch, are used to store processional andas. Closed to the public, except during Holy Week, when the former church is open to the public and allowed to get up close to the andas.
Santa Catalina Arch, Agua Volcano in the background
History of Santa Catalina Arch
In 1609, four Augustinian nuns were authorized to start a women’s convent – the second in the city. It became popular given that the dowry required to enter was much smaller than at that of La Concepcion Convent. As the population of the convent grew, housing 105 nuns and 250 servants, the sisters thought it necessary to expand their building. Unfortunately, they were unable to secure a lot adjacent to the original building.
Calle del Arco, La Merced Church in the background
The closest property to the convent that nuns were able to acquire was the one directly across the street. The first solution proposed – closing the road to join both properties – was vehemently opposed by neighbors, who believed that closing direct access to La Merced Church would be a terrible inconvenience. The reason for the nuns proposal was simple – because of their vow of seclusion, nuns were forbidden to interact with the public – inevitable if they were to cross the street.
Eventually, an enclosed footbridge was proposed and approved in 1693, though some neighbors were still opposed. The arch was completed a year later.
Processional andas, Santa Catalina Convent
The 1773 earthquakes damaged the convent and arch. Though partially restored, the convent was finally abandoned in 1776 and rebuilt much later, in 1850. The clock tower now adorning the Arco de Santa Catalina was added in the 1890s. The arch underwent another restoration in the 1940s. The clock suffered damages during the 1976 earthquake, and it remained unrepaired until 1991. Today, the arch is the city’s most photographed attraction and a traditional gathering place for New Year’s celebrations.
The Clock Atop the Arch
The clock and the tower atop the arch date back to the 19th century – it’s a Lamy & Lacroix French clock that needs to be wound every three days. Watchmaker Lorenzo Godoy initially maintained the clock, and the task of upkeep was later taken up by his son. Presently, Rodrigo Gaytan is responsible for winding and keeping the clock ticking.
Closeup of clock tower, Santa Catalina Arch
The arch’s clock works via a system of weights – three to be exact, each weighing over 200 pounds each. The weights, attached to the clock mechanism by a pulley system and ropes, take three days to make the ropes unwind, at which point Gaytan returns the weights back to their original starting point. In the 1980s, the clock was due for repairs. Some city council members proposed the installation on an electric clock – a proposal which was rejected soundly.
Also, notice that the clock only faces the street on either side. Lean close to the wall on either side of the street, and you’ll see that both, the left and right sides of the clock tower, are adorned by placeholders.
The arch is a must-visit attraction and a world-renowned Guatemalan icon. Don’t miss it! In the meantime, enjoy this Santa Catalina Arch wallpaper :)
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