A convent for Franciscan nuns for over 500 years
the end of the C15th, João Gonçalves de Câmara, the grandchild of the
discoverer of Madeira, asked the Sisters of St Clare to found a convent
on the island close to his family home. Donna Isabella, who was
either his sister or daughter (sources vary), became the first Abbess
and established the wealth and status of the convent.
It served an important need as younger daughters of the local nobility were finding it increasingly difficult to find a husband. Younger sons either became priests or emigrated. Girls, accompanied by a large dowry, were sent there around 13 to 14 years of age and stayed there for life. Widows also found shelter in the convent.
It was originally a closed order. Not only could the nuns not leave the convent, their only contact with the outside world was through a metal grille. This was relaxed during the C19th and nuns were allowed to sell sugar sweets to visitors.
The convent owned vast areas of land which were farmed, as well as mills and saw mills. They received rents from many properties across the island. They initiated the construction an aqueduct bringing water to the convent. Some of the water was sold to provide a supply to the Jesuit College as well as other areas in Funchal.
At the beginning of the C18th, there were over 100 nuns and the community was home to more than 100 maidservants. The Nuns were also responsible for education of girls. As well as the main church there were 17 smaller chapels used by the nuns.
It is one of the oldest religious orders in Madeira. Much of the original convent was destroyed in a pirate attack in 1566 when the nuns fled to Curral das Feriras for safety. The present buildings were constructed in the C17th and there are still 20 nuns living here. They still run a kindergarten in one of the cloisters.
The convent is a 10 -15 minute walk from the centre of Funchal and is surrounded by a wall. Ringing the old fashioned bell pull gains entry.
This leads into a small courtyard with the church to the left and the small ticket off straight in front. The church is free to enter but there is a €2 charge for a guided tour of the convent.
The tour begins by walking through a passage way with panels of azulejo patterned tiles.
There is the remains of a C16th reredos from one of the chapels destroyed in the pirate attack.
A vaulted corridor leads to the Kindergarten cloister.
The corridor leads round to the Nun’s choir which was separated from the main church by wooden doors and a metal grille. The doors could be opened to allow the nuns to listen to the service and watch mass. A small window in the grille allowed them to receive communion. (There is a second choir above this one but visitors are not allowed in here as there are concerns about the safety of the floor.)
This is a large room with a painted ceiling and a row of wooden stalls round the wall. There is a painting of Christ Crucified above the altar and doors in the altar open to reveal Christ’s Body.
There is a second smaller altar near the door
Next to the choir is another cloister, with views of the church tower.
Plain wood plank doors open to reveal an C18th Gothic style oratory.
There is also another much smaller oratory.
Off this cloister, though a carved wood door, is another small chapel used by the nuns. The walls are covered with blue, yellow and white Azulejo tiles and it has a wonderful painted ceiling.
The altar has a painting of the Risen Christ.
There is also a painting of the Black Virgin.
The tour finishes in the church.
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