Convento De Santa Clara
If you were a woman—even a wealthy aristocratic one—in the Spanish empire of the early 17th century, the life options available to you were pretty slim. If you wanted to study, chose not to marry, or even simply took too long to find a husband, there was really only one option for you—the life of a nun.
By the early 1600s, Havana was growing into an important Spanish colonial city with its own group of aristocratic elites. This elite wanted to protect their daughters from the debauchery of the capital and those girls that were still unmarried needed an option that would maintain their respectability and that of their families. This is how the Convento de Santa Clara (Saint Clair Convent) was built, becoming the first in the entire Caribbean region.
A Brief History of the Convent
The idea of constructing a convent in Havana was raised early on in the 17th century, but due primarily to financial concerns the Spanish Crown did not immediately make moves on the project. Still, in 1624, colonial governor Damián Velázquez de Contreras began making plans for the convent—supposedly without the prior approval of the Spanish government.
Official royal approval arrived in 1632 and construction began six years later in 1638. This process lasted six years until the convent was opened in 1644. The first young woman admitted was named Ana Pérez y Carvajal, and the number of women in the convent soon reached 100—not counting servants and slaves, of course.
Throughout the centuries, the convent had to expand in size in order to cater to its growing number of residents. Interestingly, they just expanded the wall around the buildings and spaces that had been purchased. This means that buildings and architectural styles representing a number of diverse historical periods coexist together within the convent’s walls—a truly unique situation within the city of Havana
By 1922, the convent was no longer in the best of shape and the nuns decided to move to a new facility in Havana’s Lawton neighbourhood. The complex of buildings was then purchased by the government, who discovered still-extant slices of early Havana living on inside the convent including the city’s first public marketplace, its first cemetery, and even its first public bathroom! Unfortunately, many of these original constructions were destroyed as the convent was adapted for other uses during the 20th century.
The Convent Today
Parts of the Saint Clair Convent have been lovingly refurbished by the Cuban government and the facility now makes an excellent stop on an historic tour of Old Havana. One of the three cloisters is now home to the Centro Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museología (The National Centre for Conservation, Restoration, and Museology) and forms the home base for the team responsible for many restoration projects taking place in Old Havana. Another section is actually home to a relatively low-cost hostel catering to travellers on a budget, the Residencia Académica Convento de Santa Clara.
Within the grounds of the convent, one can still find buildings and architecture representing diverse periods of Havana’s history, including one of the city’s earliest public water fountains. Though not everything is open to the public, a walk through the alleyways of the convent provides a truly unique glimpse at many images of Havana from days gone by.
The convent’s beautiful colonial patio, one of its cloisters, and some of the nun’s sleeping quarters are open for exploration. While inside, keep an eye out for the particularly lovely hand-carved wooding ceilings above—the beauty inside the convent is surprising to many visitors based on the bland architectural details of its outer walls.
Whether you’re a fan of exploring the past or are simply intrigued by the historical mysteries scattered throughout the complex, the Saint Clair Convent is doubtlessly one of Old Havana’s most interesting spots. Though often overlooked by tourists to the city, this may be changing soon as restoration continues—we recommend getting here before the crowds show up!
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