Recently, I was invited to the celebration of Saint Catalina in the community of Santa Catarina Quiane, a small town about an hour from Oaxaca City in the direction of Zimatlan. I arrived to the smell of roasted peanuts. Children were running around, laughing, wearing velvet costumes embroidered with stars and the name Santa Catalina.
In the lead-up to this event, my friend, Geraldine Freyria Ojeda Flon, had been commissioned as part of a government project to restore the town’s statue of Saint Catalina. The statue is one of three representing the Saint in this community’s church. It is considered to be the original and, especially, if not reliably, miraculous.
Saint Catalina is also known as Catarina or St Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt. On the walls of the church in Santa Catarina Quiane, there are framed texts in beautiful calligraphy, telling her story.
Representations of Catalina typically show her crowned, holding a palm leaf in her left hand, representing her martyrdom. She holds a sword in her right and has a turbanned, decapitated head at her feet. Some references indicate that the sword and head refer to Catalina’s own execution. Speaking with local people, it was suggested that the head was Catalina’s own father, King Costos, who she beheaded for not accepting Christianity.
Despite being a small community, the church in Santa Catarina Quiane hosts exceptional artwork. Aside from the icon itself, baroque altarpieces tell the story of Saint Catalina through painted panels divided up by ornate gold frames. These date back hundreds of years, some being brought from Spain or specifically commissioned from artists.
There was a period when this community was at war with poachers of religious art known as “abascales”. These iconoclasts would take valuable church artefacts to sell for profit. Due to this threat, many artworks were removed from churches like that in Santa Catarina Quiane and hidden in local homes. Eventually, the townspeople succeeded in repelling the thieves and returned the treasures to the church, including the statue of Saint Catalina.
Unfortunately, following the abascales, the community had stopped visiting the church regularly. One day, someone entered the church and found the reinstated statue of Saint Catalina had stepped down from her niche and was halfway down the aisle. She was leaving!
According to legend, the community begged her to stay and promised her a new celebration where they would worship her (as well as her historical Saints Day on November 25). This ‘new’ fiesta is still held every year on August 9.
On this date, the statue is carried through the town, accompanied by flowers and candles and an almost identical sculpture. The second slightly smaller sculpture has to be dressed completely identically.
Geraldine’s work was to restore the statue of the Saint in preparation for this celebration. It was a complex process, as there is a lot of care and intimate knowledge around the Saint and this specific representation of her.
The Saint is not allowed to be seen undressed by those who have not been selected to care for her. She wears seven layers, and there are different clearance levels as to who can see her in the various stages of undress. Men are not allowed.
Of course, for the restoration, Geraldine had to remove the layers of clothing, which meant erecting a tent to preserve the modesty of the Saint. This issue also meant that only select people could help Geraldine with her work.
The people chosen to help with the Saint are known as Mayordormos, which is a bit like a steward. This year, Ana Robles was given the honour to carry out this work, her first time in this position.
The role of Mayordormo is typically given for the duration of a year, which ends in November. Ana remembers learning about the history of Santa Catalina with her family and in church. Her family talked about the miracles performed by the Saint.
Ana says, “It is said that the virgin defended the town from the abascales. The people of the town united to fight against them, and it is said that the virgin also fought for the town since one day they found mud on her feet and part of her body.”
Before appealing to become a Mayordormo, Ana’s husband was suffering from Covid, and she did not know if he would survive. She explains that she petitioned for the responsibility so she could work for the Saint and get help for her husband. “I became a Mayordormo because of a promise. Since she is very miraculous, I asked for my husband’s health.”
She described her responsibilities as “the protection of the virgin, all the belongings she has such as dresses and jewellery, managing her money, putting flowers for her every Sunday, paying for Sunday mass, buying candles and keeping an eye on the church.”
When I arrived in Santa Catarina Quiane for the celebration, I went straight to the church to see the statue and her twin. They were in identical pink outfits. Geraldine says that pink is not a specific colour for the Saint, but on occasions when she has been dressed in colours like black, she seemed sad, so pink was a good choice.
After paying our respects in the church, we went to the adjoining courtyard. We arrived as breakfast became lunch, so we were served two courses in quick succession, along with copious pours of mezcal. The women pouring the mezcal shared a cheers with us for each pour, which is apparently a tradition!