Tavira is replete with churches and the remains of religious buildings, six of which began their lives as chapels to friaries or convents. Some chapels did not survive the state-ordered closure of religious houses in 1834 and the advent of the Republic in 1910. The chapel of the Recolhimento de São João Baptista, as well as the recolhimento itself, has sadly completely disappeared.
The recolhimento stood in the centre of Tavira and occupied the space in Corredoura (now Rua Dom Marcelino Franco) which is now the Novo Banco, Minipreço and the block that stretches up to Travessa das Cunhas. And it covered the area between Corredoura and the street behind, Rua Guilherme Gomes Fernandes.
In that area, the chapel was roughly where the bank is today, and that current strange doorway to Minipreço was perhaps the main doorway into this institution.
The whole area was enclosed, and we know that it contained a garden, trees and two wells.
What was a recolhimento? In the early modern age, it was crucially important for a woman to live under the protection of the male head of her family, for example her father, her brother or her husband. By this means, she protected her reputation from scurrilous and slanderous gossip.
Those women of good family who had no male protector had to take measures to protect themselves. Thus, it was that orphans, widows – particularly of men who had died on royal service – and those whose husbands had disappeared (as might easily happen to any man journeying to Portugal’s historic possessions in Africa and the Far East) sought some kind of social protection.
Their menfolk might be dead, captive or disappeared, and their womenfolk, therefore, lived in a state of legal uncertainty and moral risk. The entry of a woman into a recolhimento would safeguard her personal reputation and, by extension, it also safeguarded the reputation of her family and of her friends.
Some women entered nunneries for this protection, but the religious life was not attractive to everyone. The recolhimento offered a halfway house, and entrants were not obliged to take the solemn vows of a nun. Young women entrants might emerge to accept an offer of marriage. Nowadays, we might call such an institution an asylum, or refuge for women.
There was a recolhimento in place in the Corredoura from before 1655 but early references do not mention São João Baptista. We know that this recolhimento was re-founded in 1747 by Dona Francisca Josefa de Melo Ribadaneira with the active permission of the Archbishop of the Algarve, who donated adjacent property to endow the recolhimento. She also endowed her foundation with houses situated in Corredoura, and it was she who arranged for the chapel to be built, and for the whole institution to be rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1755.
There was an annuity payable by each female entrant, and an entry charge 15 times greater, but even so, São João Baptista had an air about it of the middle class.
The maximum number of asylum-guests was set at 25, not counting two women servants, and the rules of this establishment determined that the age of entrants should be between 15 and 40. I suppose that women between those ages might be marriageable; and that women over the age of 40 might be considering the recolhimento as a permanent care home, which is not how the foundress considered it.
Entrants also had to show an obedient and humble character; that they had no Jewish or black blood; and that they were in a good state of health and virtue.
The Mosteiro das Bernardas in Tavira also accepted vulnerable young women on a temporary basis, and their charges were much higher. In 1788, the Mosteiro das Bernardas had 28 nuns, two novices and 15 educandas (i.e., young women in refuge), who were informed that they should dress only in the seemly white habit of the sisters and should not wear any silks or other ornaments. These educandas were mostly from the upper classes, and many of them must have left to be married, since there were often references to trousseaus.
The chapel of the recolhimento had one nave at right angles to the Corredoura; the chancel was square and topped by a dome with a lantern. In keeping with other chapels of this character, the space inside the chapel would have been in two parts, one open to the lay public (probably the nave nearer the street) and the other accessible only to the women inmates of the recolhimento, which was probably a part of the choir. The aim was that the inmates would be unseen by the outsiders, and yet they might all attend the same services.
Although São João Baptista was not strictly speaking a religious house, it and other recolhimentos were covered by the Extinction Act of 1834. In common with the other female houses, the recolhimento was forbidden to take any novices or educandas after 1834 and was to be closed and sold after the death of the last inhabitant.
In its last years, there were only two occupants and, in 1878, at the death of Dona Maria do Carmo Aragão Furtado, the recolhimento was deactivated and its town centre location soon attracted offers to purchase.
The chapel organ (dating probably from 1785) was bought by the Irmandade da Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Tavira and may be seen still in that church. The statue image of São João Baptista came into the possession of the chapel of the former Convento de São Paulo in Tavira, where it is today.
The chapel itself was deconsecrated and spent some time as an agricultural store before it was taken over by Tavira’s first fire brigade in 1908. The firemen moved to their present station in 1973 out of the old chapel (referred to then as “a filthy hovel”). There is strangely no record of the demolition of the old chapel sometime in the 1990s, and the recolhimento slipped quietly into near oblivion.
By Lynne Booker
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