At 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 the younger daughters of the local nobility were finding it increasingly difficult to find a suitable husband. Younger sons either became priests or emigrated. Girls, accompanied by a large dowry, entered the convent when they were 13 to 14 years of age and stayed there for life. Widows also found shelter in the convent.
The convent 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. The present buildings were constructed in the C17th and there are still 20 nuns living there. They 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. It is open Monday – Saturday 10-12 and 3-5. The door is kept closed and there is an old fashioned bell pull to gain entry.
This leads into a small courtyard with the church to the left and the small ticket off straight in front. The “church”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/madeira/funchal/churches/coventchurch/index.html is free to enter but there is a €2 charge for a guided tour of the convent. Tours run continually and at no set times. Visitors can join the tour at any point. This is well worth doing and is a fascinating trip. It was one of my highlights of the holiday.
This 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. At one end of the corridor around this cloister is a small chapel used by the nuns. As well as Azulejo tiles on the walls this also has lovely old C17th floor tiles.
The corridor continues 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.
it 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 below open to reveal a statue of Christ’s Body.
Next to the choir is another cloister, with views of the church tower. This contains a lovely C18th oratory enclosed by wooden doors. The painting is now faded and in poor condition but there is a wonderful roundel on the inside of right door with a painting of a cockerel.
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 and there is a painting of the Black Virgin.
The tour finished in the “church.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/madeira/funchal/churches/coventchurch/index.html .
There are more pictures “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/madeira/funchal/churches/convent/index.html
All my Madeira pictures are “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/madeira/index.html