Pontevedra: reclaiming underused religious space for the community
Social infrastructure By Olga Sowa 2 months ago
With the declining interest in a life dedicated to prayer, many religious sites are seeking new functions and opening their doors to new users. Santa Clara Convent in Pontevedra is also undergoing such a transformation.

In February, the Placemaking Europe team visited Pontevedra to prepare Placemaking Week Europe in collaboration with the City of Pontevedra. Together, with Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, we were invited by URBtopias, a local organisation providing a space for dialogue, to discuss and contemplate ongoing urban transformations and the future of cities. Interestingly, the event took place in space, which for 729 years was closed to the public: the church in the Santa Clara Convent. Until this moment, this breathtaking space was closed, functioning for the resident nuns and holy figures. Now, it serves the public and people of Pontevedra for new uses.

The history of the convent dates back to the 14th century. It was inhabited by Poor Clares – a closed order where nuns were spending their days praying or gardening. Even though they were somehow participating in the life of Pontevedra, the walls to the convent remained closed and separated them from public life. The nuns never left the walls of the convent, but new buildings sprang up around them, telling the story of a city, from which a fishing village turned into a modern city.

In recent years, interest to lead a modest life dedicated to prayer has waned, and the convent was home to only a handful of women. Eventually, the remaining two nuns moved to a convent nearby in Santiago de Compostela, and in 2017 the site passed into the hands of the city. Thus, Santa Clara Convent began the next phase of its history.

During our visit we had the unique opportunity to enter and tour this unusual space with the caretaker. Although the last two nuns left a few years ago, the convent still harbours traces of its previous residents. Mattresses stacked on top of each other, piles of colourful pillows climbing up, tea tins left in the kitchen cupboard. And perhaps the most symbolic object explaining the relationship of this place with the surrounding city – a bag of sport balls that, during the play of the little residents of Pontevedra, accidentally ended up on the other side of the wall and never came back. We dug one back out, tossed it back over the wall, and heard a happy child’s voice. Is this a new beginning?

The city authorities and residents of Pontevedra must now address a key question: what to do with this space? How to give it a function that meets contemporary needs, while bearing in mind that it is a heritage site  serving as a place of religious worship over the past centuries. The Santa Clara Convent is not the first place to undergo such a transformation.

While places such as these could be willingly taken over by private investors and transformed into luxury hotels or fine dining restaurants for private economic profit, it is worth reflecting on their past functions. Monasteries, in the old days, often functioned as enterprises providing education, health care and even laundry services for the city. Today, these monasteries can open up to the public and interact with the community in a slightly different way – desacralizing the spaces for non-religious uses.

Abbotsford Convent, Australia

In Australia, thanks to a button-up campaign, the Abbotsford Convent was saved from commercial development. Instead, it changed the convent into a complex for “vibrant creative community, wellbeing practitioners, a gallery, cafes, a radio station, two schools, and an abundance of green open space”. The new history of the venue began with artistic performances and artworks connected by themes of “agency, displacement and time”.

Mariënburg Monastery, The Netherlands

In the Dutch city of ‘s Hertogenbosch, the monastery of Mariënburg became a campus of the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS) and now offers “modern education facilities, as well as space for startups and partners”.

Monastery of Mariënburg in ‘s Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, currently the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS), Photo: https://www.brabantbrandbox.com/nl/data-science/jads/
Killina Convent, Ireland

In Killina, Ireland, the last nuns moved out from the local monastery in 2019. The group of local parishioners set up ‘Killina Presentation Resource Centre’, envisioning it as the future heart of the community. In their strategic plan, they envisioned “meeting rooms, work hubs, social services, arts and entertainment, training and education, therapy, exercise and relaxation, waking services, a heritage museum and a community shop and café.”

Dubiecko Church, Poland

In a small town of Dubiecko, in Poland, a local underused orthodox church was transformed. In the past, this town was resided by catholic, jewish and eastern orthodox  communities, each of them having their own place of worship. Because of various historical events, only the catholic residents remained, leaving the eastern orthodox church unused. In 2003 a group of local activists, among them a father of our team member, decided to restore the place and bring it back to the community. They set up a foundation Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Ziemi Dubieckiej (ang. The Society of Friends of Dubiecko) which now runs “Kresowy Dom Sztuki” and organises various local events – painting workshops, concerts, photography exhibitions. The inaugural exhibition was titled “Dubiecko – an encounter of three cultures and religions” and depicted the past life of the town. One of those leaders, Jacek Grzegorzak, years later, in 2021 was elected a mayor of the town.

Kresowy Dom Sztuki in Dubiecko, Poland, Photo: Grzegorz Sowa
Today, monasteries can open up to the public and interact with the community in a slightly different way – desacralizing the spaces for non-religious uses.

Historically, and undoubtedly, religion and their associated infrastructures have held great influence over the public. Looking forward, it is important to critically consider how we as a society can make the best of underused resources for local empowerment and community engagement, while also observing the significant heritage of the place. Santa Clara Convent will be one of the locations of Placemaking Week Europe 2022, and more importantly, will function for the future of Pontevedra. The conference will be an opportunity to innovate its future function with the locals. We would like to invite you to search for this new meaning with us and join us in Pontevedra.