Deliver Us From Evil | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
This story begins in a convent in the small town of Nogoyá, in northeastern Argentina, on a Sunday in August, 1999.
That day, Silvia Albarenque was dressed in black. When she left the chapel, she was accompanied by her parents. One on each side, almost without looking at each other. Behind her was the rest of the family: her older sister, her four brothers, her uncles. It was a winter morning and they advanced with short steps, as in a procession.
They stopped a few meters further on, in front of a large wooden door, which opened with a creak. It was the door that would separate Silvia from the world. From there, she could see the persons who were waiting for her on the other side, in her new life: 13 women dressed in brown and black, one next to the other. The time had come. She had to say goodbye.
Silvia hugged her relatives, one by one. She was touched by the fact that they had all traveled there for her.
[Silvia Albarenque]: Everyone who expressed something to me surprised me. In those days I was realizing that… that there were many people who loved me.
[Daniel]: Her brother Francisco followed her with his eyes.
[Francisco]: The nuns open the cloister door and that is when Silvia begins to cry.
[Daniel]: Francisco was dressed as an altar boy. He was only 16 years old, but he wanted to be a priest one day, so assisting the priest during his sister’s ceremony had been an honor.
But not everyone in the family understood Silvia’s decision. Another one of her brothers, Marcelo, could not believe what she was about to do: enter a convent of Discalced Carmelites, at the age of 18, to spend the rest of her life locked up in a cloister. Without ever going out, not even to visit them.
His position had been clear from the start:
[Marcelo]: I don’t want her to be in there; I don’t want to lose my sister.
[Daniel]: But Silvia did not see it as a loss: for her, the convent was more like a refuge. Above all, from the chaos of the last few years in her family. With everyone standing around her there, it seemed that things were fine, but they weren’t. Ever since her father had left the home, almost a year earlier, the world of the Albarenques had cracked.
[Silvia]: I felt adrift, like a ship that had lost its rudder.
[Daniel]: They were a deeply religious family, one of those who pray the rosary every day. And in those turbulent times Silvia had begun to pray more than ever. Over time, she had made a decision. Her life would be just that, a life of prayer. In the convent all her problems would be left behind.
[Silvia]: Everything good for me was there, and I was protected from the bad things.
[Daniel]: That’s why she was there, saying goodbye to her family forever. So she walked to the large wooden door and knelt in front of one of the nuns, who was holding a crucifix. Silvia kissed it and then hugged each of the 13 women who, from that day on, would be her family.
At that moment, she felt that she was not going to need anything else.
[Silvia]: It seems to me that I wanted to be two different people and say the Silvia of the past was left outside, and now I am a different person.
[Daniel]: She walked through the door, and her parents and siblings watched as it closed behind her. A few minutes later, they returned to the chapel and saw her again, but now an iron grille separated them. Silvia was no longer wearing her black pants, but the dress of a postulant nun: a sleeveless brown dress, with a white shirt underneath.
They saw her walk towards the grille and kneel down. It reminded Francisco of a drawing of a saint on a religious card, with her eyes fixed on the altar.
[Francisco]: It symbolized at that moment what was going to be the rest of her life, being in front of God, interceding for… for the world and especially for her family. And we just had to be proud of what was happening.
[Daniel]: It seemed to Francisco as if his sister was about to enter heaven. But what nobody knew was that what awaited Silvia inside was a season in hell.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. This story was produced by Emilia Erbetta and Imanol Subiela Salvo.
Emilia picks up the story.
[Emilia]: Silvia had always felt a fascination for nuns, especially one in particular: her great-aunt. She was not a cloistered nun, so Silvia saw her from time to time, when she went to visit her family. She would feel sort of hypnotized watching her pray.
[Silvia]: And she was someone who transmitted so much… so much peace, so much kindness, so much sweetness. It was like she was so—I don’t know, everyone wanted her company.
[Emilia]: That fascination grew in her teens, when she watched a miniseries about Santa Teresa de los Andes, a young woman who abandoned her aristocratic life to become a Discalced Carmelite. Silvia saw herself in Teresa, ready to leave everything for God. And the life of the Carmelites had seemed transcendent, full of meaning.
[Silvia]: Austerity, silence, seclusion, penance, sacrifice. All of that seemed great to me.
[Emilia]: When she finished high-school, she didn’t think about that path right away. But it was around that time that her father left home to go live with another woman.
[Silvia]: And that was the first breaking point for me, for the structure I was used to, as if the roof of a house blew off.
[Emilia]: After her parents’ separation, she moved to Paraná, the capital of Entre Ríos, to study Psychology at the Catholic University. But she did not like the career or the city. It was too much for her, who had grown up in María Grande, a town of only 7,000 inhabitants.
In Paraná she thought about the nuns again, and about her wish to be one of them. She felt at a crossroads, and it seemed to her that her life was not what she had imagined.
[Silvia]: So I said, “Well, I’m going to a place where I’ll be safe, calm and stable, to be able to say I’m here today, and next year all this will be here too.”
[Emilia]: The process was quick. She visited the convent in early August, and a few days later she had been admitted. The decision shocked everyone in her family. Her father and mother wanted her to complete her education that year, before such a drastic change. But Silvia was not willing; she had it clear: she was going to be a Carmelite. And she looked so convinced, so euphoric, that they decided to support her. After all, they had instilled that faith in her.
[Emilia]: From her first night in the convent, Silvia slept in a room they called a cell. And that’s just what it was like: a place that measured two meters by two, with a wooden plank for a bed, and a thin mattress stuffed with corn husks. That discomfort was a first offering to God. The cell also contained a sink, a table, and a trunk where she kept a few clothes. No one could have any belongings in the convent.
[Silvia]: You can’t own anything, really, nothing at all… nothing material that is yours.
[Emilia]: The few items she was allowed to keep were hers as long as the prioress, the nun in charge of the convent, so agreed. If told that she had to hand them over, she had to obey. The prioress was like a mother to the nuns, and her word was the word of Christ. Her name was María de los Ángeles and, although she was strict, she inspired confidence in Silvia.
The routine in the convent was more or less the same for everyone: for the postulants, like Silvia; for the novices, the nuns who had been there for a short time; and for the oldest Carmelites, who had already been consecrated.
The days were organized around the Liturgy of the Hours, a series of prayers for each moment of the day. The nuns began at 6 in the morning, praying in their cells. Afterwards they would gather to celebrate mass and then they would pray again before breakfast. Then the work began: each one had a designated trade. Silvia had to make religious images in plaster. Others worked sewing habits, in the garden, or in the sacristy preparing things for the mass. Before lunch they prayed again. The only day off, without work, was Sunday. Silvia took advantage of it to do spiritual readings and go out to the patio a little more.
Eating meat was not allowed, and during Holy Week or Lent, dairy and eggs were also banned. Portions were small: rice, noodles, polenta and vegetables grown in the garden. And they could not have seconds. If they were hungry, they were to present this as an offering to Christ. A Carmelite, Silvia had been told, accepts pain and sacrifice for the salvation of souls. After cleaning the kitchen, they had an hour of recess.
[Silvia]: Recess means you can talk… because all other hours were silent.
[Emilia]: But even for that there were rules. Conversations were held in a group, and for two nuns to have a private chat was frowned upon. They were there as sisters and brides of Christ. Not friends.
There were no mirrors in the convent, and Silvia shouldn’t look at her body much. She also shouldn’t support her back when sitting down, or take off her habit if it was too hot. And the cell door must always be ajar, because the prioress could enter at any moment without warning.
Although Silvia felt that that life of prayer was what she wanted, what she was looking for, so many rules began to overwhelm her.
[Silvia]: It was horribly hard to be minute after minute, all the time, with someone who was telling me what I must do.
[Emilia]: Her family could visit her only once a month. They would meet in the parlor, a space divided by a grille. She sat on one side and her family on the other, but they were never alone. Her brother Francisco recalls that Silvia entered the parlor accompanied by another nun, the “listening sister,” who sat next to her and remained there throughout the meeting, checking that they spoke only about religious or spiritual matters. The lives of the saints, their Bible readings…
[Francisco]: They start to brainwash them. Such as what you have to say, what you don’t have to say, when you have to smile and when not, and what you have to pay attention to… And if there was any fault, then you were told, “Sister, you shouldn’t have smiled when your brother told such a joke,” something like that.
[Emilia]: A sign hanging in the parlor reminded them of the path the conversation should take. Francisco remembers perfectly what it said:…
[Francisco]: “Brother, either don’t speak, or speak of God, as this science is professed in the house of Teresa.”
[Emilia]: Two months after entering the convent, Silvia approached the prioress María de los Ángeles to ask whether she could visit her family. Nuns weren’t supposed to leave the cloister, but since she was still a postulant, the prioress didn’t object too much.
Silvia had begun to have some doubts about her vocation, but at the same time, she felt guilty for being weak in the face of the temptation to go out. Se went anyway. She spent two days with her family and asked them to take her back.
[Silvia]: “I entered the cloister; it is a sacred, exclusive place and they let me enter. I must stay.” It was one pressure after another in my head.
[Emilia]: Pressure not to disappoint her family. She had dropped out of college, and leaving the convent was like losing her path again. But, above all, pressure not to disappoint God. She was due to become a novice soon, so a short time later she decided to confirm her commitment: she stopped being a postulant, and as a novice, she began to wear a habit—several layers of fabric, tunics and skirts, that covered her to the floor.
And to be worthy of that habit, she couldn’t remain the same as she had entered. She couldn’t even keep her name. The prioress chose a new one for her. From that moment on, it would no longer be Silvia Albarenque, but María Teresa of the Eucharist. Even her family had to call her by that name.
[Francisco]: The name Silvia was forbidden. That was her old name. It was her old self. Her sinner self. Little by little, she stopped showing all signs of Silvia…
[Emilia]: Over time, Silvia became increasingly quiet, distant, during the visits. And she became dogmatic in her letters. For example, she reproached her mother for wearing a skirt, and one of her brothers for having a child out of wedlock. She was even more severe with her father. She accused him of living in mortal sin for having left her mother.
In a certain way, that perspective had to do with how the outside world was portrayed in the convent: as a place full of selfishness and perversion, from which the walls of the cloister were a protection.
In those days, Silvia had begun to use what is known as a “discipline,” a small whip with several points that were woven and hardened with wax. Prioress María de los Ángeles said that she should use it to do penance. It was not her own idea—that’s what was in the constitutions of the order, which governed the Carmelite convents throughout the world. Doing penance meant making a sacrifice, submitting to pain for a higher purpose…
[Emilia]: In Catholic doctrine you can offer up penance, for example, for the health of the sick, for the conversion of a sinner, for the salvation of souls in purgatory.
And it always has to do with joining them to the sacrifice of Christ when he lived on Earth.
The prioress explained that they had to use that whip every Friday to strike themselves on the buttocks and legs, while they all prayed together in the dark. And so she started to do it.
[Silvia]: Later I told the mistress of novices that I had a hard time sitting down. And she laughed and said yes, yes, it happens to all at first; then you get used to it.
[Emilia]: Each whiplash was further proof of her devotion.
[Silvia]: If a nun does not want to use this, it is because she does not love Christ… it is because she does not want to suffer for Christ.
[Emilia]: But she did love him, even if she had to suffer for that love. For that reason, she also wore the cilice, a wire garter with small spikes, that she was to wear around her thighs for a few hours a week.
Her life went on this way for another four years, until in 2004 she decided to take the final step. She would take her solemn vows. She would promise obedience, poverty and chastity for all eternity. She would marry Christ.
The ceremony took place on a Sunday in June, in the convent chapel, a space with white walls and a ceramic floor, more like an event room than a church. Someone in the audience was filming.
(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE )
[Chorus]: Hallelujah… Hallelujah…
[Emilia]: Silvia had her head covered by a white veil. Her family watched her a few meters from the altar. Everyone except her father, who had been banned from entering years earlier.
The priest who was officiating the mass asked Silvia whether she wanted to consecrate her life to God until death. And she, like a bride at the altar, said, “I do.” Then she lay face down on a rug, while two nuns sprinkled rose petals on her.
[Chorus]: Christ, have mercy on us…
[Emilia]: Silvia received a black veil from the hands of the priest. She then left the chapel for a few minutes, and when she came back, she had her head covered by that piece of black cloth. It was a symbol of all her promises: she was the bride of Jesus.
By that time, the Carmelite community had grown quite a bit. A group of new novices had entered, and the consecrated nuns numbered about 20. And, among them, there was one who was amassing more and more power. She was called Luisa Toledo, but in the convent everyone called her Sister María Isabel de la Santísima Trinidad. We will call her Luisa.
She was a nun who had been cloistered her entire life, and in the convent she had been made sub-prioress, the second in charge. She had a tough character and Silvia felt that she had something personal against her. She thought perhaps she was jealous of her good relationship with the prioress.
[Silvia]: She always wanted to focus power on herself, she always tried in some way to impose her way of seeing things, and to greatly influence María de los Ángeles, the Mother Superior.
[Emilia]: And María de los Ángeles, it was clear, was not going to last much longer in power. She was getting older and older. In 2006, when she was no longer able to run the convent, Luisa was chosen to replace her.
And from that moment on, nothing was ever the same.
[Silvia]: When Luisa Toledo took command of the convent, she was… she was very harsh about everything.
[Emilia]: Luisa began to go through the cells herself. She bent down to look under the beds, took apart the blankets, and read the sisters’ conscience notebooks, their personal diaries on spiritual matters. She also spaced out family visits and placed tables against the grille in the parlor. They couldn’t even touch hands anymore.
Francisco, Silvia’s brother, was suspicious of the new prioress. He realized that she was leading the convent into the strictest, most orthodox version of the order.
[Francisco]: I had some… some clues that she was not very mentally balanced.
[Emilia]: He had begun to suspect as much a few years earlier when, after spending some time in the seminary, he decided that he did not want to be a priest. When Luisa Toledo heard the news, called him, furious.
[Francisco]: We had a long argument on the phone and she said they would have to think about whether I could continue going to Carmelo or whether they would ban me from visiting. She threatened me with that.
[Emilia]: And Francisco knew they could do it; they had already done it to his father. But he never imagined the extent to which Luisa would transform life in the convent. Now, the silence of the cloister was interrupted by her shouts. If something bothered her, she ordered the nuns to go to their cells and discipline themselves.
[Silvia]: And you could see the abuse of authority, and wanting to show who’s in charge here.
[Emilia]: The moments of prayer became tense. Luisa told them not to waste time, that they should pray faster and faster.
[Silvia]: So everything ended up being stressful. What peace can you find in an environment where you feel controlled and in danger and threatened all the time?
[Emilia]: The Mother Superior was severe with everyone, but Silvia felt that her fury was unloaded more on her and two other nuns. Anything could trigger a punishment—a word, a gesture, a job not finished on time. She even challenged them if she saw them resting. And if any nun got sick, she said it was her own fault.
[Emilia]: She also began to implement a new penance. They were ordered to lock themselves in their cell, on bread and water. It was a system called “prison regime,” which had been used in many convents in the past, but was now in disuse. They couldn’t leave the cell or see anyone for days, so many that Silvia lost track of time.
No punishment was as harsh for her as that one. It lasted until the prioress decided it was enough, when she had atoned for her fault.
[Silvia]: I came out overwhelmed… I didn’t dare to look at anyone or raise my head.
[Emilia]: She felt that every day she spent locked up was her fault.
[Silvia]: I said, “I deserve it because I’m bad. The Mother Superior got angry with me again because… because of me, because I provoked her, because that’s what she told me,” and I believed everything she said.
[Emilia]: Other times, she prohibited her from working, suspended her breaks, and excluded her from common spaces. Or she ordered her to wear a gag. She had to make it herself from an empty vitamin tube, which she had to place between her teeth and tie with a leash. The prioress accused her of being disobedient and having bad thoughts about her.
[Silvia]: She spoke of herself in the third person. She would say, “You disrespect our mother. You do not know that our mother represents Christ.”
[Emilia]: Then, Silvia would kneel down and beg forgiveness. But that infuriated her even more.
One day, the prioress gathered all the nuns together. One of the Carmelites had committed a fault and had to ask for forgiveness. They stood in a circle and remained standing while the Carmelite got on her knees. When she finished giving her apologies, the Mother Superior spoke.
[Silvia]: She gave her a full reprimand or exhortation; I don’t know how much she said. Then she told her, “Well, you may sit down now.“
[Emilia]: Silvia watched in silence, not understanding what the nun had done wrong, or why she had to apologize to everyone. She thought that she could go back to her cell now, but the prioress spoke again.
[Silvia]: Suddenly she said, “Well, sister María apologized for that. But the real culprit is Silvia, because she is the rotten apple that rots the whole bunch.”
When she said that, I… I couldn’t believe it, because I didn’t even know what they were talking about.
[Emilia]: The prioress ordered her to lock herself up in her cell, put on the gag, and apply the discipline. Silvia obeyed. It was what she had promised before God: obedience. She felt alone, anguished, powerless.
One winter afternoon, she was in her cell when she heard the prioress in the hallway. She could identify her footsteps, the scrape of her habit on the floor. It was time for evening prayer, so Silvia prayed first and then left the cell. When she was in front of the prioress, she plucked up her courage and told her something she had been thinking about for several months.
[Silvia]: “Mother of ours, I want to leave.”
[Emilia]: The prioress told her that just thinking something like that was already a betrayal of Christ.
[Silvia]: That it was a temptation from the devil, that I had to get rid of those thoughts.
[Emilia]: But getting rid of those thoughts was already impossible. She couldn’t get the idea out of her head: getting out of there, because life in the convent had become torture. Since she didn’t have much to lose, she began writing notes to the prioress on pieces of paper that she tore from her notebook. She sent them to her even when she was grounded in her cell.
[Silvia]: I would write to her, for example, “Mother of ours, I want to leave.” And I sent her the piece of paper with the sister who brought me the bottle of water and the bread.
[Emilia]: The prioress never answered these messages. Until one day she ran into her again in the hallway and she said…
[Silvia]: “Don’t be so calm, because I have kept all the little pieces of paper that you send me asking me to leave.”
[Emilia]: By that time, in 2007, Silvia had already been in closure for almost eight years and knew the mechanism for leaving the convent, although she had never seen a consecrated Carmelite leave the order. If a nun wanted to leave, she had to send a note to the Pope through the prioress. She had always imagined that such a request would not be very well received, but…
[Silvia]: I never thought they would deny me the right to ask the Pope. It is as if someone were told, “You have to use this key to leave.” But when you want to leave, they hide the key from you.
[Emilia]: She couldn’t talk about it with anyone. Not with the other nuns, not with her family, because the “listening sister” was present at all the visits. The times he saw her, her youngest brother, Marcelo, barely recognized her. The nun on the other side of the grille didn’t even look like the Silvia he remembered.
[Marcelo]: A… a charismatic, emotional, pleasant and beautiful teenager with a presence that made it impossible not to notice that she was there, listening to Fito Páez records… And what does that have to do with a… a girl who doesn’t speak, who doesn’t take part…
[Emilia]: Her other brother, Francisco, was also worried. He saw her more subdued every day.
[Francisco]: I no longer knew who… who was behind the bars, if it was my sister or what.
[Emilia]: He was sure of one thing:
[Francisco]: Silvia no longer existed. Silvia Albarenque even less so. She was María Teresa de la Eucaristía.
[Emilia]: One day in March 2008, a priest friend asked Francisco for help carrying a statue of the Virgin that he had to restore in the convent. He immediately accepted. It was a good opportunity to see his sister more closely. When he entered, he saw that several nuns were in the courtyard and one of them was Silvia. So he went over to greet her.
[Francisco]: And there I had the opportunity to see Silvia without the grille, in the sunlight.
[Emilia]: It was the first time in almost a decade that he had seen her like that, without a grille between them and without the “listening sister” at her side. His friend had a camera, and Francisco asked him to take pictures of him and his sister.
[Francisco]: And at one point, for one of the photos, I hugged her and, well, yes, I noticed that she was emaciated. I felt bone.
[Emilia]: He wanted to talk to her alone, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask for permission. He knew it was against the rules. Later, when he shared the photos with his family, one of his brothers noticed something that he had missed: not only was Silvia very thin, she also seemed much older than she was.
[Emilia]: A few months after that visit, Francisco requested an audience with the Archbishop of Paraná, Mario Maulión, the same one who had consecrated Silvia. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, but he wanted to share some concerns about the convent with him.
It seemed to him that Silvia had been becoming very isolated from her family, and he felt that the procedures had become arbitrary. It was not just the prohibition of touching her hands; sometimes they went to visit her and the visit was canceled at the last minute.
[Francisco]: The Church may have thousands of defects, but in some things it tries to manage itself according to certain procedures, but I noticed that here, instead… they did whatever they pleased.
[Emilia]: He thought that Maulión could speak so that things would go back to the way they were before. Most of all, so her father could visit again. They met twice, and the archbishop asked him to send what he had told him in writing. Some time later, the archbishop contacted him again to ask whether he was sure of what he had said.
Francisco said yes, but the archbishop did not call back.
[Emilia]: Between the penance and the cloistered routine, between the cell and the parlor, Silvia spent five more years under the orders of Prioress Luisa, listening to her reproaches, enduring her punishments.
[Silvia]: I hardly spoke to her anymore, because everything I said created conflict. If I spoke or if didn’t speak. If I looked at her or if I didn’t look at her, everything was cause for a rebuke.
[Emilia]: Sometimes, Silvia felt that she did not want to continue living.
[Silvia]: I felt it had been God’s mistake to have caused me to be born in this world. It was a punishment for the world, for humanity, for the convent, for everything.
[Emilia]: She had asked several times to see a psychologist, and on one occasion the prioress agreed, but the person who came to the convent to see her did not give Silvia confidence. She had the impression that they would go tell the prioress everything Silvia said.
Another time, the convent asked Francisco to find a Catholic psychologist for her, but when he started to make inquiries, they called again to tell him that Silvia had spoken with a priest and that she was fine. Francisco was disappointed, but not surprised. He knew that the prioress did not like psychological therapy. She had told him once herself.
[Francisco]: That made me feel bad because it’s like she was kidnapped in there.
[Emilia]: Silvia did go once, in the summer of 2013, to see a neurologist, at a mental health center an hour away from the convent. There they told her that the best thing was for her to see a psychologist, but all the way back, the prioress repeated to her, over and over again, that it would be shameful if it became known that a Carmelite was going to therapy.
By then, Silvia was already very isolated. Not only inside the convent, but also outside. Except for Francisco and her mother, her other siblings no longer visited, because they felt that they were not welcome. Since Luisa became prioress, Silvia’s father had been allowed in only once. She had requested many times for him to be allowed to visit, but the prioress had refused. Silvia remembers that, no matter how much she implored or even wept to see him, she was told…
[Silvia]: “When you are a real daughter to me, I will let you see your father. When you bend. When you submit. When you do what I tell you, I’ll let you see your father.”
[Emilia]: And faced with that, Silvia felt there was nothing she could do.
[Silvia]: I had already given up hope of ever having a life again and of being reunited with my family.
[Emilia]: She was like in a state of numbness.
[Silvia]: They could have cut my arm off and I think it wouldn’t have hurt. I was completely alienated from everything just to continue surviving.
[Emilia]: As Easter week 2013 approached, Silvia noticed that some nuns were especially hostile to her. It wasn’t just Luisa anymore. On Easter Sunday, the prioress called her to her office, where she was waiting with two other nuns. Silvia had no idea why she was there or what to expect.
[Silvia]: The Mother Superior made me kneel at her feet and it was then that she began to speak.
[Emilia]: Silvia barely listened to what she was saying. That was how it had been in the last months: sometimes it was as if her mind was disconnected from everything that was happening around her.
[Silvia]: I listened until she told me, “We were talking with the counselors and we decided that your mother will come to pick you up tomorrow so that she can have you treated by a doctor, because you are not well, and you are going to go out for a few days, and then you will come back.“
[Emilia]: Her family would come pick her up to take her for psychological treatment. She was confused; she had been asking to leave for years, but the prioress refused. And now, when she least expected it, she was being given permission to go.
[Silvia]: I thought I was going to cry or something, but I don’t know, it seemed like I didn’t feel anything. I was strangely very calm.
[Emilia]: The prioress continued speaking, but Silvia barely heard what she was saying. Though one word of her speech stuck with her:
[Silvia]: She told me she did it out of love. That all she wanted was to give me love. That the sisters wait for me me with love. Many times that word.
[Daniel]: A word that sounded empty to her, after so many years of cruelty. But it didn’t matter—at last she had a chance to get out of there.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, we heard how Silvia Albarenque spent 14 years in a convent of Discalced Carmelites in Nogoyá, Argentina. She had gone there seeking a life of tranquility and prayer, but over time her days had turned into a torment. One from which she could not escape. Until one morning in 2013, just before she turned 32, that wooden door that she had crossed when she was little more than a teenager opened in front of her again.
Imanol Subiela Salvo picks up the story.
[Imanol Subiela]: Before accompanying Silvia to the door of the cloister, the prioress ordered her to hand over the constitutions of the order. When the door finally opened, the first thing she saw was her mother, who was waiting for her outside with Francisco and another of her brothers. Silvia walked up to her and hugged her. She still remembers what her mom whispered in her ear:
[Silvia]: “Silvita, we love you.” And I told her, “Mom, I do believe you.”
[Imanol]: In her mother’s mouth, those words of love did mean something.
[Silvia]: When she hugged me and told me that, it came to me for the first time in many years to tell her something that truly came from my heart.
[Imanol]: Francisco noticed that his sister was not wearing the habit she had worn all those years, but something similar to an apron. The prioress had told them that Silvia was leaving to go to a psychologist and that she would later return. But that didn’t explain why she was dressed that way, without her nun’s clothes.
[Francisco]: I had read a bit of canon law, and it didn’t fit with the way she was going out, because if a nun goes out for health reasons, there’s no need to leave without the habit. There was something… strange.
[Imanol]: It was as if, because she was going to a psychologist, they didn’t want anyone to realize she was a Carmelite. They got into the car and drove an hour to María Grande, the town of her childhood. On the way Silvia asked them all to pray together, and they did so. When they arrived, they decided that she would stay at her mother’s house.
When she went in, one of the first things Silvia did was look at herself in the mirror, and she was frightened to see her own face. Only then was she able to imagine what she had looked like the last few years.
[Silvia]: White, always anemic, always with infections, diseases.
[Imanol]: Silvia turned her room into an extension of the cloister. Even though she wasn’t in the convent, she was still a Carmelite, so she wore that apron they had given her and went out only to mass, once a day. She barely spoke and barely ate.
Marcelo remembers how fragile her sister seemed.
[Marcelo]: We gave them a sun and they gave us back a specter on the verge of death, and that specter had an adult body but a decimated mentality…
[Imanol]: Silvia saw her siblings and nephews again, but she still had a pending meeting. She hadn’t seen her father for almost five years, and in the letters of the first years she had been severe with him. Neither of them knew how to make the first move. He sent her messages through her brothers.
[Silvia]: At first, he didn’t know whether I was going to want to see him, because he thought I didn’t want to see him. Although I had spent years, years, asking the Mother Superior to let me see him.
[Imanol]: Silvia was also afraid. She didn’t know what he thought of her.
[Silvia]: For years, I cried every night because they wouldn’t let me see him, and what made me cry the most was assuming that he thought I didn’t want to see him.
[Imanol]: Finally, they met in the only place Silvia could think of: the town church. They sat in the almost empty chapel, and she suggested that they pray together.
[Silvia]: And my father cried; he got emotional from time to time. And so did I.
[Imanol]: Silvia went to see the psychologist the prioress had chosen for her, the same one who had once visited her in the convent. And she felt the same mistrust of the previous time, so after the first session she decided that she wasn’t going back.
Away from the prioress, she was beginning to realize that she might be able to make her own decisions. At home, with her brothers, on the way to the parish, she began to see that the world was not the threatening place she had been told it was when she was inside the convent.
[Silvia]: They had scared me so much with that story that the bride of Christ who leaves Christ is going to be unhappy all her life. And it seemed that outside the walls everything was cursed. The world was perverted. Everything was sin, evil, violence.
[Imanol]: But that world was not frightening; on the contrary, what terrified her was the prospect of returning to the convent. Even though she felt that it was her obligation to return. She still felt the burden of breaking the promise she had made to God.
[Silvia]: There was such a sense of duty and a sense that a bride of Christ could not leave, that I felt like I was going to sacrifice even my own life to fulfill the promise I had made to be there.
[Imanol]: However, each day that she was away, that weight became a little lighter, as if it were slowly dissolving. Her family took care of her and accompanied her, they were concerned if she didn’t eat, they didn’t challenge her if she didn’t know how to do something. And they taught her about all the new things in the world. So the idea of returning to the cloister faded away. They all insisted that she stay with them a while longer. And Silvia managed, several times, to get the new archbishop, Juan Alberto Puiggari, to give her authorization to delay her return.
[Silvia]: But when the Mother Superior realized that I didn’t go back, she got very angry and started calling my mother with threats. She called the bishop with threats. In other words, it was a situation where she lost track of her prey without realizing it and once I had left, then she realized that I hadn’t gone back.
[Imanol]: And she didn’t go back. Ten months after leaving the convent, she stopped wearing the apron and began the paperwork to stop being a Carmelite.
[Silvia]: And so it was… I was free. I was supposed to go back in a few days, theoretically, but… I didn’t go back. They took great care of me here, so I didn’t want to go back…
[Imanol]: In her conversations with Archbishop Puiggari, Silvia also spoke to him about what her years in the convent had been like.
[Silvia]: I told him a lot of things. Hoping he’d do something about it. And he listened to me without making a gesture, without saying a word.
[Imanol]: She visited him twice, and she left both meetings without any answers. Her brother Francisco also met with him, but it seemed to him that Puiggari feared, above all, that they would speak to the press.
Silvia needed someone from the Church to listen to her, and so she approached a priest who was a friend of the family, who very quickly became her confidant. They got together to chat and, little by little, Silvia began to tell him everything she had lived through, things that she still did not dare tell her own family. He suggested that she write down every detail of those years; it could help her unburden herself and organize her thoughts.
[Imanol]: Silvia wrote ten pages on her brother Francisco’s computer. She wanted to print them but she didn’t know how, nor did she clearly know what for. So when she finished writing, she saved the file in an email account that had been created for her. One day, Francisco found the mail open and felt the impulse to read what Silvia had left there.
[Francisco]: I shouldn’t have done it; under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t… that’s not something you do. But I looked at that story and read it.
[Imanol]: Although he imagined that Silvia had had a bad time during those years, what he read stunned him. His sister spoke of the confinement, the gag, the discipline. The hunger, the anguish. Francisco closed the mail, confused. He felt guilty for having read something he shouldn’t have read, and he didn’t quite know what to do with that information. It was not clear to him how much of all that was included in the constitutions of the order, and how much was the work of Prioress Luisa. But he was reassured by the thought that at least his sister had spoken to the archbishop. He still believed that the archbishop could do something.
There was also the option of speaking to the press, but Francisco was afraid of how that could affect Silvia. She still seemed so fragile. And the Church was still a very important institution in her environment.
It was his younger brother, Marcelo, who had never wanted Silvia to enter the convent, who dared take that step. Although he did it with caution. In August 2014, a year and a half after Silvia’s departure, he decided to contact Daniel Enz.
Enz is a journalist known in Entre Ríos for his reports on corruption and drug trafficking, and for having uncovered the case of a priest who abused children in a school.
[Imanol]: Marcelo wanted Enz to investigate the convent, but he didn’t want to expose Silvia. So he first sent him an email outlining the facts…
[Marcelo]: (mail) It has to do with situations of verbal and physical violence, deprivation of contact with family, deprivation of the right to medical and psychological care…
[Imanol]: But he did not tell him which convent it was, or who was the affected nun was.
[Marcelo]: (mail) It is all a bit recent, but we believe that more than one person in the monastery suffers from this situation.
[Imanol]: Marcelo was still afraid to give more information, because he knew that Enz’s investigations had a lot of impact. The journalist was preparing the next issue of his magazine, Análisis Digital, when he received the email. It was not the first time a complaint like that had come to him. In fact, he received them often. Especially after he had published his research on the abuser priest. This is Enz:
[Daniel Enz]: I received emails from all over the country, about anomalous situations in different churches, seminaries, convents. And as a rule, I answer all of them.
[Imanol]: He asked for more information, and Marcelo told him that the convent was the Discalced Carmelites of Nogoyá. With this specific information, Enz began going to Nogoyá to investigate during the weekends. He stopped at gas stations, at the post office… and since he didn’t want to arouse suspicion by asking questions, he made up a story. Every place he went, he repeated the same story:
[Daniel]: I have a cousin who wants to come to the convent. Can you find out how they live, how they eat, how much they are assisted?
[Imanol] But the answers were always the same.
[Daniel E.]: I must have met, I don’t know, more than… more than 40 people. More than 50 people. All of them spoke wonders. All of them. I didn’t find a single person who told me anything. I said, “What is going on?”
[Imanol]: Enz continued to investigate for two years, even locating several former nuns, but none of them wanted to talk. Neither would Sylvia. A hospital nurse told her about nuns who had arrived with malnutrition, but the doctors later denied it. He spoke with Marcelo and Francisco about his progress, but before he could publish, he needed something with more weight. A testimony. And in August 2016, Silvia finally agreed to give him an interview. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to persuade her.
She set one condition: he could not publish her name.
[Imanol]: A few days later, Silvia met Enz at a gas station. Francisco and Marcelo went with her. It was Sunday, the place was almost empty, and the four of them sat at a table by a window. Enz asked Silvia to stand with her back to the door; he was worried that someone they knew would see them chatting there and interrupt the interview. When they were ready, he began to ask questions.
[Silvia]: And that’s when I started talking about it. And it was as if a dam collapsed and water began to flow, because I was surprised at the reaction of the others when they heard me.
[Imanol]: Marcelo listened to his sister in silence. What she told was much worse than he had imagined.
[Marcelo]: I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t… I had a hard time conceptualizing it, understanding what we were talking about.
[Imanol]: It was the first time Silvia had mentioned certain words in front of them: cilice, gag, discipline, jail regime.
When the conversation ended, Enz was convinced of something: now he really had what he needed to publish. After two years of asking questions, the wall of silence that surrounded the Carmelo of Nogoyá had fallen down. He wrote a seven thousand-word article and emailed it to the chief prosecutor of the Entre Ríos province.
[Daniel]: I said only, “I am sending you an investigation I did on the Discalced Carmelites. Read the note and organize. Because this… this requires a raid. And do it in the early hours of the morning,” I tell them, “because if they notice what we publish, they are going to make evidence disappear.”
[Imanol]: The note was published that same night. A few hours later, at six in the morning of August 25, 2016, two Entre Ríos Police vans parked in front of the convent.
When the bell rang, the Carmelite nuns were already awake, doing the first prayer of the day. The prioress walked over to the intercom and asked who it was. It was still too early for a visit. On the other side, she heard the voice of a police officer who told her that she needed to open the door for them immediately; they had a search warrant. The prioress’s response was forceful: they could not come in. Not without authorization from the Vatican.
The negotiation lasted more than half an hour. At seven o’clock the prosecutor gave the order: they would enter by force. A group of officers smashed the door with a battering ram and, in seconds, the convent was filled with people. The prosecutor also entered, with two witnesses. At that moment someone turned on a tape recorder. In the audios that were later leaked on Canal 9 del Litoral, Luisa Toledo is heard arguing with the prosecutor about the witnesses.
[Luisa Toledo]: Notice that they let two people enter, and I have to tell the Pope that two people entered; you can’t… you don’t have authority, no one can enter here… it is Papal cloister…
[Imanol ]: Meanwhile, the police were going through the convent.
[Luisa Toledo]: This is not a house; this is a scandal what they have done… This is not just any house, to think that at bars they get drunk, they take drugs, why don’t they go there…
[Imanol]: They were looking for the constitutions, the whips, the gags. They walked down the halls, opening cupboards and going through drawers. Meanwhile, the prioress shouted out of her mind that they would go to hell for that, that their relatives would get sick and die because they would no longer pray for them.
While all that was happening, 130 kilometers away Silvia could not sleep thinking that the convent was going to be raided that night.
[Silvia]: And if I fell asleep, I dreamed of the nuns and saw the face of one. The face of the other. That night was terrifying for me.
[Imanol]: When she got up, the news was everywhere.
[Journalist]: A convent in Nogoyá has been raided for torturing nuns.
[Imanol]: First it was on newscasts across the country and then the world. It was the first time the police had ever broken into a Carmelite convent in Argentina.
[Journalist]: Ten cilices were found, 14 whips; it is chilling for all of us, who are not aware of what happens in the convents…
[Imanol]: Catholic institutions were quick to react. The Argentinean Society of Canon Law declared in a statement that this act violated the right to religious freedom. The Catholic Information Agency defined the judicial investigation as an “attack of collective madness.” Archbishop Puiggari spoke to the press in an impromptu conference, in which he expressed surprise at the repercussions.
[Juán Alberto Puiggari]: What kind of amazes me is all the scandal that has been made, because I can’t find what type of crime has been committed. They say that deprivation of liberty; they are all adults, all free…
[Imanol]: He also spoke of penance:
[Puiggari]: They are congregations that have maintained a lot of traditions, so they maintain these corporal penitential traditions, which are not torture, not mandatory…
[Imanol]: The archbishop minimized Silvia’s complaints. But she knew that nothing that had been published could be a surprise to him, because she had told him in person during their two meetings.
[Silvia]: He had all the ecclesiastical authority, all the tools at his disposal to put a stop to all that evil. And he didn’t.
[Imanol]: The convent also launched a defense strategy. They decided to bring a recording team so that the nuns could tell what it was like to live there. Then they published three videos of that visit on social media, in which the prioress and four other sisters appeared.
[Nun 1]: Well, thank God I am… I am happy to be the bride of Christ, that is why the Lord called me…
[Imanol]: Everything they said seemed like a response to what Silvia had told.
[Nun 3]: And the convent is a family; we have a mother, who as a mother takes care of us and helps us every day, and we are all sisters; that’s why it’s really funny when you hear about torture, and all those things, that nonsense, those stories they have… they have made up…
[Imanol]: In one of those videos, the prioress even talked about the disciplines.
[Luisa Toledo]: Disciplines don’t kill anyone. A discipline is made of a very soft rope. It is a rope made… just like we make rosaries, and it’s a blow that each one gives to her own self and does it as she wants, it’s done on the day that is marked by our constitutions, which is for the salvation of souls, for the Holy Church, for the Pope and the conversion of all sins… of all sinners.
[Imanol]: Shortly afterwards, Enz called Silvia to ask her whether she was willing to testify in court. As a result of his report, an investigation had been opened against the prioress for illegitimate deprivation of liberty.
[Silvia]: I told him yes, that I wanted to testify. You may remain silent for three years. But once you start talking—I had no qualms by then about saying, “Yes, what I said to the press is true.”
[Imanol]: But before going to testify, Enz called her again.
[Silvia]: He told me, “Silvi, you won’t believe what happened.”
[Imanol]: And he told her there was another ex-Carmelite who also wanted to testify.
[Silvia]: And he named her, and I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t even know that she was outside the convent.
[Imanol]: It was Roxana, another of the nuns who received punishment from the prioress. She had escaped in March 2016, three years after Silvia’s departure, thanks to a bunch of keys she was able to get when no one was looking. The two met again at the door of the prosecutor’s office, and Roxana told her that nothing had changed after Silvia left. The prioress had simply been looking for someone else to take her anger out on.
With the statements of Silvia and Roxana, the prosecutor charged Luisa Toledo with illegitimate deprivation of liberty. Three months later, Pope Francis ordered that she be removed from the position of prioress, and decided to transfer the order to another convent in the province of Chaco.
The trial took three more years to start. By June 2019, when the first hearings were held, Silvia was already giving interviews showing her face and her real name. After six years outside, she had lost her fear. Of the Church and Luisa Toledo. That is why she made a request to the prosecutor: she wanted the former prioress to be there, in the room, when it was her turn to testify.
[Silvia]: Let her sit there while I’m talking. For all the years she wouldn’t listen to me.
[Imanol]: The courtroom was small. Two tables, one for the prosecutors and one for the defense, a few chairs, and a large wooden stand for the three judges. Silvia sat in front of the judges in the middle of the room. She could feel the presence of Luisa Toledo behind her. And when she started to speak…
[Silvia]: I was feeling relief, relief, relief. It seemed like I was unloading stones, stones, stones that I was so used to carrying that I didn’t even remember I had them.
[Imanol]: Luisa also testified. She said that she had led a holy life, away from the world and dedicated to God. She described the convent as a happy life, dedicated to love and the salvation of souls. And she denied everything Silvia had declared—that she had prevented her from leaving or that she had prohibited her from receiving visits from her father. She also said that the mistreatment was a lie; the only thing there was in the convent was love.
The defenders of the former prioress analyzed the constitutions of the order, the documents that defined all the practices of the Carmelites. Her lawyers summoned a priest who was an expert in canon law to explain them: their origins, their historical context, their importance in the life of a convent.
The main argument was that they could not judge her for following rules that were more than 500 years old and in which she believed on faith. Judging her actions, they stated again and again, was nothing short of an attack on freedom of worship.
To that argument, the prosecutor replied that he was not judging the Church, nor her beliefs. Nor the spiritual motives of someone who gives herself to a cloistered life or who is willing to self-flagellate. The trial was not about that, but about the conduct of one person, Luisa Toledo, who had broken Argentinean law and even the rules of the convent, using penance as personal punishment. And that she, above all, had committed a crime every time she had denied Silvia and Roxana their right to leave.
The trial lasted three weeks. In addition to Silvia, her brothers, her parents, several nuns who had passed through the convent and some who were still there testified. On the day of the sentence, Silvia preferred not to go to court. She stayed at home and followed a live YouTube stream.
On the screen, she could see the judges enter the room, position themselves on the platform and begin to read the ruling:
The time being eight thirty, on July 5, 2019, the trial and appeals court of Gualeguay, composed of Magistrate…
[Imanol]: The reading of the ruling was full of legal technicalities, but the decision of the judges was historic: the court sentenced Luisa Toledo to three years in effective prison for the crime of illegitimate deprivation of liberty, aggravated by the use of violence and by the duration of the confinement.
When she heard the sentence, Silvia felt that something was beginning to close. Not so much a wound, but a chapter in her life. A life that was now largely different. She had a job, she was in love, and she was studying to one day be a literature teacher. And although she still had nightmares some nights, she felt as if she had been reborn.
[Silvia]: In the same way that a devastated land sprouts flowers again… so, I see that as an image of my life, because I felt that way. Destroyed, annihilated. I don’t know. It is as if every last drop of life had been snuffed out. But something in me made life surge again. And for me, the soft rain that made the flowers bloom again was the affection of the people around me.
[Daniel]: Luisa Toledo’s defense appealed the Court’s decision, but the Paraná Court of Final Appeals upheld her arrest. It was not until August 2021, at the age of 68, that she was transferred to the women’s prison, exactly 6 years after the night of the raid.
However, in September 2022, she was granted the benefit of parole, and Toledo will complete her sentence in a convent in the city of Buenos Aires, where she will remain until August 2024.
Silvia graduated as a teacher of literature in May of 2022. Today she works as a teacher, and she no longer goes to church or believes in God.
Imanol Subiela Salvo is a freelance journalist and Emilia Erbetta is our production assistant. They both live in Buenos Aires.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with original music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Cassasus, Diego Corzo, José Diaz,Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Natalia Sánchez Loayza is our editorial intern.
Selene Mazón is our production intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is edited on Hindenburg PRO. If you are a podcast creator interested in Hindenburg PRO, go to hindenburg.com/radioambulante and get a free 90-day trial.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.