Stigmata and celebrity from the bottom-up

by Andrea Graus

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Marie-Julie Jahenny (middle) with her followers, La Fraudais (France), c. 1935.

Popular religion is linked to the cult of saints as much as popular culture is symbolized by the worship of famous individuals. Becoming a saint, especially a living saint, is related to becoming a celebrity because, to begin with, it implies obtaining a widespread reputation – in this case, the so-called fama sanctitatis. Cases of ‘popular canonization’ are similar to the sacralization of secular celebrities. There are also evident parallels between the behaviour displayed by the visitors to stigmatics and by the fans of a media celebrity. Visitors to stigmatics showed a need to be close to their idols, to experience their feelings, to gain something from them. Obtaining a handkerchief imprinted with the blood from the stigmata was like getting a celebrity autograph. Mourning the corpse of a deceased stigmatic, turning her house into a living museum and shrine, organizing pilgrimages to her grave, are all examples that can be traced to the cases of rock stars and Hollywood legends. They thus provide further evidence of the relationship between the cult of saints and celebrity culture. In the following, we will take a closer look to the case of the French stigmatized mystic Marie-Julie Jahenny (1850–1941).

Marie-Julie Jahenny was a peasant woman from La Fraudais, a hamlet of around ten houses, not far from Nantes in Brittany, France. Stigmata notwithstanding, Marie-Julie Jahenny was reported to have the gift of prophecy. Her case is related to other nineteenth-century Frenchwomen who were Catholic mystics and political prophets; promoters of ultramontanism, millenarianism and royalism to stand up to the ‘evil’ republican, secularized and revolutionary France. Being practically illiterate, Jahenny never wrote down her prophecies. It was those around her who transcribed them in situ, translating from patois to French. Because Jahenny was not the material author of the texts, these could not be presented as evidence during a hypothetical cause of canonization. However, since the diocese of Nantes does not acknowledge her, such a procedure is not likely to take place.

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Marie-Julie Jahenny reliving the Passion. A woman transcribes the inspired messages, c. 1930. AHDN, 5F2/45.

Marie-Julie Jahenny was a religious celebrity and a popular living saint of her time – she received twenty to thirty letters from followers per week. Visitors (some considered themselves pilgrims) from all around France and other European countries arrived asking after ‘la Sainte de Blain.’ A bus driver recalled that, before the start of the Second World War, he drove many English, Dutch, German and Belgian people on their way to the stigmatic’s house. By then, improvements in both the means of transport and the roads had made access to La Fraudais easier. In the late nineteenth-century, however, visitors had to face a much more difficult ‘pilgrimage’ through the muddy paths of the isolated hamlet. In 1891, a young French women wrote to the parish priest requesting his authorization to visit the stigmatic and asking how to get to La Fraudais: ‘Will we find carts to rent in Blain? Are they easier to find on Friday [when the stigmata appear]? Does anything in particular happen that day?.’ The parish priest, a Jahenny detractor, tried to discourage people by saying that Jahenny was advised to avoid receiving visitors in order not to fall prey to the temptation of pride.

Though celebrity studies tend to focus on the role of media in the development of celeb- rity culture, the media were not responsible for Marie-Julie Jahenny’s fame during her lifetime. This is largely explained by the ‘silent’ censorship of the Church. Either out of caution or reticence, the clergymen prevented the news from spreading in either the regional or the general press, leaving promotional works on the stigmatic unpublished and asking some journalists to promise not to write about the events at La Fraudais. Oral culture – i.e., the testimony of visitors – was fundamental to build Jahenny’s celebrity status.

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Visitors waiting to see the stigmatic, c. 1930, AHDN, 5F2/45.

During visits, men and women from different social backgrounds praised Jahenny’s suffering and begged her to include their relatives and themselves in her prayers; hoping, for instance, to obtain grace or a conversion. Although Jahenny’s family did not charge an admission fee, they did accept donations of food, clothes and a little money. All these gifts seemed worthless before the divine spectacle offered by the mystic. In the 1870s, when stigmata bled more frequently, astonished visitors said that they felt edified by Jahenny’s ‘chemin de croix’. If visitors were lucky enough, they left La Fraudais with a relic or a precious souvenir – e.g. a handkerchief imprinted with the stigmata or a devotional card offered by Jahenny. Thus, many people turned to the stigmatic as to a living saint, asking for blessings or favours, even when the Church did not acknowledge the mystic. In such cases, popular devotion acted as a form of religious power and legitimation. As with celebrities, Jahenny’s authority and credibility relied on her followers. She was empowered through her public and her memory has been persevered by them.

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‘Souvenir from La Fraudais, 3 January 1879’, from the diary of an anonymous priest, AHDN, 5F2/91.

After her death in 1941, Jahenny’s followers banded together to buy her house and transform it into a site of veneration. In 1958, the Association des Amis de Marie-Julie et de la Fraudais – today known as the Association Le Sanctuarie de Marie-Julie Jahenny – achieved this aim. The then-president was the marquis André de La Franquerie (1901–92), Catholic writer, monarchist, close to the French roman Catholic intégrisme and frequent visitor to Jahenny. In order to collect donations to buy the mystic’s house, the marquis encouraged those who had met the stigmatic not to let ‘this endearing relic’ disappear. After the acquisition, Jahenny’s room and the site of her ecstasies was preserved as it was, while the dining room was transformed into a small chapel, once more without the approval of the diocesan authorities. Visitors can still access the house/shrine/living museum by contacting the Association.

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The preserved bedroom and the unauthorized chapel set up in Marie-Julie Jahenny’s home after her death. AHDN, 5F2/49.

References:

  • AHDN: Archives Historiques du Diocèse de Nantes, Fonds Marie Julie-Jahenny (Nantes, France).
  • Roberdel, P., Marie-Julie Jahenny la stigmatisée de Blain, 1850-1941 (Montsûrs: Résiac 1987).

  • Rojek, C., Celebrity (London, 2001)

Want to know more? Read the whole story in: Graus, A. “A visit to remember: stigmata and celebrity at the turn of the twentieth century”, Cultural and Social History, 14(1), 2017: 55-72.

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