Introducing “wonder nuns” (with true examples)

by Andrea Graus


Figure 1. Yvonne Aimée de Jésus receiving the Légion d’Honneur from Charles de Gaulle.

“Wonder nuns” are type of modern, ultra-charismatic, celebrity-like, supposedly supernaturally gifted religious woman, who have or were attributed a certain influence over the political agenda of their country. Wonder nuns are allegedly blessed with all kind of supernatural gifts at the same time: stigmata, bilocation, clairvoyance, Marian apparitions, mystical marriage, levitation, miraculous healing, among others. It is this “all-in-one” manifestation of the supernatural that defines their charisma, both in the sense of their divine power and with regard to their attractiveness to the public. Rumours of their wonders circulate in the press or by word of mouth, building a reputation for sanctity and attaining celebrity status. Even when they are a fraud, their celebrity status maintains them at the heart of public debate. Such popularity helps them to acquire a rare privilege for religious women: ecclesiastical authority, becoming female spiritual leaders and a public face of the Church—for good and for bad. We can speculate that none of this would happen had their lives not been enriched with the supernatural, which becomes their driving force.

Wonder nuns are directly linked to politics. It is not surprising that their most epic mystical episodes coincide with unfavourable political turns or with times of national crisis. Their cases are linked to a longer tradition of political prophecy and religious women in Europe. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, female prophets helped to advance the interests of the Church and endorse the social order; for instance, through visions of the “divine approval” of a monarch.[1] Supposed manifestations of the supernatural, especially when they become public events, such as Marian apparitions, are rarely disinterested. Just as for medieval “holy women”, for nineteenth- and twentieth-century wonder nuns claiming supernatural gifts was a source of power; through it they obtained a recognition that they could not have gained otherwise within the enduring “Christian patriarchy.”

Now, let’s look at some true examples.

In France, the case of the Augustinian Yvonne-Aimée de Jésus (1901-51) is especially telling (Figure 1). During the Second World War, this wonder nun hid members of the French Résistance from the Germans in the convent where she lived. In February 1943, she was arrested and allegedly tortured by the Gestapo. Apparently, she was able to escape using the miraculous power of bilocation. She appeared covered in blood in the room of her spiritual son. After the war, she was received into the Légion d’honneur. Many miracles have been attributed to this wonder nun since her death in 1951. In 1960, overwhelmed and sceptical about the wave of miracles, the Holy See stopped her Cause for Beatification and interdicted publications about her. This ban was partially revoked in 1985.[2]

In Italy, the “wonder nun” Blessed Madre Speranza (1893-1983)—born in Spain—founded several congregations to promote the devotion of Merciful Love. In the 1950s, she constructed a sanctuary in Collevalenza, which today is a site of pilgrimage. She experienced all kinds of supernatural phenomena, including ecstasy, levitation, bilocation, food multiplication, diabolical attacks, cardiognosis and miraculous healing. To exemplify Madre Speranza’s power and the popularity of her devotion, it is enough to say that Pope John Paul II visited her and the Collevalenza sanctuary after surviving a homicide attempt in May 1981 (Figure 2). It was his first trip after the attack.[3] Madre Speranza died in 1983 and was beatified on 31 May 2014.


Figure 2. Pope John Paul II kissing Madre Speranza.

Apart from Sor Patrocinio (1811-1891) (see our post: “The nun with the wounds”), in Spain several other religious women fit the category of wonder nun. Just as Yvonne-Aimée did, so Spanish wonder nuns helped soldiers in times of conflict; however, they did it in even more mysterious ways. The Augustinian nun Madre Cándida (1804-61) bilocated to the front to protect combatants during the Hispano-Moroccan War (1859-60).[4] In a similar way, the venerable Mónica de Jesús (1889-1964) bilocated several times during the Rif War (Morocco) in the early 1920s (Figure 3). At a time when Spanish forces were being defeated, Mónica de Jesús encouraged soldiers and fought with them, to the point that she was supposedly wounded in the leg. In the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), she allegedly appeared during firing squad executions to comfort condemned priests and Catholics.[5]

Figure 3. A sculpture depicting Madre Cándida’s bilocation to the front and a portrait of Mónica de Jesús.

Another wonder nun who played a role during the Civil War was Ramona Llimargas Soler (1892-1940)—in religion Madre Remedios—, the founder of a religious institution in Barcelona, named Hermanas de Jesús Paciente. She had many charismata, including bilocation and stigmata. According to her biographers, she appeared several times to the Spanish military general and future dictator Francisco Franco. She also communicated with some leaders of the Republican front. Ramona informed Franco (in Catalan!) of the outcome of battles and he allegedly called her “Ramona, the Catalan.”[6]

Figure 4. Devotional card and relic of Ramona Llimargas Soler.

Finally, another Spanish case that deserves to be mentioned is that of Blessed Pilar Izquierdo (1906-44). After a strange illness that left her paralysed, blind and almost deaf in 1929, Pilar obtained “living saint” status by receiving people in her attic room. Pilar was “miraculously cured” at the end of the Spanish civil war in 1939, in order to establish her own congregation. This miraculous healing was suspiciously timely: Franco’s National Catholicism had returned the hegemony of the Catholic Church. The miracle was initially dismissed by the Curia, and Pilar’s reputation suffered for it. However, after her death in 1945, her fama sanctitatis and congregations continued to grow. She was beatified in 2001 and today a huge—and very kitsch, if I may say—painting of her hangs in the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid.[7]

preview_Mª Pilar Izquierdo sick, 1938.jpgnoticia1

Figure 5. Mª Pilar Izquierdo and her portrait in the Almudena Cathedral (Madrid). 

* * *

These cases might seem anecdotal; however, it is clear that the supernatural life of these nuns was intimately linked to their nations’ histories. As we can see, wondrous phenomena particularly seem to occur during times of war and political crisis, when concerns regarding salvation and the afterlife typically arise. Bilocation to and visions of the front, spiritual communication with political and military chiefs, apparitions and new devotions to protect the faithful in the midst of the battles: all such extraordinary phenomena acquired an ideological meaning. This reinforces the idea that the manifestation of the supernatural can be used, or at least interpreted, as a political weapon. Moments of social crisis also bring opportunities for change, and extraordinary phenomena related to such crises can influence the way in which change unfolds.

Although the nuns experiencing such phenomena may not have given them a political meaning, the common people and the Church interpreted them in these terms. In this way, the uses and interpretations of the supernatural play a crucial role in ascribing power to these women. We can speculate that promoting political change through mystical experiences is essentially a female business. Scholars working on the medieval and the early modern periods have shown that female seers and religious women gained authority from their capacity for mystical union and visions, rather than from holding office.[8]It is well known that women do not have a strong voice within the hierarchic and patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church. Supernatural phenomena can be a way of influencing the political agenda without openly subscribing to such an agenda.

Further reading: Andrea Graus, “‘Wonder nuns’: Sor Patrocinio, the politics of the supernatural and republican caricature”Journal of Religious History (forthcoming).

[1] R. L. Kagan, Lucrecia’s dreams. Politics and prophecy in sixteenth-century Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

[2] R. Laurentin, Yvonne-Aimée de Malestroit: un amour extraordinaire (Clamecy: F.-X. de Guibert, 1985).

[3] A.-M. Valli, Jesús me ha dicho: Madre Esperanza, testigo de Amor Misericordioso (Barcelona: Mercy Press, 2014).

[4] Eustaquio Esteban, La sierva de Dios Sor María Cándida de San Agustín (Madrid: Imp. Helénica, 1918).

[5] T. del Carmen, Camino de santidad (Madrid: Augustinus, 1975).

[6] P. Fernández Rodríguez, Ramona María del Remedio Llimargas Soler (L’Hospitalet: Hermanas de Jesús Paciente, 2001).

[7] M. Santiago, Sufrir y amar, amar y sufrir (Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer, 2001).

[8] See, e.g.: C. W. Bynum, Jesus as mother. Studies in the spirituality of the high middle ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), Chapter 5; J. Njus, ‘The politics of mysticism: Elisabeth of Spalbeek in context,’ Church History, 77 (2008): 285-317.

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