by Tine Van Osselaer
Ill. 1 Photographs of Bertha Mrazek as stigmatic (private collection K. Smeyers, reproduced with the permission the owner)
I struggle with words during the whole conversation. Maria talks with enthusiasm about Père Jean, casually mentions him being born a woman, but at no point in the conversation does she use the names ‘Bertha Mrazek’, ‘Gloria’ or ‘Georges Marasco’. To her, a lifelong follower of Père Jean, he is the priestly figure she knew as a child, not Gloria the lion tamer or Georges the poet-painter. Maria knows about these episodes though and talks about the small castle that Père Jean lived in with its wild animals, the smell of paint in the hall, and the photographs she saw of Père Jean (as Gloria) lying on a lion. ‘We never spoke about that,’ she notes when I try and puzzle Jean’s past back together and she seems to feel the need to explain the gender shift. What mattered to her is that Jean was the ‘Père’ you went to when you were in need of help. She gives elaborate descriptions of miraculous cures, of childless women who became pregnant against all hope, and of dying birds embodying Jean’s spiritual power.
I know only a little about Père Jean. My point of reference at the start of the conversation is Bertha Mrazek (pen-name Georges Marasco), the post-war mystic, anomaly in the eye of the public and thorn in the side of the ecclesiastical authorities. A woman who allegedly collaborated with the Germans during the war, who had a miraculous cure in the basilica of Our Lady in Halle, and later became a faith-healer. A woman whose cross-dressing and love for wild animals was in the interwar sources linked to her artistic flair – ‘la Marasco.’ All of the sources I have studied so far refer to her as ‘a woman’ and criticize her for not meeting gendered expectations for a good Catholic girl. Wearing men’s clothes got her expelled from church, and her status as religious leader made her problematic in the eyes of the clergy. Accusations of fraud and hysteria were added to the mixture, and after a short lawsuit for making money under false pretenses she was sent to an asylum. And that was that, most stories on her ended there. My mind had constructed – perhaps on a template of Sarah Bernhardt – an image of Bertha as an interwar artist/mystic (whatever that was exactly) who had an adventurous past as lion tamer, nightclub singer and spy and ended up being sent to an asylum. That is why I kept having difficulties during the conversation not to refer to ‘Bertha’ and to talk about ‘Père Jean’ instead.
Ill.2 Photograph of Bertha Mrazek (private collection K. Smeyers, reproduced with the permission the owner)
A portrait of Père Jean was staring at me, and it was clear that I needed to let go of the picture I had created in my head as it was only one chapter, or one version, of the story. In my defense: it had been particularly hard to reconstruct the previous chapters. The testimonies of the inmates of St Gilles prison and some of the postwar sources referred to Bertha as a great storyteller who at one point claimed that she regularly broke out of prison in a basket, or had miraculously escaped several death sentences. Some of the sources such as the typed copies of letters from of former inmates thanking her for helping them escape seemed to have been fabricated only in order to create a good impression of Bertha. Original letters of the inmates protesting against Bertha’s image as a war hero made it clear that the lies in themselves would be worth exploring. The overall problem I faced in this reconstruction was that each ‘chapter’ not only had its own logic and sources (e.g. letters kept in the war archives, in diocesan archives, or the newspapers) but also its own Bertha/Georges or Jean.
Ill.3 Photograph of Père Jean, hanging in Maria’s home (summer 2017).
I had compartmentalized the biography as if the lead character of my story reinvented him-/herself from scratch again and again (like tricksters I had read about). What I learned from Maria that day was that there was no need for that. To the followers of Père Jean all of these former identities easily merged in the man they had all loved. She evoked what a visit to Père Jean had been like: how one would enter the hall where one could sometimes smell the fresh paint of Jean’s artwork; how one would climb the stairs decorated with photographs of the lion-tamer’s past; and finally how one would enter a chapel where there was a huge painting of Bertha’s miraculous cure in Halle on the wall, together with the Belgian flag and war memorabilia (references to the war hero). Her memories of Père Jean’s home and the ease with which she accepted the gender shift were a welcome counterweight to the sensational, episodic and conflict-rich textual sources I had found. It was Maria’s version of Jean I learned about that day. But her testimony did not just provide me with information on the post-asylum years of Père Jean. Her virtual ‘tour’ around Jean’s house gave me an integrated image, a synthesis rather than fragmentation. While I could no longer see the house myself (demolished after Jean’s death in 1967), her memories of its material culture gave me a sense of what was still relevant to her after all these years – what constituted the memory of Père Jean –, and that included also pieces of Bertha and Georges.
(See also: Tine Van Osselaer (2019): The many lives of Bertha, Georges and Jean: a transgender mystic in interwar Belgium, Women’s History Review, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2019.1590502)