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De race naar het Vaticaan

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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.

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A gentle touch

by Tine Van Osselaer


Ill.1. Saint Rita images in the Museum voor Volksdevotie (Miskom, Belgium) an initiative of a local layman. Non-professional collectors often preserve source material that does not make it to the official museums and archives and are therefore definitely worth contacting.

It is by far the craziest thing I have ever done to get access to sources. But here I am. It’s early morning and I am sitting in a church waiting for mass to begin. About two months ago I found out that the cult I thought had not survived the legal trial and asylum stay of one of ‘my’ stigmatics had actually endured and is still ‘alive’. The only chance I have this year of meeting the devotees is today, the anniversary of the miraculous cure of the stigmatic almost a century ago. No pressure. There is only one problem: I have absolutely no idea what the devotees look like. To make matters worse, it is not a small church and even though it is a weekday it is starting to get pretty crowded. A colleague of mine agreed to join me on this mission and we are scanning the audience. The devotees must know each other, right? So they are probably sitting together. O.k. so that means we are looking for a group – probably of slightly older people. To our frustration, there are no real groups in sight. That is, until circa five minutes before the mass starts and then suddenly three groups enter the church. They all fit the profile. This means watching their movements and interactions for we will not have the time to run after all three of them once mass has ended. In the end, it is a subtle movement that gives them away. The moment the intentions are read out loud and the name of the stigmatic is mentioned, I see an older lady gently touching the shoulder of the lady in front of her and smile. I still feel a little awkward running over there after mass holding a picture of the stigmatic in my hands and calling out her name. Do they now her? Smiles and curious glances. It takes a while for me to explain who I am and why I am interested in their stories, but I have brought print-outs from our website and my university card so I must be a serious scholar. Gradually the mood shifts and I am promised a follow-up meeting and sources. What a morning.

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Talking data

by Kristof Smeyers



In a box, a folder; in the folder, an envelope; in the envelope, a blood-stained handkerchief that once—during the First World War—belonged to the stigmatised young woman Nellie Brown from Leeds. Now it sits in a small collection of Nellie’s paraphernalia within Herbert Thurston’s archive in the Archives of the Jesuits in London. How it ended up there is hard to determine. Thurston (1856-1939) was a renowned investigator of the supernatural and an authority on the physical phenomena of mysticism (see, for example, his The physical phenomena of mysticism). A cursory glance on the material in his archive shows dozens of letters he received from across Britain and beyond concerning supernatural and spiritual occurrences. The handkerchief, one of the few items in the Thurston collection not made of paper, may have reached him in a similar way.

When I saw the handkerchief, together with Nellie’s diaries and a few devotional prints stained with Nellie’s blood, the first realisation was not that I should have worn gloves. (I totally should have worn gloves.) It wasn’t even the thrill of having found a new, hitherto undocumented addition to our stigmatics’ database. The first question that arose was, How did this collection came to be? Or, How and why did all this stuff get here? Our research requires a flexibility to deal with a wide range of sources. Because of that flexibility, but also because of the archival varieties, it is necessary to stop every now and then to reflect on our methodology. How we get to the sources makes for one such reflection. In this post I want to make the exercise in the opposite direction: how these sources come to us, and how we present them.

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Blood, suffering and ‘fake news’. Prophecies of Italian stigmatics in the 19th century

by Leonardo Rossi

The 19th century could be considered a century filled with great paradoxes, violent political struggles and intense cultural debates that divided revolutionaries and conservatives. On the one hand, it was a turning point in European history due to the secularisation of political life and the laicisation of society – the end of Church’s temporal power, the suppression of ecclesiastical orders, and the spread of positivism and rationalism. On the other hand, it was the golden age of mysticism, supernaturalism, and the politicisation of the popular piety. Ecstasies, stigmata and political prophecies were phenomena at the centre of the public debate of that time, which mobilised supporters and detractors in a political-cultural contest for declaring their authenticity or falsehood.


Figure 1

Figure 1: Monster of Apocalypse

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“The nun with the wounds”: on mockery, politics and the supernatural

by Andrea Graus

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Figure 1: Sor Patrocinio and Queen Isabel II of Spain, c. 1865. White globes cover the stigmata. Figure 2: Caricature of Los Borbones en Pelota (c. 1868), by SEM (pseudonym).

The Spanish Franciscan nun Sor Patrocinio was born on 27 April 1811. “On that day,” wrote the authors of an anticlerical booklet entitled Los Neos en calzoncillos (1868) (“Neo-Catholics in their underwear”), “the woman was born who perhaps, and by no accident, has for over thirty years been the staunchest enemy of the Spanish people, the true queen of Spain, who with her feigned saintliness managed to dominate the granddaughter of a hundred kings [Isabel II].”[1]

In the early 1830s, she gained a public reputation as a stigmatic and became popularly known as “la monja de la llagas” (the nun with the wounds). Her stigmatization coincided with times of national transformation, when the transition from an absolutist to a constitutional monarchy opened the way for a liberal regime and threatened the status quo of the clergy. During Queen Isabel II’s reign (1833-68), Sor Patrocinio allegedly exercised her political influence through mystical experiences. Alarmist letters from Spanish politicians warned that the Queen based some state decisions on “the nun’s visions”. To many, Sor Patrocinio became a symbol of the Church’s attempt to control the throne. A very popular satirical sonnet of the time expressed this fear:

I fear that the sceptre will become a crosier […] / I venerate God, I venerate the tabernacle; / but not a hypocrite Sister who with emetic tartar, / mimics the [holy] wounds […] / if this cynical farce continues, / all masks will fall / and all Spain will burn like a match.[2]

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Adeline’s hands – on lies, flaws and visual sources

by Tine Van Osselaer

Untitled 1

Photograph of Louise Lateau (1877), Archives of the Seminary of Tournai (see ‘The affair’)


How do you photograph sanctity? When you look at the picture above, there does not seem to be much to it. You photograph a girl praying the rosary, solemnly closing her eyes. If your model is a well-known stigmatic, and a young girl from a humble background on top of that, it does not seem to require much effort to produce the right saintly effect. Still, the moment you gaze a little more attentively at this picture of Louise (Lateau, 1850-1883), you start to notice small details. Wasn’t the bed on the other side of the room and not nearly as close to window as it seems to be here? And what are those hands doing on the right-hand side of the picture holding up a white sheet?

If you did not see the hands of Louise’s sister Adeline when you first looked at the photograph, do not feel bad. Most people seem to filter them out of the picture focusing their attention on the face of the stigmatic (I’ve tested this on my students). It means the photographer did a good job and Louise’s face is indeed quite an eye-catcher, perfectly lighted as it is so close to the window and with the white sheet reflecting the natural light. A slightly better framing of the picture, a little turn to the left, and we would never have known about the staging. Luckily for us, there was this one more clumsy moment, and a picture amidst a series of photographs that tells us more than the flawless versions that eventually made it onto the devotional cards.

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Road trip

by Kristof Smeyers

When you wander into the woods around Dunkirk, near Canterbury, there is little to remind you that this is the site of the last civil insurgence on English soil. Trees are huddled closely together; the undergrowth is thick. Little moves apart from the territorial robins trying to chase you off with overconfident bravura. The monotonous sound of the motorway nearby is domineering and hypnotic.

On the last day of May 1838 however, nothing was quiet as the 45th Regiment, nicknamed the Sherwood Foresters, marched up the road and into these woods. Shots were already ringing out ahead of them, where a few farmers, impatient of waiting on the weathered soldiers, had taken it upon themselves to get rid of the rebels. A few members abandoned their ragtag band that had disrupted local life so much. By the time the 45th Regiment initiated a pincer movement, only between 35 and 40 members of the band remained. All of them—most were farmhands and agricultural artisans: fathers, husbands and sons—carried sticks, apart from their leader, who bore pistols and an exotic scimitar. The weapons were only part of this strange man’s attire. He was dressed in bright red, sported a Christ-like beard and wildly waved his hands, adorned with the stigmata. He looked not unlike an oversized, overconfident robin.

In a ditch not far from where this band was hiding lay the mangled body of Nicholas Mears, brother of the local constable, who had tried to apprehend the strange man earlier that morning.

The 45th Regiment had therefore taken its precautions. About a hundred soldiers now moved through these woods. They had only recently returned from suppressing unrest in the colonies. One arm of the regiment’s pincer came upon the farmhands first. The Christ-like man stepped forward from the trees and shot the lieutenant, and the Battle of Bossenden Wood, as it later became known, started. It lasted only a few minutes. Forty farmers with sticks were no match for a hundred veteran soldiers. Sir William Courtenay, as the extravagant vagabond leader called himself, was the first of the rebels to die; the battle dispersed after seven of his followers were also killed or mortally wounded.


‘Sir William Courtenay alias John Thom, the pretended Messiah and his credulous followers’, coloured soft ground etching by W.L. published by William Spooner, 1840 © National Army Museum, Study collection (

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Virginity and mystical eroticism. Sexuality, stigmatics and the Church in the 19th-20th centuries

by Leonardo Rossi


G.L. Bernini, Transverberation of Saint Teresa (1647-52), Church of St Maria della Vittoria, Rome

At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and even more at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic Church not only attempted to control religious’ behavior, but envisaged a great moral reform in order to regulate all the aspects of the  societas Christi. The sexual dimension was one of the most crucial issues. While the Holy See assigned a higher degree of perfection to virginity and chastity, it did not intend to deny sexuality but rather to regulate lay unions in accordance with the sacred text. Sexual intercourse was only legitimized for procreation, as was written in Genesis (the controversial and erotic Song of Songs was conveniently forgotten). In the 19th century, the century of the ‘popularization’ and ‘feminization’ of religion, this moral trend appeared as lively as ever and took on a functional role in the re-Christianization of society. Chaste and obedient lay women, even more than the virgin nuns, were described as heroines of morality, and as a model of virtue or ‘conversion tools’ for husbands and children. The laymen, especially the women, responded to this reform in three ways: by rejecting (arousing the reproach of clergy and of their community), accepting (the most common choice, at least in appearance) or trying to sublimate the sexual instinct through a sensualization of the sacred (mystical experiences). In this short post I focus on the latter and study the relationship between Church, sexuality and mysticism through the cases of some representative Italian stigmatics.

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