The secret of Sant’Ambrogio

The following is an excerpt from The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, by Hubert Wolf, and explores false saints, deception, and scandal in 19th century Rome.

The convent of Sant’Ambrogio had a secret. At first, Katharina had no idea what this might be. But three months after she entered the convent on March 27, 1858, she knew that something that “frequently occupied the community” had been kept from her. Through her conversations with the madre vicaria, she became aware of the existence of “some kind of secret.” “She led me to understand that the father confessor had decided it was not yet time to reveal it to me.” She soon sensed this was somehow connected with “influences of a supernatural kind,” but comforted herself with the thought that “such naïve souls” as her new Roman sisters could more easily obtain their spiritual edification from those miraculous tales than from abstract theological tracts.

Of course, had she been able to interpret Reisach’s cryptic remarks, she might have been forewarned about this, as Katharina remarked self-critically in her Erlebnisse. Before she entered the convent, the cardinal had explained to her that in a southern country such as Italy one was frequently confronted with unusual or supernatural occurrences. “Strange and remarkable things might take place around her.” The Italians’ lively characters would make things seem very different from what she was used to, coming from cool, rationalist Germany. But in a place like Rome, where a “living faith grasps and maintains everything with a freshness and strength that we Germans can hardly conceive of . . . there also exist struggles and temptations quite alien to our experience.” Reisach had warned Katharina not to let herself “be unsettled or disturbed by such things.”

The cardinal’s words reveal his own enthusiasm for Latin European sentimental forms of Catholic devotion, and his rejection of an Enlightened, rational religious practice that was common in Germany. He was particularly fascinated by transcendental religious phenomena: in every single hour he was prepared for manifestations of the Sacred, especially in Rome. There was no doubt in his mind that “poor souls,” the spirits of the dead, could take up contact with this world from the other side at any time. So the princess saw nothing unusual in the fact that the refectory readings in Sant’Ambrogio often mentioned “ecstasies, miracles and apparitions.” Admittedly, she criticized these readings for overstimulating the imagination of her fellow nuns, and would have preferred solid “religious instruction.” This might have imparted the necessary basic Christian knowledge that the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio were wholly lacking — as the princess soon noticed. But, following Reisach’s advice, she put their enthusiasm for supernatural religious phenomena and miracles down to their southern mentality and their lack of educational achievement. At first, she didn’t see anything dangerously heretical. And her new father confessor, Padre Peters, managed to allay the princess’s “first serious concerns.”

However, the nuns were still hiding something from her: they would stop talking abruptly when Katharina approached them; they would slip into a Roman dialect that the princess didn’t understand; they dropped obscure hints.

It was only after she was admitted as a novice on September 29 that Padre Peters and Cardinal Reisach were finally prepared to come clean and lift the veil of secrecy. They had kept from her the fact that the founder of the Franciscan community of Sant’Ambrogio, Mother Agnese Firrao, had been condemned as a false saint by the Roman Inquisition, and sent into exile. They evidently feared that this revelation would have kept the princess from entering the convent.

This secret was the first point of Katharina’s denunciation. She complained that despite her conviction, Agnese Firrao was still being honored as a real saint in Sant’Ambrogio. The nuns, and in particular Padre Peters, had played down the implications of the Holy Office’s verdict on their mother founder. Once Katharina had become a novice, they referred to Firrao in her presence as La Beata Madre and venerated her as a saint, even though the Church stipulated that this kind of cult was only for people it had officially beatified. “They showed me her scourges, and other instruments of mortification, and told me of the three pounds of raw flesh that fell from the Mother after a single flagellation. They always praised her extraordinary virtue,” the princess noted in her report. “In this convent they don’t even blush when they proclaim the holiness of Sister Maria Agnese; she surpasses almost all other saints.”

In Sant’Ambrogio, the Inquisition was criticized for having passed a clearly wrong judgment when it found Agnese Firrao guilty of false holiness. According to Katharina, the nuns regarded numerous items owned by their “saint” as contact relics: clothes, embroidery, and in particular three portraits done in oils. The confessors were working on a “saint’s life” of Firrao, which would be read aloud to the community once it was finished. The founder’s prayers, mottoes, letters, and messages had been painstakingly collected. On high feast days, “poems were recited, glorifying the blessed Maria Agnese, depicting her surrounded by angels, and nuns who had passed on.” On these occasions, “words of praise for the current madre vicaria were put into the mouth of the ‘Beata Madre,’ calling her ‘her joy, her treasure, the brightest of her stars.’”

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, by Hubert Wolf (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Hubert Wolf is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Muenster in Germany, and has been awarded a number or prizes, including the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Communicator Prize, and the Gutenberg Prize. An internationally renowned scholar of the history of the papacy, he is the author of The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio.

Featured image: St Peter’s Basilica, by Ed Brambley. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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