- Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America by Paula M. Kane
Sister Mary Crown of Thorns (neé Margaret Reilly, 1884–1937), a sister of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd at Peekskill, New York, reportedly endured the stigmata from September to November 1921. The manifestations of a cross on her breast and on the walls of her cell were witnessed by some of her sisters and were brought to the attention of Archbishop Patrick Hayes of New York. However, their publicity beyond the convent walls was the result of communications from overzealous clergy. The appeal of the story could [End Page 828] not be quashed, despite the best efforts of Hayes, and newspapers promptly splashed headlines of the Peekskill stigmatic for public consumption.
Kane’s monograph is a work of American studies, not church history, and still less a biography. It examines an unusual spiritual narrative arising in New York’s Gilded Age. It occurs to an Irish American woman with serious health problems. Kane calls herself a bricoleur—one who casually observes the detritus of life, mining it for shards of meaning. As a method, it is wanting. Through some valuable archival work, however, Kane alights on a very intriguing subject whose crosshatches traverse the piety of Irish Catholic New York, convent culture, and authority structures that do as much to promote as to try to contain a story of stigmata.
The book relies on primary source data found in archives in the United States and London and an extensive, if tangential, secondary literature. After an initial survey of material related to Sister Thorn’s case in the archives of the Good Shepherds, a sudden change in policy there closed the files for the author’s research. Similarly, she had difficulty in obtaining information from the archdiocesan archives in New York. Kane did not consult a large file in the Secret Vatican Archives (Archivio della Delegazione degli Stati Uniti d’America, Subseries XIX: Istituti religiosi, Posiz. 1229) pertaining to Thorn’s case and the havoc raised over her among the Good Shepherd sisters. Doubtless the book would have been enhanced with further engagement of the sources.
In seven chapters, Kane examines Thorn’s family, vocation to the religious life, the motivations of her champions, Catholics and the scientific study of supernatural phenomena, devotional culture in the United States, and the “Americanization of modern sanctity” (p. 217). A final chapter covers the possibility of the supernatural in a modern Catholic context. The author often attempts to psychologize Thorn, using Freudian studies and even Jacques Lacan to gain insight into her mind. Among Thorn’s contemporary examiners was James Walsh (author of The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, New York, 1907), who had studied at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and was fascinated by supernatural phenomena. In Kane’s view, Walsh and other misogynistic physicians who sought to treat her dismissed Thorn’s visions as hysterical ravings, just as other purported stigmatics—Theresa Neumann or Marie Rose Ferron among them—had their experiences disregarded and even subjected to ridicule. Faulting these men with the lash of feminist critique has the effect of impugning their diagnoses as somehow sinister and uncaring, uncoupling their decisions from their context and uncritically accepting Thorn’s stigmata as genuine.
Ultimately Kane’s portrayal of Thorn, her religious order, ecclesiastical culture, and Catholicism generally is cast under the pall of a perceived medievalism. Her claims are titillating but tendentious and often mistaken. For instance, Thorn’s alleged cherishing of suffering and pain, she insists, melds perfectly with the rise of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus—never considering that this cult was based upon the Savior’s love for humanity, not some divine desire for sacrificial misery or baroque asceticism. Kane cites this reviewer’s work on the interplay between cult [End Page 829] and commerce in the case of an alleged miracle site in Massachusetts, although she supplies the name of...