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Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America

Paula M. Kane

Publication Year: 2013

One day in 1917, while cooking dinner at home in Manhattan, Margaret Reilly (1884-1937) felt a sharp pain over her heart and claimed to see a crucifix emerging in blood on her skin. Four years later, Reilly entered the convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Peekskill, New York, where, known as Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns, she spent most of her life gravely ill and possibly exhibiting Christ's wounds. In this portrait of Sister Thorn, Paula M. Kane scrutinizes the responses to this American stigmatic's experiences and illustrates the surprising presence of mystical phenomena in twentieth-century American Catholicism.
Drawing on accounts by clerical authorities, ordinary Catholics, doctors, and journalists--as well as on medicine, anthropology, and gender studies--Kane explores American Catholic mysticism, setting it in the context of life after World War I and showing the war's impact on American Christianity. Sister Thorn's life, she reveals, marks the beginning of a transition among Catholics from a devotional, Old World piety to a newly confident role in American society.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

Contents, Illustrations

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pp. v-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I first encountered Margaret Reilly, known in religious life as Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns, by accident when I read a typescript by “Father Bertrand” about his visit with a stigmatized nun in 1922. Intrigued, I pursued the obvious question: was there really an American stigmatic in the twentieth century? ...

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Introduction: A Notorious Case of Bleeding

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pp. 1-24

In 1922 a priest stationed in Manhattan was becoming annoyed by the number of persons confiding to him in the confessional that they were having mystical manifestations. After encountering one particular individual, he advised the archbishop of New York to “cut the publicity or notoriety of a case which, in my mind, must be stamped ‘non probatus.’ ”1 ...

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1. Now You Are My Thorn, but Soon You Shall Be My Lily of Delight: The Transformation of Margaret Reilly

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pp. 25-63

Margaret Reilly received a nudge toward sainthood on an ordinary day in 1917 while cooking dinner. Although the kitchen seems an unlikely place for a mystical encounter, Margaret, while stooping over the oven to prepare a fish supper with her mother, felt a sharp pain over her heart and saw a three-dimensional crucifix emerging in blood. ...

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2. The Monastery Is a Hospital of Spiritual Sick: The Lure of Convent Life

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pp. 64-100

The poet, who died on Long Island in 1996, captured a sense of freedom and girlish playfulness that is not commonly associated with convent life of her great aunt’s era. One wonders how the two women managed to eat secret dinners in Sister Margaret’s room, or if they dined on fruit from the convent’s orchards and eggs still warm from the henhouse. ...

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3. Mad about Bleeding Nuns: Sister Thorn’s Champions

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pp. 101-142

New Yorkers did not first learn of the bleeding nun at Peekskill through the press; nor through the Catholic networks in Manhattan at Blessed Sacrament, St. Francis de Sales, or St. Ignatius; nor from the gossip of the Good Shepherd sisters. Instead, Margaret Reilly was introduced to New Yorkers through “a sloppy slushy letter written by a Passionist.”1 ...

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4. We Are Skeptics Together about a Great Many Things: Catholics and the Scientific Study of Stigmata

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pp. 143-188

To understand Margaret’s diagnosis and treatment at the hands of medical experts, this chapter examines the scientific community’s impact on the American understanding of stigmatization in the early twentieth century. First, it analyzes and contrasts the involvements of the three physicians central to Margaret Reilly’s experience: ...

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5. Cor Jesu Regnabit: Devotional Culture in American Catholicism

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pp. 189-216

As Margaret knelt in prayer before the splendid new altar to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in her parish in Manhattan, this addition to St. Ignatius Church impressed her and all who saw it. The altar features a statue of the Savior displaying his heart to Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun who was canonized in 1920.1 ...

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6. It Is Beautiful to Live with Saints: The Americanization of Modern Sanctity

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pp. 217-244

Pious custom dictates that twelve stigmatics are alive at any one time in the world in repetition of the number of Christ’s apostles. Even if this tradition is suspect, it emboldened the supporters of Margaret Reilly to make connections between her and other spiritual virtuosi throughout “Christendom,” a concept that the church keenly hoped to revive in the wake of the First World War. ...

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7. Find Sweet Music Everywhere: Modern Catholic Supernaturalism

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pp. 245-259

When Sister Crown of Thorns died in May 1937, her community was hardly unprepared. From the moment of Thorn’s first vows ceremony at Peekskill fifteen years before, the Good Shepherd sisters had been anticipating her imminent death. As the convent chronicles attest, her wavering health preoccupied the sisters much of the time. ...

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pp. 260-266

In the history of Catholic spirituality in interwar America, Sister Thorn represents the dilemmas that faced the in-between generation. This liminal group has been closely identified with the women who brought into being the cult of Saint Jude during the 1930s; they were not immigrants themselves, but as daughters of immigrants, ...


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pp. 267-308


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pp. 309-313

E-ISBN-13: 9781469612560
E-ISBN-10: 1469612569
Print-ISBN-13: 9781469607603
Print-ISBN-10: 1469607603

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2013