- Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America by Paula M. Kane
This kind of thing just doesn’t happen, right? A pious young woman from a respectable enough family sees a crucifix in blood appear mysteriously on her body. She enters a convent, and once there the visible signs of divinely ordained torment multiply. She is confined to a wheelchair and suffers unending agony, requiring more or less constant care from her fellow sisters. There are even reports that the stigmata, the signs of Jesus’s own wounds, are also visited on her. Symbolic markings would appear first on her flesh and then be miraculously transferred to nearby walls. She is examined by doctors, both medical and spiritual, and most of them conclude that all this is neither delusion nor deception. Her life is brief and full of trials, but she endures all and becomes an inspiration by willingly accepting her sufferings; they have redemptive power, not only for herself but indeed for the whole world. It is quite a story, one we would readily accept as a tale from medieval Spain, perhaps, but in the United States of America in the 1920s? No, in that historical time and place, this simply does not happen.
But of course it did, and Paula Kane’s Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America examines the case of Margaret Reilly (known in religion as Sister Mary Crown of Thorns), weaving a skillful analysis that prompts us to reconsider what we think we know about Catholicism in America. The story at least starts in a familiar way. An immigrant family, committed to the faith of their ancestors, achieved a certain upward mobility, but success was always fragile. A life in the Church offered an outlet, the convent [End Page 127] channeling the energies of women whose opportunities were otherwise narrowly prescribed. The particular religious order in this case is near-ideal grist for the scholarly mill: the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who worked with “fallen” women and girls, thus operating at the busy intersection of religion, gender, and the larger social forces of urban life. A deep devotional culture supported the meaning that others came to find in Thorn’s case. Even in a world that liked to think extravagant manifestations of the supernatural had been banished, driven out by science, this case could not be so easily dismissed. Reports of other stigmatics, including those that were obviously false, only served to confirm the apparent genuineness here. An effort to have Thorn recognized as a saint began even while she was still alive, but the cause lost steam after her death in 1937, caught in shifting expectations about the requirements for that honor: “heroic virtue” in the ordinary things of life rather than “wonder-working” became the standard. With the mystic’s death, she was largely forgotten. Kane’s book concludes with a sad little photograph (taken by the author) of Thorn’s gravestone in Peekskill, New York: plain, worn, attracting no notice.
But there is so much more here. Particularly interesting to me was the large cast of characters, mostly men, who became involved in the case and emerged, in Kane’s word, as Thorn’s “champions.” The personal physician of the cardinal archbishop of New York, for example, was among the first to examine her. While we might expect nothing but skepticism from him, he became her stoutest defender. Support was also forthcoming from another doctor, James J. Walsh, one of the most curious figures in early twentieth century American Catholicism. A former seminarian who became a neurologist and medical school dean, Walsh was what passed for a “public intellectual” in the Church at the time, writing a book called The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries (1907), which made the case that Catholic culture trumped all comers and always had; that very odd book remained a staple in American Catholic colleges and universities for half a century. European experts— some of whom were even Jesuits and who could argue with them...