- Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America by Paula M. Kane
Paula Kane’s new book, Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America, tells the story of a Manhattan woman, Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns, born Margaret Reilly (1884–1937), who at age thirty-three, began to exhibit sacred markings on her body. A bloody cross is suddenly and mysteriously etched into her chest. These mystical experiences propel her to enter the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Peekskill, New York, where, for the rest of her life, she suffers from intense physical pain. At various times, she bleeds profusely from wounds to her hands, side, and feet that imitate Christ’s wounds from crucifixion. She is tormented by demons, who assault her physically and sexually, and who destroy convent property. She is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair and suffers from painful digestive ailments. While the United States undergoes a dramatic loosening of social mores during the Jazz Age, this sister prays for her pain to be intensified in order to offer up her suffering for Catholics who are in danger of losing their spiritual anchor.
In addition to its riveting story, Kane’s book contributes to an important trend in Catholic studies, and especially in Catholic women’s history: the application of micro-historical and biographical approaches to reveal a subject’s much broader connections. The pairing of micro-history and biography, combined with methodologies of world history, can effectively illuminate multiple and overlapping national and global themes. Kane’s compelling portrait of the cloistered Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns takes an intimate look at a mystical woman’s life, and offers us rich revelations about the ways Catholicism shaped, and was shaped by, the post-World [End Page 130] War I world. Micro-history and biography are especially effective lenses to apply to Catholic women, whose lives, even in the early twentieth century, are often not well documented, unless they happened to live in convents.
Micro-history, what historian Charles Joyner has defined as “asking large questions in small places,” is perfectly suited for studying the lives of women operating within the confinements of domestic spaces, and especially of women in convents. In Kane’s book, the “small place” is a convent cell in the quiet upstate New York hamlet of Peekskill where a paralyzed American mystic is marked with the stigmata. The “large questions” that are framed by this study include interrogating responses of U.S. Catholics to the carnage of World War I in European homelands, to the global influenza epidemic that followed on its heels, to the intensified nativism that targeted 1920s Catholics, and to the economic depression of the 1930s that destroyed prosperity in Western nations. The poet William Blake captured an essential concept of micro-history when he wrote about seeing “the world in a grain of sand.” In Kane’s depiction of this “grain of sand,” Sister Thorn’s cloistered life paradoxically offers a powerful lens for studying national and global issues.
Kane tells the story of Sister Thorn to reveal important themes and resonances of early twentieth-century Catholicism that a broader cultural sweep would miss. The central purpose of her book is to explore the life and Catholic milieu of Sister Thorn during the inter-war period. It explores a transitional moment of U.S. Catholicism, when the urban immigrant Church of the nineteenth century transformed into the assimilated twentieth-century Church. Kane demonstrates the ways that forms of religious experience, including the mystical, contributed to the increased assimilation of Catholics in the post-war period. Through her micro-historical and biographical exploration of Sister Thorn, Kane reveals ways that themes of pain and sacrifice resonated with the interwar generation, even as the Church was unknowingly embarking on its path toward the 1960s and Vatican II.
The author remarkably reconstructs the life of Sister Thorn. Her methodology continues the work of women’s studies scholars who have found ways to tell intimate stories of women...