- Response to Reviewers
Writing book reviews is one of the most essential, but least rewarded parts of our professional service as academics. Let me begin, then, by expressing my gratitude to Professors O’Toole and Schultz for their commentaries. Researching the life and potential meanings of Margaret Reilly/Sister Thorn absorbed more than a decade of my life, and I am delighted to share her now with an audience, which reviewers help to nurture.
As a native of Washington, D.C. and a resident of Pittsburgh, it has been my fate to write about American Catholics in cities that are not my own: first Boston, now New York. (Note to self: find a new project in Malibu or Sedona?) The relationship between a researcher and a place is one built over time, and I was determined to learn about two centers of Sister Thorn’s story, New York City and the Hudson Valley, by investigating the roles of commerce, demography, education, geography, religion, and transportation [End Page 133] there, as they existed in the 1920s and 1930s. As a “world city” since the twenties, perhaps many Americans and even foreigners can claim Manhattan as their own. Nonetheless, the New York that I uncovered, of bleeding nuns and demons, was not part of the standard histories. Another part of the research process, as readers of the book know, was the decision of the Good Shepherd Sisters to close their New York archives to outsiders after I had been using them for some years. This decision obliged me to search in more distant places, including collections in Belgium, France and the U.K., where I found more about Sister Thorn (and allied cases) than I could have imagined possible, allowing me to add a transnational dimension to her story.
Among other things, foreign archives helped me to understand the wide-ranging impact of devotional practices of Catholics since the Catholic Reformation, and also to contextualize them as a response to more recent events (the flourishing of victim spirituality and the effects of World War I). It was in this milieu that I detailed the role of the Sacred Heart cult in Sister Thorn’s life and circle. Anchoring portions of the book around artifacts like Sister Thorn’s embroidered Sacred Heart badges allowed me to address the central role of Catholic devotions, one area of O’Toole’s expertise, as well as doing historical work at a very micro level, an approach that Schultz affirms (and her own scholarship exemplifies). The study of objects and their ritual and personal uses leads us to the tangle of issues that propel “vernacular” piety and to questions about why Catholics prefer certain devotions, and how the institutional church makes responses that may or may not support them.
As noted above, Sister Thorn embraces the standard elements of material culture and social history to offer an objective account of her environment, but is likewise attentive to the subjective factors (of which religious faith is but one) that are involved in the construction of personal and group identities. Hence, the methods of social history did not seem to offer enough to understand Margaret’s desire for visits from Jesus, redemption from demons, and physical manifestations of the crucifixion. As Schultz notes, at the macro-level I try to prod scholars to think about how “the supernatural” figures in U.S. Catholicism, and about the tension between modern and anti-modern ideals, between Catholic assimilation and otherness. But in examining the subjective elements of Sister Thorn’s story, what tools can best help us to understand such an unusual individual and her followers, who shared their belief in apparitions, bleeding wounds, and miraculous healings?
Chapter 4 on the scientific study of stigmata was the most challenging in this regard. As it went through various iterations, I was determined to explore the subjective side of religious identity, including the motivations behind the desire for mystical experience, as well as the desire of persons to [End Page 134] witness it in charismatic figures. The chapter attempts to explain the mystical phenomena reported by Margaret Reilly, to utilize the medical knowledge and psychoanalytic theory that was emerging...