I must confess: the moment I hear the words “church” and “scandal”, I am immediately interested. There is something ominous, yet totally intriguing about the leviathan that is the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the fact that even in the 21st century, there is so much that believers and non-believers alike don’t know about its traditions and practices. So it’s not really surprising that I chose to review Hubert Wolf’s The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal. According to the publisher, this was a “true, never-before-told story — discovered in a secret Vatican archive – of sex, poison, and lesbian initiation rites in a nineteenth-century convent.”
What I discovered, was a book vastly different from the jacket teaser. The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio is a highly-detailed academic tome (with 70 pages of endnotes), albeit one that should appeal to non-experts with an interest in the Catholic Church and European history. This is definitely not something Dan Brown would write.
The convent in question is Sant’Ambrogio Della Massima in Rome. The scandal took place in the mid-19th century over charges of “false holiness”. Wolf explains in great detail about the Church’s institutional pogrom against those it deemed to be outside the fray of what it considered to be acceptable practices. The book focuses primarily on three women: Katharina von Hohezollern-Sigmaringen, a German princess who joins the convent in 1859, and becomes the whistleblower that brings it down; Sister Maria Luisa, the novice mistress at the convent, in charge of leading all new nuns; and Sister Agnese Firrao, the founder of the convent, venerated as a saint by some, and as a false prophet by others.
Firrao was a controversial figure at the time, whose piety and miraculous cures at the beginning of her time as a nun made her famous, yet also drew skeptics who questioned whether her claims of healing were indeed true. Firrao, according to Wolf, was well known to engage in self-mortification, even going so far as leaving a large stone on her tongue and wearing an iron mask containing over 50 nails, all as penance. However, she was ultimately banished by the pope from the very convent she helped create… or so the Church thought.
Firrao, even after her departure, continued to correspond with the nuns of her convent. Her presence, even in absentia, created an even larger belief that despite the Church’s denial, Sister Agnese Firrao was a saint, and should be treated as such. However, when this was uncovered after Princess Katharina’s departure from the convent and the subsequent investigation, the Church was swift to attack the notion that Firrao could indeed be acting as a “mother confessor” (in persona Christi). Writes Wolf, “Where would it [confession] be if nonordained people and in particular women, were able to dispense divine mercy?”
The other major figure in the scandal was Sister Maria Luisa who, in the words of Cee-lo Green, can only be described as a “closet freak”. If Wolf wasn’t a respected historian and theologian, it would be easy to dismiss the descriptions of her and her actions as erotic gothic fiction of the highest caliber, but the story is true. Sister Maria took her responsibility of training new nuns a little too seriously. She had sex with novice nuns, insisted that her vaginal fluid was a “liquor” that should be shared with other women, and used the fluid on her fingers to then make the sign of the cross. She apparently did battle with the devil, participated in exorcisms, was divinely married to Jesus Christ, constantly exuded the smell of roses, and tried to poison her enemies. She was, for all intents and purposes, a 19th century version of “Darling Nikki”.
Based on the detailed notes from the original Roman Inquisition investigation, long buried in a Vatican archive, Wolf unravels a tale of religious madness and psycho-sexual power trips that is just waiting to be turned into a film by Milos Forman. Indeed, while reading The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, I constantly thought of Sister Maria in terms of the demonic power play by F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Forman’s 1984 classic, Amadeus.
For those readers, including myself, who might otherwise be put off by lack of knowledge about church history, Wolf (as translated by Ruth Martin), does an admirable job of setting the stage, even going so far as to include a “Dramatis Personnae” at the beginning of the book: a three-page list of every character, including Mary (“the mother of Jesus Christ, supernatural manifestation and correspondent”).
Truthfully, I learned more about the Catholic Church from this book than anything I had read previously, including insights on the Sacred Heart (whose worshipers were regarded as a cult), the Roman Inquisition, the College of Cardinals and its divisions, Franciscans, Quietism, Molinism, canonization and sainthood, and a slew of papal leaders (Pius VII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XII).
The real strength of this book is Wolf’s critique of the Catholic Church’s treatment of women, particularly those who went against the stodgy church doctrine of the day. That the author is also an ordained minister and professor of ecclesiastical history only lends support to his claims and detailed dissection of the case. According to Wolf, “It wasn’t unusual for these devout and driven women to be accused of dishonest intentions and heretical tendencies, and for the Church to declare them orthodox only after a long struggle involving humiliation, allegations, condemnation, and incarceration. The Church’s mistrust of Firrao was in line with the Roman Inquisition’s view of nuns and women in general: the daughters of Eve had to subordinate themselves to the male clerical hierarchy.”
Consequently, the power of this book comes from the realization of how much of the Catholic Church’s religious rigidity continues to this day, albeit in different forms. For all of the PR friendliness of Pope Francis, this is the same institution that continues to deny women the right to be ordained, which has led to the creation of groups like the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP), and the “Danube Seven”, seven women who were ordained as priests in 2002 by Romulo Antonio Braschi, but were not recognized as such by the Roman Catholic Church and subsequently excommunicated. After reading The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, it’s hard not to see parallels between the Catholic blacklists of the mid-19th century and the obdurate doctrine of today.