by Hubert Wolf
Knopf, 2015, 496 pages.
Protestant literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries abounded with “convent escape narratives,” first-hand accounts of abuse and debauchery in Roman Catholic convents as reported by ex-nuns. Naturally, the veracity of these reports was attacked by Catholic apologists who dismissed the books as “Puritan pornography.” Now we have “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by award-winning German historian, Hubert Wolf. From the archives of the Office of the Holy Inquisition, opened for the first time to scholars only as recently as 1998, Wolf gives us this tale of fraudulent mysticism, struggle for power, lesbianism, fornication, and murder all within the walls of this single Rome convent in the 1850s.
It’s ironic that the sheer vileness of what transpired in this convent from the pages of official Catholic sources far eclipses those Victorian-age, blushingly restrained and inexplicit Protestant accounts. Perhaps even more interesting than the nuns’ tawdry behavior is how the scandal was used as a pawn by competing factions within the Catholic church at the time; Dominicans vs. Jesuits, Modernists vs. New Scholastics. A few reviewers gave this book low grades complaining it was too dry. Perhaps from the title they were hoping for something a bit more bawdy? Quite the contrary, I found “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio” to be an extremely well-written, well-researched history. Very rare is a history book that presents such a complex subject in such a readable, illuminating fashion.
Traditionalist Catholics may be offended by the revelations of what transpired behind the convent walls of Sant’Ambrogio and by the subsequent political machinations both inside and outside of the Vatican. There’s no doubt that similar diabolical debaucheries took place in countless other Catholic convents and rectories (and bishops’ palaces and at the Vatican) throughout the ages fueled by the church’s unnatural rule of celibacy for its clergy. Reports of pedophile priests abusing children have been in the headlines for the last twenty years.
After Christianity was adopted as the state religion by the Roman Empire the church quickly became institutionalized and “faith” for most of its members meant adherence to religious ritual and legalism. In general, Catholics are taught salvation is through the administration of the seven sacraments, all tightly controlled by the clergy, and by obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules. Asceticism became the rule for many of the religious orders leading to expressions of fanatical mysticism of the type exhibited by the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio. In contrast, God’s Word tells us salvation is only by the grace of God through simple faith in Jesus Christ.
Below are some of the previously mentioned Protestant accounts of convent abuse. Most are available through Amazon.com as reprints.
* Six Months in a Convent, or the Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed, Who Was Under the Influence of the Roman Catholics About Two Years, and an Inmate … Nearly Six Months, in the Years 1831-2 (1835) by Rebecca Theresa Reed
* The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal (1836) by Maria Monk
* The testimony of an escaped novice from the Sisterhood of St. Joseph, Emmettsburg, Maryland: the mother-house of the Sisters of charity in the United States (1855) by Josephine M. Bunkley
* Life in the Grey Nunnery at Montreal: An authentic narrative of the horrors, mysteries, and cruelties of convent life by Sarah J. Richardson, an escaped nun (1857) by Sarah J. Richardson
* Personal Experience of Roman Catholicism with Incidents of Convent Life (1864) by Eliza Smith Richardson
* The Mysteries of the Neapolitan Convents: With a Brief Sketch of the Early Life of the Authoress (1867) by Enrichetta Caracciolo
* Almost a Nun (1868) by Julia McNair Wright
* The Convent Horror: Twenty-one Years in the Dungeon, Eight Feet Long, Six Feet Wide from Official Records (1869) by Barbara Ubryk
* The Veil Lifted or The Romance and Reality of Convent Life (1869) by Eliza Smith Richardson
* The Way Out; or, Rescued from a Convent (1877) by Justin D. Fulton
* My life in the convent: Or, the marvelous personal experiences of Margaret L. Shepherd, consecrated penitent of the Arno’s Court Convent, Bristol, England (1892) by Margaret Lisle Shepherd
* Convent Cruelties: Or How Girls Become the Brides of Christ (1912) by Henry A. Sullivan
* Behind Convent Bars (1912) by William Lloyd Clark
* Convent Life Unveiled: The Trials and Persecutions of Edith O’Gorman (otherwise known as Sister Theresa de Chantal) (1913) by Edith O’Gorman
* The Escaped Nun: The Story of Her Life (1913) by Margaret Mary Moult
* The Martryr in Black – The Saddest Bride on Earth: Twenty Years of Convent Life of “Sister Justina, O.S.B.” (1913) by Anna M. Lowry
* Rome’s Awful Persecutions of Anna M. Lowry (1914) by Anna M. Lowry
* Convent cruelties, or, My life in a convent: A providential delivery from Rome’s convent slave pens; a sensational experience (1919) by Helen Barnouski Jackson
* My Convent Life (1928) by Flora Tillman
* Convent Secrets or An Autobiography of a Former Nun (1932) by Gertrude Frances Healy
* Forgotten Women in Convents (1946) by Helen Conroy (Sister Mary Ethel)
More recent books which detail convent abuse:
* The Light in the Window (2005) by June Goulding
* Rock Me Gently: A True Story of a Convent Childhood (2006) by Judith Kelly
* Childhood Interrupted: Growing Up Under the Cruel Regime of the Sisters of Mercy (2006) by Kathleen O’Malley
* Suffer the Little Children: The Harrowing True Story of a Girl’s Brutal Convent Upbringing (2010) by Frances Reilly
* Children of the Poor Clares: The Collusion between Church and State that Betrayed Thousands of Children in Ireland’s Industrial Schools (2012) by Heather Laskey and Mavis Arnold