The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal

The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal

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Overview

A Washington Post Notable Book

In 1858, a German princess, recently inducted into the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome, wrote a frantic letter to her cousin, a confidant of the Pope, claiming that she feared for her life. A subsequent investigation by the Church’s Inquisition uncovered the shocking secrets of a convent ruled by a beautiful young mistress, who coerced her novices into lesbian initiation rites and heresies, and who entered into an illicit relationship with a young theologian. Drawing upon written testimony and original documents discovered in a secret Vatican archive, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio is the never-before-told true story of how one woman was able to practice deception, heresy, seduction, and murder in the heart of the Catholic Church.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804169806
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 531,432
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hubert Wolf is the author of Pope and Devil and a professor of religious history at the University of M nster. He was awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in 2003, the Communicator Prize, and the Gutenberg Prize. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1985, and in 1992 he became a professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt.

Paul Boehmer is a seasoned actor who has appeared on Broadway, film, and television, including The Thomas Crown Affair and All My Children. Coinciding with another of his passions, sci-fi, Paul has been cast in various roles in many episodes of Star Trek.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue
 
“Save, Save Me!”
 
“Shortly after eight o’clock on Monday, July 25, the Archbishop of Edessa—sent by the Lord—finally came to me. There was no time for waiting; this was the one and only time to get saved. To him, I had to reveal everything and had to implore him to help me escape the convent as swiftly as possible. It all went well: my prayers were fulfilled, and I was understood.” These dramatic words were set down by Princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen in a com- plaint she submitted to the pope in summer 1859. They were written barely five weeks after her escape from the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome—or rather, after her cousin, Archbishop Gustav Adolf zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, managed to secure her release—and they describe the sensational conclusion to her adventure inside the walls of a Roman Catholic convent. It was an adventure for which she had narrowly avoided paying with her life.
 
She had been humiliated, isolated from her fellow nuns, cut off from the outside world, and—since she was party to the convent secrets and therefore regarded as a danger—somebody had tried to silence her. They had even made several attempts to poison her. At half past three in the afternoon on July 26, 1859, after almost exactly fifteen months, she finally left Sant’Ambrogio della Massima. Her life as Sister Luisa Maria of Saint Joseph, a nun in the Regulated Third Order of Holy Saint Francis in Rome, had begun so promisingly. And now here she was, being saved in the nick of time, rescued from imminent danger of death.
 
In her written complaint, the princess gave her failure as a nun and her thrilling escape from the convent a typically pious interpretation, casting it as salvation by Christ the Lord. This somehow made the experience bearable for her. But the final dramatic episode, and the preceding months she had spent under the constant fear of death, would come to define her whole life. After July 26, 1859, nothing would ever be the same again. Her plight had been genuinely existential: her life really was threatened in Sant’Ambrogio. Even years later, she was still traumatized by the attempts to poison her. This is all brought vividly to life in her Erlebnisse (Experiences), a book written by her close collaborator Christiane Gmeiner in 1870, more than a decade after the terrible events in Rome. According to this auto-biographical source, Katharina had managed to smuggle a letter out of the convent during the night of July 24, 1859. This was handed to Archbishop Hohenlohe in the Vatican.
 
The princess waited in a state of great anxiety until she was called into the parlor at half past seven in the morning. Fearful and almost breathless, the princess hurried downstairs to the archbishop, to whom she called out in great agitation: “save, save me!” At first, he did not understand her, and was almost afraid his cousin had run mad, but by and by she managed to convince him that she was mistress of her senses, and that her fear was not unfounded. Now he understood her pleas to leave the convent, and he promised to do everything in his power to arrange this as soon as possible— though the first appointment he was able to make was not until the following day.
 
The words are Christiane Gmeiner’s, recounting in the third person what the princess had told her in her own words.
 
Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen’s account sounds like a story from the depths of the Middle Ages, and confirms many of the common clichés and prejudices about life in Catholic convents and monasteries. But this story takes place in the modern world of the mid-nineteenth century. And the setting isn’t a secluded mountain convent at the world’s edge, but the center of the capital city of Christianity, little more than half a mile from the Vatican—home to the representative of Jesus Christ on earth.
 
What really happened in Sant’Ambrogio? Were these poisonings simply the fantasy of a highly strung aristocrat, or were they genuine attempts on Katharina’s life? She was a princess of the house of Hohenzollern and a close relative of Wilhelm I, the man who would later become king of Prussia and the German emperor. So how did Katharina come to take her vows in such a strict religious order in the first place—and why in Rome?

Excerpted from The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio by Hubert Wolf. Copyright © 2015 by Hubert Wolf. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae xi

Prologue: "Save, Save Me!" 3

Chapter 1 "Such Turpitudes": Katharina von Hohenzollern Complains to the Inquisition 7

Rome as a Heavenly Jerusalem 7

A Road-to-Damascus Experience and Its Consequences 11

A Roman Cloistered Idyll 17

Salvation from a Cloistered Hell 21

Denunciation as a Moral Duty 23

The Secret of Sant'Ambrogio 25

A Possessed Seducer of Nuns 27

A False Saint 29

Poisoning 33

The Savior's Perspective 40

Chapter 2 "The 'Delicatezza' of the Matter as Such": Extrajudicial Preliminary Investigations 46

Irformal Questioning 46

The Outcast's Testimony 50

Two Nuns in a Bed 55

Unchastity and Sodomy 58

A Dominican Wants the Details 61

Many Convincing Proofs 64

An Inquisition Trial After All 67

The Inquisition Tribunal: Processes and Protagonists 70

The Sources from the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 75

Chapter 3 "I Am the Little Lion of My Reformed Sisters": The Informative Process and the Devotees of the Mother Founder 81

The Convent of Sant'Ambrogio della Massima 82

Franciscans of the Third Order 83

Agnese Firrao is Venerated as a Saint 88

Agnese Firrao Is Accused of False Holiness 92

The Inquisition's 1816 Verdict 94

The Miraculous Conversion of Leo XII 98

True and False Holiness 102

Proof of the Continuing Cult of Firrao 107

The Secret Abbess 110

Relics 112

Inspired Texts 115

A "Mother Confessor" 117

The Confessors Proclaim the False Cult 118

Chapter 4 "Wash Me Well, for the Padre Is Coming": The Madre Vicaria's Pretense of Holiness 121

Visions on the Road to Power 121

Mysticism 126

The Earthly Origins of Heavenly Rings and the Scent of Roses 130

Letters from the Mother of God 136

The Marian Century 142

Forging Letters from the Virgin 146

Pastoral Care in Bed 153

Lesbian Intimacies in a Convent Cell 158

The Sant'Ambrogio System 162

Chapter 5 "An Act of Divine Splendor": Murder on the Orders of the Virgin 166

The Americano and His Obscene Letter 166

The Cord Around Katharina's Neck 170

Heavenly Letters Foretell Katharina's Murder 173

The Dramaturgy of a Poisoning 176

"It Was Most Certainly the Devil' 193

More Murders 198

Pennies from Heaven 203

The Confessors as Confidants and Accomplices 205

The Results of the Informative Process 207

Chapter 6 "It Is a Heavenly Liquor": The Offensive Process and the Interrogation of the Madre Vicaria 210

"I Always Wanted to Become a Nun" 210

The Story of an Innocent Lamb 213

Evidence and First Confessions 222

Maria Luisa and Her Novices 224

Sexual Abuse 226

Jesuit Confessors and Their Very Special Blessing 233

The Confessors Affair with Alessandra N. 237

Maria Luisa and Padre Peters: Blessing or Bedding? 240

"My Only Defense Is Jesus Christ" 244

Chapter 7 "That Good Padre Has Spoiled the Work of God": The Interrogations of the "Father Confessor and the Abbess 250

Giuseppe Leziroli: A Confessor Before the Court 250

The Apostle of Saint Agnese Firrao 252

The Confessor and "Saint" Maria Luisa 256

Leziroli and the Poisonings 260

Maria Veronica Milza: An Abbess Before the Court 262

Confessions 267

Chapter 8 "During These Acts I Never Ceased My Inner Prayer": The Interrogation of Giuseppe Peters 271

Padre Peters's True identity 271

The Defendants Spontaneous Admissions 278

A Cardinal Breaks the Secret of the Holy Office 288

And After All, the Cult of Firrao Was Permitted 291

Theology and French Kissing 297

New Scholastic Convolutions 305

The Court's Final Proposition 309

A Proxy War? 312

Chapter 9 "Sorrowful and Contrite": The Verdict and Its Consequences 320

Consultors, Cardinals, Pope: The Verdict 320

Internal Abjurations and External Secrecy 326

A Founder Instead of a Nun 331

A Cardinal's Poison Paranoia 337

Friends in High Places 342

A Saint in the Madhouse 345

A Heretic Writes Dogma 351

Epilogue: The Secret of Sant'Ambrogio as Judged by History 363

Acknowledgments 373

Notes 377

Sources and Literature 449

Illustration Credits 467

Index 469

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The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Magtrix More than 1 year ago
This is a riveting book, that I couldn't put down until I had finished the last page. A lot of people will say this is Catholic bashing at its worst---lesbian trysts, affairs between nuns and priests, poisonings, and  murder. However, the entire scandal revolves around one charismatic woman who takes advantage of the naivety of her sisters in Christ.  It is tempting to forget this story takes place in 19th century Rome. It has the feel of a 14th century tale. Yet, the 20th century also spills over into the story. How many charismatic people shaped the 20th because no one stopped them? At least sister Marie Louise was found out, and her story of "The devil made me do it" was seen for what it was- just an excuse.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Riveting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Uuu bnhlll
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I never write reviews....it is so bad i had to. Seriously don't waste your money! I abandoned ship after 100 painful pages!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting reading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Erotica a la brown paper wrapping no longer under the counter
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kindle:  $11.99