Cover image for 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
Wolf, Hubert.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Nonnen von Sant'Ambrogio. English
First United States Edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Physical Description:
xii, 476 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
"Such turpitudes" -- "The 'delicatezza' of the matter as such" -- "I am the little lion of my reformed sisters" -- "Wash me well, for the Padre is coming" -- "An act of divine splendor" -- "It is a heavenly liquor" -- "That good Padre has spoiled the work of God" -- "During these acts I never ceased my inner prayer" -- "Sorrowful and contrite".
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BX4220.I8 W6513 2015 Adult Non-Fiction New Materials
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A true, never-before-told story--discovered in a secret Vatican archive--of sex, poison, and lesbian initiation rites in a nineteenth-century convent.

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 was being abused and feared for her life. What the subsequent investigation by the Church's Inquisition uncovered were the extraordinary secrets of Sant'Ambrogio and the illicit behavior of the convent's beautiful young mistress, Maria Luisa. Having convinced those under her charge that she was having regular visions and heavenly visitations, Maria Luisa began to lead and coerce her novices into lesbian initiation rites and heresies. She entered into a highly eroticized relationship with a young theologian known as Padre Peters--urging him to dispense upon her, in the privacy and sanctity of the confessional box, what the two of them referred to as the "special blessing."

What emerges through the fog of centuries is a sex scandal of ecclesiastical significance, skillfully brought to light and vividly reconstructed in scholarly detail. Offering a broad historical background on female mystics and the cult of the Virgin Mary, and drawing on written testimony and original documents, Professor Wolf--Germany's leading scholar of the Catholic Church, and among the very first scholars to be granted access to the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the office of the Inquisition--tells the incredible story of how one woman was able to perpetrate deception, heresy, seduction, and murder in the heart of the Church itself.

Author Notes

HUBERT WOLF, born in 1959, is a professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Muenster, Germany. He was honored with the Leibnizpreis of the German Science Society (DFG), the Communicator Prize, and the Gutenberg Prize, and he was a fellow at the historical society in Munich.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

This book focuses on the imprisonment of a German princess by a Catholic convent in Rome in the 1850s, exploring the intersection of politics, religion, sexuality, and a changing modern world. Wolf provides a vivid discussion of the events and the larger implications for Catholicism, Italy, and the world beyond, by delving into the history books, journal entries, church documents, and other sources that he weaves together in a captivating narrative. Boehmer's performance of the audio edition is nothing short of fantastic. He executes his typical lilting rhythmic delivery, with almost hypnotic results that keep the listener engaged. Most impressive is his pronunciation of foreign languages, jumping from English to Italian to German, pronouncing long and complicated phrases without missing a beat and keeping the narration engaging. A Knopf hardcover. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Choice Review

A priest and an accomplished ecclesiastical historian, Wolf (Univ. of Münster, Germany) had the appropriate credentials to gain access to records of the Holy Office (or Inquisition) in the Vatican Archives when they were opened for research in 1998. Wolf located the extensive records of the case on which his book is based in a hallway, where they were unexpectedly shelved. He carefully analyzed the records and then incorporated them in this insightful, remarkable cultural history of 19th-century Catholicism. The convent scandal that serves as the pivot and point of departure for the book involved both heretical beliefs and immoral activities. What makes the book significant and of lasting importance, however, is Wolf's contextualization of the scandal. He carefully describes the lines of authority in the church hierarchy, the institutional structure and juridical practices of the Inquisition, popular Catholic beliefs that involved mysticism and the Virgin Mary, and the politics generated by competing individuals who were close to the pope and by various religious orders--with special attention to the Jesuits and Dominicans--in the context of the Napoleonic wars and rise of modern European nation-states. This is a brilliant piece of work! Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers. --Gene R. Thursby, emeritus, University of Florida

Booklist Review

As if the current controversies brewing in the Roman Catholic Church aren't enough, a church historian reaches back in time, unearthing a religious scandal of epic proportions. When German princess Katharina Von Hohenzollern joined the convent of Sant'Ambrogio in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century, she became privy to the convent's salacious secrets, including heresy, sexual abuse, and bizarre lesbian initiation rituals. Eventually perceived as a threat by other convent members, especially Maria Luisa, the convent's beautiful but deranged mistress of novices, she became a target for murder. After surviving several poisoning attempts, she made her escape with the assistance of her cousin, the bishop of Edessa and a confidant of Pope Pius IX. In this meticulously researched account, Wolf unravels the case, the ecclesiastical inquiry, and the aftermath of this disgraceful episode. Religion, sex, and politics reader interest should be high.--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2010 Booklist

Library Journal Review

In 1862, following an accusation of criminal acts and an extensive trial, an enclosed religious community located in Rome was quietly dissolved; its inhabitants dispersed and disgraced, its memory effectively erased from church history. The events leading up to this damnatio memoriae were extreme and included deception, heresy, wayward nuns, tainted priests, theft, and murder. Hidden deep in the Inquisition files of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until found by the author, the scandal of Sant'Ambrogio has all the ingredients of lurid sensationalism. Wolf (church theology, Univ. of Munster; Pope and Devil) thoughtfully does not take the "erotic adventures behind convent walls" route. Instead he draws from primary source documents to present a meticulously researched and documented history that provides an explanation for how and why the myriad abuses occurred. Wolf's background information and discussions of the intricacies of 19th-century religious, political, and judicial Roman Catholicism are, somewhat surprisingly, as intriguing as the scandal itself. The result is an unusual volume that is both scholarly and readable. VERDICT An astonishing piece of forgotten history, told from a research-intensive point of view. Recommended for academic and public library collections. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]-Linda Frederiksen, Washington State Univ. Lib., Vancouver (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal by Hubert Wolf All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Dramatis Personaep. xi
Prologue: "Save, Save Me!"p. 3
Chapter 1 "Such Turpitudes": Katharina von Hohenzollern Complains to the Inquisitionp. 7
Rome as a Heavenly Jerusalemp. 7
A Road-to-Damascus Experience and Its Consequencesp. 11
A Roman Cloistered Idyllp. 17
Salvation from a Cloistered Hellp. 21
Denunciation as a Moral Dutyp. 23
The Secret of Sant'Ambrogiop. 25
A Possessed Seducer of Nunsp. 27
A False Saintp. 29
Poisoningp. 33
The Savior's Perspectivep. 40
Chapter 2 "The 'Delicatezza' of the Matter as Such": Extrajudicial Preliminary Investigationsp. 46
Irformal Questioningp. 46
The Outcast's Testimonyp. 50
Two Nuns in a Bedp. 55
Unchastity and Sodomyp. 58
A Dominican Wants the Detailsp. 61
Many Convincing Proofsp. 64
An Inquisition Trial After Allp. 67
The Inquisition Tribunal: Processes and Protagonistsp. 70
The Sources from the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithp. 75
Chapter 3 "I Am the Little Lion of My Reformed Sisters": The Informative Process and the Devotees of the Mother Founderp. 81
The Convent of Sant'Ambrogio della Massimap. 82
Franciscans of the Third Orderp. 83
Agnese Firrao is Venerated as a Saintp. 88
Agnese Firrao Is Accused of False Holinessp. 92
The Inquisition's 1816 Verdictp. 94
The Miraculous Conversion of Leo XIIp. 98
True and False Holinessp. 102
Proof of the Continuing Cult of Firraop. 107
The Secret Abbessp. 110
Relicsp. 112
Inspired Textsp. 115
A "Mother Confessor"p. 117
The Confessors Proclaim the False Cultp. 118
Chapter 4 "Wash Me Well, for the Padre Is Coming": The Madre Vicaria's Pretense of Holinessp. 121
Visions on the Road to Powerp. 121
Mysticismp. 126
The Earthly Origins of Heavenly Rings and the Scent of Rosesp. 130
Letters from the Mother of Godp. 136
The Marian Centuryp. 142
Forging Letters from the Virginp. 146
Pastoral Care in Bedp. 153
Lesbian Intimacies in a Convent Cellp. 158
The Sant'Ambrogio Systemp. 162
Chapter 5 "An Act of Divine Splendor": Murder on the Orders of the Virginp. 166
The Americano and His Obscene Letterp. 166
The Cord Around Katharina's Neckp. 170
Heavenly Letters Foretell Katharina's Murderp. 173
The Dramaturgy of a Poisoningp. 176
"It Was Most Certainly the Devil'p. 193
More Murdersp. 198
Pennies from Heavenp. 203
The Confessors as Confidants and Accomplicesp. 205
The Results of the Informative Processp. 207
Chapter 6 "It Is a Heavenly Liquor": The Offensive Process and the Interrogation of the Madre Vicariap. 210
"I Always Wanted to Become a Nun"p. 210
The Story of an Innocent Lambp. 213
Evidence and First Confessionsp. 222
Maria Luisa and Her Novicesp. 224
Sexual Abusep. 226
Jesuit Confessors and Their Very Special Blessingp. 233
The Confessors Affair with Alessandra N.p. 237
Maria Luisa and Padre Peters: Blessing or Bedding?p. 240
"My Only Defense Is Jesus Christ"p. 244
Chapter 7 "That Good Padre Has Spoiled the Work of God": The Interrogations of the "Father Confessor and the Abbessp. 250
Giuseppe Leziroli: A Confessor Before the Courtp. 250
The Apostle of Saint Agnese Firraop. 252
The Confessor and "Saint" Maria Luisap. 256
Leziroli and the Poisoningsp. 260
Maria Veronica Milza: An Abbess Before the Courtp. 262
Confessionsp. 267
Chapter 8 "During These Acts I Never Ceased My Inner Prayer": The Interrogation of Giuseppe Petersp. 271
Padre Peters's True identityp. 271
The Defendants Spontaneous Admissionsp. 278
A Cardinal Breaks the Secret of the Holy Officep. 288
And After All, the Cult of Firrao Was Permittedp. 291
Theology and French Kissingp. 297
New Scholastic Convolutionsp. 305
The Court's Final Propositionp. 309
A Proxy War?p. 312
Chapter 9 "Sorrowful and Contrite": The Verdict and Its Consequencesp. 320
Consultors, Cardinals, Pope: The Verdictp. 320
Internal Abjurations and External Secrecyp. 326
A Founder Instead of a Nunp. 331
A Cardinal's Poison Paranoiap. 337
Friends in High Placesp. 342
A Saint in the Madhousep. 345
A Heretic Writes Dogmap. 351
Epilogue: The Secret of Sant'Ambrogio as Judged by Historyp. 363
Acknowledgmentsp. 373
Notesp. 377
Sources and Literaturep. 449
Illustration Creditsp. 467
Indexp. 469