Paula M. KANE. Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.  pp314. $39.95 hardback.  ISBN 978-1-4696-0760-3. Reviewed by Patricia WITTBERG, Sociology Department, IUPUI 425 University Blvd. Indianapolis, IN  46202.

To read Sister Thorn in 2014 is to be made sharply aware of how very much America Catholic culture today has changed from the immigrant Catholicism in which Margaret Reilly, a daughter of Irish immigrants to New York City, lived, and which supported her claim to have received the stigmata almost a century ago.  More than a simple account of Margaret’s reception of the wounds of Christ, the emergence of a bloody crucifix above her heart and on the wall of her convent bedroom, or the messages she reported receiving from Jesus and Mary, Dr. Kane’s book attempts to place these events in the broader context of an American Catholicism that may appear quite alien to contemporary readers.

The first chapter gives a bare-bones outline of the details of Margaret Reilly’s family background and her life prior to entering the Religious of the Good Shepherd in 1921 at the age of 37.  Chapter 2 provides a history and description of the Good Shepherd sisters, a congregation of active sisters founded in France in 1835 to care for juvenile delinquents and “fallen” women.  In spite of its French origin, the sisters in the Manhattan and Peekskill houses were uniformly first or second-generation Irish or Irish-American sisters.  They included several different “classes” of members: cloistered, contemplative “choir” sisters, lay sisters who cared for the residents, and extern sisters who dealt with outsiders.  A fourth group, the Magdalas, were reformed former inmates who lived with the sisters as religious but, because of their past lives were not permitted to take religious vows.  It is in this second chapter that the doubts of some of the sisters about Margaret’s veracity are first reported.

The remaining five chapters place Margaret’s (now Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns) experience in a larger social, psychological, and historical context.  Chapter 3 traces the backgrounds and motivations of those who supported her story, showing how the Catholic hierarchy used cases of mystical experience to refute the scientific positivism that was becoming prevalent in the larger culture, while simultaneously solicitous to “tame” the charisma of these visionaries (who were primarily female) and place it under clerical control.  Chapter 4 unpacks the claim of Church authorities that reported mystical experiences are scientifically studied before being certified as beyond scientific explanation, showing that, in fact, the insights of the sciences were inconsistently applied and often to the detriment of the female mystics, whom both the Church and the scientific authorities dismissed as being by nature weak and prone to hysteria.  The insights of psychology, especially, were ignore, since the Church leaders of that time were intensely suspicious of the discipline.

Chapter 5 describes the development of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a favorite of Sister Thorn and her following, showing how its meaning changed over time and from country to country.  Chapter 6 explores the lives of other mystics and stigmatics who lived contemporaneously with sister Thorn in various counties of Europe, questioning why the progress of the cause toward sainthood stalled for some and not for others.  Chapter 7 and the Conclusion point out that Sister Thorn and her devotes lived at a time when Catholicism in the United States was changing and adapting as the children and grandchildren of the immigrants entered the middle class and no longer place as much emphasis on the kinds of manifestations which had so impressed the first generation, whose European cultural memories were still fresh.

Sister Thorn is an impressive work of scholarship, combining historical research under especially trying circumstances (the Good Shepherd sisters had made an attempt to erase her memory), with Weber’s sociology of religious virtuosity and charisma, and with psychological insights on post-traumatic stress and manufactured memories.  While a little dry in places, it is well worth the effort to read.