September 12, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible saints: Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio

John F. Fink(Sixteenth in a series of columns)

There’s an Indiana connection to Venerable Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio because she spent her last years, and died, in Evansville. Her life was one of perseverance in a land where the vocation of contemplative nuns wasn’t appreciated.

Mary Magdalen and her sister, Constanza, were Poor Clare Sisters of the Primitive Observance of San Damiano in Italy when they were selected in 1875 to establish a cloister in the United States.

Pope Pius IX requested the order’s expansion to the United States, and a Franciscan order in Minnesota asked for their presence. Before they left, Sister Mary Magdalen was named abbess and from then on was known as Mother Magdalen.

When they arrived in New York, though, they received a message that the Franciscans in Minnesota were expecting teaching sisters, not cloistered nuns.

Mother Magdalen went to see Cardinal John McCloskey, who wasn’t interested in having contemplative sisters, telling them that “their form of life was contrary to the spirit of the country.” They tried Philadelphia, where Archbishop James Wood initially welcomed them. Two months later, though, influenced by Cardinal McCloskey, he withdrew his approval.

They moved on to Cincinnati, but were rejected there, too, this time by Archbishop John Purcell.

As Franciscan Father Pius J. Barth wrote in a chapter about Mother Magdalen in Joseph Tylanda’s book, Portraits in American Sanctity, the bishops in those dioceses “sought to recruit these cultured ladies as teachers, nurses, social workers and catechists, but these ministries were not part of the vocation of a Poor Clare.”

Finally, Archbishop Napoleon Perche of New Orleans invited the sisters there. They arrived in March 1877, and their first postulant joined them. But then the Franciscan provincial who had been delegated authority over Mother Magdalen arrived and ordered the sisters to leave New Orleans because they were too far from other Franciscan houses. He suggested Cleveland so the three sisters moved there in August 1877. Their convent was a converted cigar factory.

In January 1878, Carmelite Sisters from the Netherlands joined them. But the two communities didn’t mix well, and the three Poor Clares returned to New Orleans. Then the vicar apostolic of Omaha, James O’Connor, invited them to Omaha, where the Creighton family offered them a home. They moved into their monastery in 1882, and soon other postulants and sisters from an active religious community joined them.

In 1888, Mother Magdalen and Sister Constanza were denounced by an emotionally unstable sister as guilty of irregular personal conduct, alcoholic intemperance, financial mismanagement and acting without due deference to the bishop. There followed a 19-month ordeal that included three trials, in all of which the sisters were found innocent, plus a formal investigation ordered by the Vatican before all charges were dropped.

When the Monastery of St. Clare developed in Evansville, Mother Magdalen and three other sisters went there.

It was a difficult time for the sisters, who were literally living for a time on bread and water. In 1902, Sister Constanza died. Mother Magdalen died in 1905 at age 71.†

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