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Believers make a pilgrimage to Massachusetts, where a young woman has lain in a coma for 15 years. In the ’20s, similar treks were made to a New York convent, where Margaret Reilly had a thriving devotional cult. Catholic historian Paula Kane examines this phenomenon and how religion is lived.

On the Trail of Miracles

Sally Ann Flecker

Fifteen years ago, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a curious 3-year-old found her way to the backyard swimming pool. Her family had just returned from Sunday Mass, and the children had gone outside to play. By the time the family realized that their youngest hadn’t come back inside with the rest, it was too late.

Her brain and heart and lungs had been deprived of oxygen far too long for her to come back to herself, to laugh and chatter and scoot around like she used to.

But there was something about Audrey Santo that moved people deeply. When her mother refused to turn off the machine that kept her breathing and, later, chose to bring the child back home to be cared for, there was no end to family, friends, and people in the community who showed up to help.

Now a young woman, Audrey lies immobile in bed, cushioned by lacy white pillows. The ventilator and feeding tube that sustain her life are hard to notice amid the clutter of religious paintings, statues, and memorabilia from shrines around the world. Her long brown hair flows out in waves over frilly bed coverings. She is on display like Snow White. She can’t move, can’t speak. Only her open eyes move, restlessly darting back and forth, back and forth, like a radio trying to pick up some kind of signal.

Despite her apparent lack of consciousness, people claim Audrey has healing powers. A teenage boy, told he would never walk again without crutches, suddenly finds he can do so when his mother is across town visiting Audrey. There are other mysteries—icons weeping oil, communion wafers bearing smears of blood, even a rumor that Audrey bore the Christ-like marks of stigmata.

Modern-day pilgrims, looking for a sign, a blessing, a cure, keep arriving to see Audrey. Her family has converted their garage into a chapel. The self-proclaimed Apostolate of the Silent One now runs interference between the clamoring public and the Santo family, scheduling visiting days, managing the lengthy waiting list of those who wish to stream past the interior bedroom window, and continuing to spread the word through newsletters and e-mail.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Paula Kane’s long, library-esque office is the chair. Kane, who sits in the John C. Jr. and Lucine O’Brien Marous Chair in Contemporary Catholic Studies in Pitt’s Department of Religious Studies, can literally sit in the Marous chair, a finely crafted and hand-painted wooden chair—though she doesn’t very often. The chair is more an object of great beauty than of great comfort.

Kane, who studies and writes about American religion and Catholicism in addition to teaching at Pitt, measures up every bit to the distinction of the Marous Chair. She’s at the forefront of a new generation of Catholic scholars who are looking at the intersection of religion and culture, paying attention for the first time to popular religion—how people actually live their religion. And in Audrey Santo’s story, there is much for Kane to see.

Believers call Audrey a “victim soul,” an expression with a Twilight Zone quality. When Kane first heard Audrey described in such a way, she snapped to attention. The term, seldom invoked today, dovetailed with Kane’s research on the history of stigmata in modern Catholicism. She was spending a lot of time in convent and monastic archives, reading 18th-and 19th-century narratives of stigmatists when she noticed the phrase “victim soul” again and again. “I was finding that many of the Catholics who’ve experienced stigmata in the last two centuries have been called ‘victim souls,’” she says. “I became curious. What was a ‘victim soul’?”

What Kane had stumbled onto was a dark vein of Catholic spirituality that encouraged the pious—especially women, it seemed—to undergo extraordinary suffering to atone for the sins of the world. Victim spirituality flourished around the turn of the last century and then again in the period between the two world wars. “I suspect that the term really had a lot of currency because people were trying to find a way to respond to the massive scale of human misery caused by the world wars,” Kane says. Some ‘victim souls’ reportedly endured terrible chronic pain, including stigmata or debilitating physical handicaps. For others, the suffering was self-inflicted: They starved themselves cruelly or cut and burned their own flesh, offering their pain for the salvation of others.

“To become a ‘victim soul’ was thought to be the destiny of a very few chosen people. It was a title of great esteem,” says Kane. “God had chosen you to suffer in this way through the remarkable episodes of bleeding or the fact that you were able, presumably, to cure other people of their ailments by taking them on yourself.” Kane became intrigued. “It sounds like a fairly repellent thing—that you’re always ill and in pain,” she says. “And yet the circle of people surrounding all of these victim souls and stigmatic saints seemed to find very deep connections to the image of Christ in it. It seemed to articulate a whole culture of suffering, to answer human suffering in a different way than we do now because we’ve medicalized a lot of it. This was very much a spiritual way of understanding suffering.”

That Audrey Santo is being called a ‘victim soul’ shows the practice still, surprisingly, has some cachet today, though Kane would argue that Audrey doesn’t fit the bill. “I think it would be dangerous to consider a person who has no cognitive consciousness to be nothing but this battery pack for divine power,” she says.

The Bishop of Worcester, Daniel P. Reilly, also reserves judgment. In a statement on the miraculous claims, he notes, “More systematic study must be done before the Church can even begin to evaluate the concept of ‘victim soul,’ which has been applied to Audrey. We must proceed quite cautiously here, since this term is not commonly used by the Church except for Christ himself, who became the victim for our sins and transgressions on the cross.”

The case of little Audrey resonated with Kane for personal reasons. Kane had spent considerable time in Worcester, first as a college student at College of the Holy Cross and, later, when she returned to teach at Clark University. (These days, she makes trips back to Worcester to sit on the board of trustees at her alma mater.) Even more, she was a member of the same parish as the Santo family—an affluent church in a modest neighborhood, she remembers.

In contrast to her scholarship about earlier forms and expressions of spirituality, Kane’s experience as a Catholic was colored by the excitement of the reforms coming out of Vatican II in the early ’60s. Her family was actively involved in liturgical reform and social activism in the Washington, DC, area. Kane recalls herself as a 3-year-old activist, laughing at a childhood memory of going around to grocery stores with her mother to hang “Boycott Non-union Grapes” signs in support of César Chavez’s and Delores Huerta’s efforts to unionize California migrant workers. Later, her family was part of what Kane calls “a fabulous experimental community” that celebrated Mass in a middle school, bringing everything needed with them each week, including home-baked bread, in an attempt to recreate the sense of community experienced by the Apostles.

Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Kane became accustomed to seeing priests or a bishop in her living room, sitting with her parents when she or one of the other Kane kids was in piano or ballet recitals. Her father, a professor of philosophy and medieval studies, worked for the US consortium of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities. (Kane’s mother was a professor of British and American literature who became director of a national Catholic women’s organization.) “We always had a lot of fabulous scholars and preachers and interesting folks passing through our house,” Kane remembers. Kane soaked up the enthusiasm of the times, invigorated by the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual chemistry. “These were all very positive instances for me of the connection between religion and politics and the fact that your Christianity should make a difference in how you think about change,” she says. “The culture you receive doesn’t have to be the way it is. There are ways to concretely make it better in this life, not just wait for the life to come.”

Despite the large part that Catholicism played in her growing up, Kane didn’t expect to devote so much of her career to Catholic history. In fact, she hadn’t expected to become a historian at all. As a young child, she had wanted to become a concert pianist. Stage fright and small hands made her rethink her calling—perhaps musicology rather than performance, she thought. Her interest in American history was sparked by a senior thesis on the growth of popular Protestant hymns in the early 19th century that straddled the line between music and history. When it was time to decide on graduate school, she bypassed the conservatory or musicology route, settling on Yale’s American studies program.

“Because it was American studies as opposed to just history,” Kane says, “I was given free rein to explore a lot of different dimensions in American culture. And I found that it was the religious questions and the social questions that interested me the most.” When it came time to choose her dissertation topic, she broke rank with Yale’s historic origins in Protestant America, choosing to look at the less-studied American Catholic experience.

Kane set out to write a history of Catholicism in Boston in the early 20th century, which would become her groundbreaking first book, Separatism and Subculture. It looked at the emergence of an Irish-Catholic middle class in Boston and the place of women in that subculture. It made a name for Kane.

“Paula is one of the prophetic voices in our field,” says Debra Campbell, professor of religious studies at Colby College. “Her first book got people to see interdisciplinary aspects of Boston Catholic culture and class as a factor in understanding American Catholicism. It got people to see things and ask questions that they didn’t even know to ask until she wrote the book.”

“Paula’s interested in the explosive intersection of American Catholicism and American culture,” says Robert Orsi, Harvard’s Charles Warren Professor of American Religious History and the author of two widely acclaimed books, The Madonna of 115th Street and Thank You St. Jude, both examining modern-day religious practices. “She’s fearless in the subjects she takes on,” says Orsi. “For example, she’s working on something now that I never would have gone near.”

It was Kane’s research on stigmata that led her to look into the victim soul movement. Her article on victim souls was published earlier this year in the journal Church History and has received much acclaim. She describes the victim souls research, which includes Audrey Santo’s story, as a stigmata “footnote that grew and grew.”

The stigmata project came about almost by serendipity. Kane was working in the Notre Dame archives, finishing up the footnotes for Separatism and Subculture. The archivist, showing Kane the archive’s new online search ability, suggested they try a fake search. She typed in “stigmata” and was surprised when she got a hit—a letter by a priest who was eyewitness to a stigmatic episode in 1922 of a woman named Margaret Reilly in New York. “It was six or eight pages of the strangest thing ever,” recalls Kane. “And I thought, ‘I want to track this down.’ I was attracted by the strangeness of this man’s experience and prose. I didn’t know there were American stigmatics—because it’s not something that’s a part of American piety at all.”

Reilly, Kane gradually discovered, became the center of a thriving devotional cult—not unlike the one that’s sprung up around Audrey Santo—until the archbishop of New York ordered the New York convent sheltering Reilly to put a halt to pilgrimages.

“People aren’t supposed to make pilgrimages to living persons,” says Kane. “So nobody was to interview her. People were lining up around this convent to see her, to be blessed by her. He forbade all that activity. It still continued, but he did forbid it.” In the mid-1990s, when Kane called the Good Shepherd Sisters on a long shot to see if anyone knew anything about Margaret Reilly, the nuns were stunned to hear her speak the name.

The story Kane has painstakingly pieced together is that of an Irish-American girl who grew up in the late 1800s in New York’s Upper East Side. She desperately wanted to become a nun. While on a spiritual retreat at the Convent of the Good Shepherd Sisters, she supposedly displayed stigmata. The sisters were unsure if she was a fraud. Although Reilly eventually became a sister of the convent, the sisters remained wary of stigmata.

“Did she really have that bleeding crucifix,” Kane wonders, “or was it something that she made or tattooed or carved on her own skin?” In her research, Kane has discovered many 19th-century reports of fraudulent stigmata. “Women, particularly, were able to devise the marks using their knitting needles and sharp sewing implements,” she says.

Kane’s case study of Margaret Reilly and her research into stigmata are still a work in progress, and she hasn’t yet concluded whether Reilly was the real thing or a fraud. Regardless of Reilly’s authenticity, Kane looks at her as a “religious virtuoso,” the product of a culture that did—and in the case of Audrey Santo still does—value spiritual heroes.

Sally Ann Flecker is a freelance writer, and former editor in chief of this magazine.


Perhaps no department in a secular university stands more chance of being misunderstood than a religious studies department. It’s easy to see why. The folks in the mathematics department practice math; the chemists practice chemistry. So the people in religious studies practice religion, right?

Not quite. A stroll around the 26th floor of the Cathedral of Learning won’t lead you past the offices of ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams. But what you will find are scholars—in Pitt’s case, scholars of history, philosophy, and ritual studies in Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism.

“We’re a bunch of free-floating entities,” says Director of Undergraduate Studies Alexander Orbach. “We look at religion in a detached, critical, scholarly fashion.” Through their teaching and writing, they are working to deepen our knowledge and understanding of what religion has to do with how a culture and its people are shaped.

And if you don’t think that’s important, take a look at what’s going on in our world. Religion today is a reason to attack someone else, whether it’s to throw a stone, implode an airplane, or try to monopolize airwaves. It’s as much tied to politics and power as it was in the days of the pharaohs or the Roman Empire.

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