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One day in 1917, while cooking dinner at home in Manhattan, Margaret Reilly felt a sharp pain over her heart and claimed to see a crucifix emerging in blood on her skin. Four years later Reilly entered the convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Peekskill, New York, where, known as Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns, she spent most of her life gravely ill and possibly exhibiting Christ’s wounds. In this portrait of Sister Thorn, Paula M. Kane scrutinizes the responses to this American stigmatic’s experiences and illustrates the surprising presence of mystical phenomena in twentieth-century American Catholicism.

Drawing on accounts by clerical authorities, ordinary Catholics, doctors, and journalists—as well as on medicine, anthropology, and gender studies—Kane explores American Catholic mysticism, setting it in the context of life after World War I and showing the war’s impact on American Christianity. Sister Thorn’s life, she reveals, marks the beginning of a transition among Catholics from a devotional, Old World piety to a newly confident role in American society.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “This brilliantly researched and told story of ‘a failed saint and possibly a false stigmatic’ is at the same time a revealing study of how American Catholics in the twentieth century lived their everyday lives in close proximity to the supernatural…Reading Sister Thorn, I was repeatedly gripped by the sense that nothing about American Catholicism would ever look the same again.”

    Robert Orsi, Northwestern University

  • “Riveting. Kane’s compelling narrative uses the story of a stigmatic nun to illuminate broader themes of convent culture, authority and resistance, and religion and science.”

    Kathleen Sprows Cummings, University of Notre Dame

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About the Author

Paula M. Kane is associate professor and John and Lucine O’Brien Marous Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism, 1900–1920.