Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio

This will be an unusual entry in this series, but a fascinating tale of runaround, and men thinking they know better than women. When we read of conflicts between bishops and women religious, it’s usually because the clerics want the females stuffed out of sight and into a cloister. Today’s worthy woman, a Poor Clare, wanted to found monasteries in the nineteenth century United States, but most of the bishops she encountered wanted none of that. They wanted their women working in the world, earning their keep.

Anna Maria Bentivoglio was born in Rome in 1834, a twelfth child. She was a mischievous and high-spirited child. As a young woman, she refused offers of marriage, caring for her family after the death of her parents. At that time, the young adult Anna Maria and two unmarried sisters were wards, somewhat, of Pope Pius IX, who valued the service of their late father, a general in the army of the Papal States. The Holy Father passed them to the care of Cardinal Edoardo Borromeo. They were placed in monasteries–I suppose attractive and vivacious young women can’t really live in the palaces of popes and cardinals. There, Anna Maria discerned a vocation to the enclosed life, as did her sisters. A few weeks before her thirtieth birthday, she joined the Poor Clares. Thereafter she was known as Mary Magdalen.

mothermmbA bit more than ten years later, Pope Pius IX appointed Sr Mary Magdalen an abbess for a new foundation to be set up in Minnesota. Her biological sister Constanza was named vicaress. They were switched from the Urbanist Observance to the Primitive Observance, and after some formation time in the south of France, the two were shipped off to the Americas with a Franciscan priest, Paolino de Castellaro, who would serve as a spiritual director and accompany them to the site where the new foundation was planned. And then came the runaround.

  • Upon arrival in New York, Fr Castellaro got cold feet about the trip to Minnesota. (Maybe he heard about the winters there. Or the Lutherans.) He counseled the sisters to go ahead on their own or to remain in New York until he got some confirmation–or a new assignment–from those higher up. The Franciscan minister general also suggested they stay put.
  • Some months later, after more dilly-dallying by Franciscan master control in the States, Archbishop John McCloskey of New York berated the sisters for being a burden on the women religious of his city. He told them that the Poor Clare style was incompatible with American life and suggested they move elsewhere.
  • Likewise in Cincinnati and Philadelphia: rejection slips from prelates who wanted women in the schools and hospitals. Not enclosed in monasteries.
  • A lay woman in New Orleans urged Sr Mary Magdalen to come south, and in Archbishop Napoléon-Joseph Perché, they found a man with a welcome mat. And a cottage in which they could live.
  • But less than a year later, Father Gregory Yanknecht, Minister Provincial, uprooted the sisters and their postulants and ordered them to move to Cleveland.
  • There an attempt was made to integrate four Italian/American women with five sisters from Germany following a different version of the Poor Clare life. (Majority rules, I guess.) That was a predictable disaster, and the minister general intervened, suggesting Sr Mary Magdalen and her women move on.
  • Eventually, they found support from Omaha philanthropist John Creighton, and the bishop in Omaha, James O’Connor, welcomed them to Nebraska.

The great adventure wasn’t over. Bishop O’Connor didn’t have any money. And the philanthropist was busy founding a university that year. (Go figure.) So the sisters were left to beg for support wherever they could find it.

  • Would you believe the monastery was hit by a tornado not once, but twice?
  • Mary Magdalen’s sister Constanza was swindled on one of her fundraising trips?
  • After a journey back to New Orleans to reestablish a foundation there, both sisters returned to Omaha to find out they had been placed under interdict for suspected moral and financial impropriety.

Eventually that last bit was sorted out.

Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio died in 1897, where she was establishing another foundation in Indiana. Her cause for sainthood is active–she’s on the level of “Venerable.” If you ask me, I think a case could be made for “Martyr.”

Read about the Poor Clares in America here. Thirty daughter houses trace their origin to Omaha. The gentle fingers of this tradition now reach to Japan and South Korea, as well as to Latin America. Twenty-two houses are in the US. These sisters number about 300.

I think monastic life is fabulous for women. As long as they choose it. And please, keep the dithering and incompetent men out of it.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio

  1. ” it’s usually because the clerics want the females stuffed out of sight and into a cloister.” not always. It’s a shame what has happened to SOME of the religious orders.

    • Todd says:

      “Shame” in this context may have a meaning. Or it may just be a way of expressing regret. Either way, women in religious communities are adults. They are capable of self-governance according to the prescriptions of their community’s rule. Religious orders come and go, wax and wane according to an openness to the original charism, new charisms, or as needs fade.

      I know very, very few diocesan priests who understand the difference between cloistered and apostolic life, and who know enough to guide women into one or the other. We know they haven’t been doing it for at least two generations.

      Not every problem is really a problem, and not every problem needs fixing.

  2. Todd says:

    Is it true that clergy have misunderstood women religious? That they have tried to control and manipulate women, even to the point of excommunicating them? When Sister MM was put on interdict, nobody even spoke to her before the action was taken. Why was that? Was there nobody to ask, “People think you stole a bunch of money and were having sex with men when you were on your road trip. Can you explain?”

    All I’m doing is point out the unchristian behavior. I think it also sheds light on the current LCWR/CDF tussle, and gives a significant poke to the whole idea behind the Fortnight for Freedom. Women have often been misunderstood by men. I think we can rightly ask: is this just an isolated episode or is it something systemic with Roman Catholic clergy? Clare of Assisi permitted her sisters to be stuffed into cloisters. Three major US archbishops in the mid-1800’s wanted to undo that. Why? Were they ignorant? Power-hungry? Did they want cheap labor?

    And it is true: many “Worthy Women” stories do not show bishops and priests in a good light. But nothing here was invented. In tomorrow’s entry, we’ll read of a mix of bad and good clerics.

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