Despite its expectations of holiness and celibacy, the Catholic Church has been the subject of a fair share of monastic scandal. Nearly all of these scandals, however, pale in comparison to the tales of coercion and wrongdoing that haunt the history of Maria Agnese Firrao's convent.
The nuns in Rome's Sant'Ambrogio della Massima were subjected to sexual initiation rites, sometimes involving upwards of three people. Even after the convent's founder, Maria Agnese Firrao, was removed from her position, other nuns filled her shoes. By the 1850s, Mistress of Novices Maria Luisa was enforcing salacious trysts between herself and the nuns in her convent, forging letters from the Virgin Mary, and threatening anyone who questioned her methods. These illicit truths, buried in the Vatican Archives for decades, only emerged when scholar Hubert Wolf cracked the case wide open in The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio. Even more shocking, however, are the lengths to which these nuns went to hide their secrets.
In the 1850s, the founder of the convent of Sant'Ambrogio, Firrao, was stripped of her abbess title for encouraging other nuns to worship her as a false idol. Mistress of Novices Maria Luisa overtook Firrao's role, and, just as her predecessor, she arranged nightly rendezvous with her novices.
One nun confessed, "[Maria Luisa] asked me to lie in a certain position, with my legs raised, while she 'entwined' herself with me... she then made movements and a sound such as I cannot express in words, as she instructed me to position myself so that I could receive her bodily fluids into me.”
Maria Luisa claimed that these fluids could cure illnesses. She also asked the novices to “lay face-to-face and breast-to-breast" with her as part of their initiation ritual.
The convent's founder, Maria Agnese Firrao, was involved in several scandals during the early 19th century. Although she had been a spiritual advisor to Pope Leo XII, Firrao found herself in hot water when her misdeeds became public.
Firrao not only had an affair with her confessor, but she also engaged in a three-way tryst with her confessor and another nun. She performed false miracles and had two abortions when she became pregnant by clerical officials.
Miraculously, Maria Agnese's convent wasn't shut down by the Inquisition in 1816 when she was stripped of her title as abbess. Instead, the illicit activity continued behind closed doors.
Mistress of Novices Maria Luisa wasn't just sleeping with the other nuns: she was also carrying on with one of the convent's Jesuit confessors. When the two met up at night, they shook off suspicion by citing reasons of religious communing.
In fact, Maria Luisa managed to con the confessor into bed using forged letters from the Virgin Mary. Maria Luisa asked a novice, Maria Francesca, to write the holy letters because of her beautiful handwriting, and soon everyone in the convent was following the "holy orders"—including the confessor who jumped into bed with Maria Luisa.
One of the confessors at Sant'Ambrogio harbored a secret: he was living under an assumed name. He was actually Joseph Kleutgen, an advisor to the pope and a leading theologian. In 1848, Kleutgen began an affair with one of the nuns, and during the Inquisition trial, the confessor admitted that he had multiple carnal encounters with Maria Luisa.
Kleutgen tried to defend himself. Their affair, he insisted, was purely spiritual; not about lust, Kleutgen claimed, but about religion. Even though he confessed, Kleutgen suffered only mild punishment: the Inquisition ordered him confined to a Jesuit house for two years, and he was stripped of any role in hearing confessions.