In 1998, Pope John Paul II opened the secret archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith–better known to you as the Inquisition–to outside researchers. The following year, German historian Hubert Wolf found something that, as they say on the Internet, will blow your mind. Wolf tells of his discovery in The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, first published in 2013 in German and now available in English in a translation by Ruth Martin.
What Wolf found was the paper trail of an investigation into a troubled Roman convent. It began in 1859 when a German princess, Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, fled the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in a panic, claiming that she was being poisoned. She made a string of accusations, most directed at the convent’s extravagantly beautiful 27-year-old novice mistress, Maria Luisa, who was widely believed to be blessed with divine ecstasies and visions, and capable of healing the sick. Even the princess testified that Maria Luisa was powerfully charismatic: “She has a very pleasant physiognomy and an almost irresistible charm which, however, is rather more like that of a worldly person than of a virgin dedicated to God.” The nuns considered Maria Luisa to be a living saint.
The Inquisition usually plays the villain in these stories, but the judge here calmly and efficiently questioned witnesses and weighed evidence. What he uncovered was far stranger than the worship of a false saint. The nuns were locked in with a monster: their novice mistress was addicted to power, utterly ruthless and sexually omnivorous.
Maria Luisa was having an affair with a Jesuit priest; to cover their trysts she produced miraculous letters from Jesus and the Virgin Mary that insisted the lovers spend time in private spiritual counseling. She also made playthings of whatever young nuns caught her eye, under the guise of some truly imaginative and extremely explicit divine injunctions. “She told me that the gifts and blessings that she had received from the Lord would be transferred to me when I touched her private parts with my hands,” one nun testified, “and she then repeated the same actions on my body.” If she took things too far, Maria Luisa would just say later that it was the devil in her form.
If the story stopped there, Maria Luisa might come off as a sexual abuser, of which the church already has plenty. But when Maria Luisa felt threatened by a rival or possible exposure, she turned to murder. Her modus operandi was poison: she used anything toxic she could lay her hands on, including opium and ground glass.
Wolf is more scholar than writer: he lays out the facts lucidly and precisely, but stiffly and with no particular narrative flair. In places, one wonders what would have happened if, say, Laura Hillenbrand had stumbled on those papers instead of Wolf. But even in its present form, the case history has a mesmeric power, elevated from being merely lurid in that even though Maria Luisa was a likely sociopath, she was also a ferocious enemy of a patriarchal institution that denied power to women and pleasure to the body. She fought to obtain both and, for a while, succeeded. For the worst possible reasons, in the worst possible way, she made of her stone convent a fortress inside which she was a sexually free living goddess.
It didn’t last. The fortress fell, the novice mistress was convicted, the convent was shut down, and all records of Sant’Ambrogio were suppressed or expunged. Maria Luisa died a broken woman. Her Jesuit lover was also convicted, but he served only a token sentence and went on to a distinguished career as a theologian, praised by Popes as a key shaper of church doctrine, including the dogma of papal infallibility. The goddess paid for her crimes, but the patriarchy takes care of its own.
This appears in the January 26, 2015 issue of TIME.