One of our archivists, Dr Jonathan Bush, retells the story of a miraculous cure that stunned doctors and caused quite a stir in 19th-century England. The account of Sister Aloysia’s healing is found in the archives of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, which Jonathan has been cataloguing.
The substantial archive of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, dating back to its foundation in Liege in 1642, documents the rich and colourful history of an English convent abroad. The records in the collection tell the story of the community in Liege, its evacuation to England during the turbulent years of the French Revolution, and its subsequent flourishing as a school and convent at New Hall, near Chelmsford, Essex.
One of its more remarkable personal stories concerns the extraordinary ‘cure’ of Sister Aloysia Gonzaga O’Connor. News of the case caused something of a sensation in a country where Catholics and their tales of ‘miracles’ were treated with suspicion and derision by a predominantly Protestant media.
Sister O’Connor was professed to the Order of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre in 1818. On 20 November 1820, she was suddenly seized with a violent pain in her right arm. By the end of the month, she had lost all use of the arm which had begun to swell to ‘as large as a child’s body’, causing her excruciating pain. A number of eminent doctors were consulted but amputation seemed to be the only possible option.
In desperation, a friend of the Order contacted a German aristocrat priest, Prince Alexander Leopold Hohenlohe-Waldenberg-Schillingfurst.
Prince Hohenlohe had been ordained a Catholic priest in 1815, ministering firstly in Stuttgart and then in Munich, but it was the numerous cures he was alleged to have performed through his prayers that he was best known for, so much so that Pope Pius VII ordered him to desist from public cures, although he was permitted to perform them privately.
The Prince agreed to make a novena of Masses, ending in May 1822, for Sister O’Connor’s recovery. Towards the end of the final Mass, and finding no relief, Sister O’Connor was alleged to have said: “Thy will be done, O Lord! Thou hast not thought me worthy of this cure”. Yet almost immediately after these words were uttered, the pain ceased and the swelling visibly subsided.
The case astonished the physicians, Dr John Badely and Mr Barlow, both of whom were Protestants, the former compiling a pamphlet on the subject in which he stressed that divine intervention could be the only possible explanation.
Other commentators were less charitable. “I pay no more respect to the statement of a hive of nuns, buzzing their attestations of a Romish miracle’ argued a letter writer to the Christian Instructor, ‘than I should do to the affidavits of men of straw in the Old Bailey’.
Such attacks did not go unnoticed by Catholic polemicists, with Bishop John Milner, leading the defence.
Want to know more?
The event above is described in detail in the records of Sister Aloysia Gonzaga O’Connor’s personal file in the archives which can be consulted, alongside the rest of the collection, at Palace Green Library.