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Sighting of Spirits and the Devil

Posted on October 5, 2020, by Ayla Toussaint

Throughout Christianity, there have been stories of people who have seen signs of spirits, demons, and other malevolent beings.  The frequency of these experiences, the imagery in them, and how people received them has changed throughout the centuries, but the beliefs and messages behind them have not.  This post focuses on two accounts of Loretto Sisters in the late 19th century who saw signs of the devil. 

The first story follows Sister Rosanna Dant, who was known as Sister Hilaria at the beginning of her professed life.  Sister Rosanna received the veil in 1848 at the age of 14.  While that sounds young to us now, choosing a life of service in one’s teenage years was more common in the 1800s, although most Sisters were between 16 and 20 when they joined.  The account of Sister Rosanna’s sighting is as follows:

Sister had a talent for music, and Mother Magdalen had a professor come to the convent and give Sister Hilaria lessons.  The man became infatuated with his pupil and she with him and they arranged to leave.  When about to enter the vehicle, Sister Hilaria saw cloven hoofs, was terrorized with fright and ran as fast as she could to her convent haven – never to leave it.

It is unclear when this event took place, as both Sister Rosanna and Mother Magdalen were at the Motherhouse in Kentucky and at the convent in Santa Fe; however, the Sister recounting this story, Sister Mary Barbara Everen, wasn’t in the Southwest until much later in her vocation.  So it is likely that this story occurred between 1848, when Sister Rosanna entered the convent, and 1852, when she left for Santa Fe.

Sister Rosanna Dant

Cloven hooves are often used to signify sin and the devil.  This imagery has its roots in the medieval church and continues to be prevalent today.  Here, it is unlikely that Sister Hilaria/Rosanna believed her music teacher to be the devil, but rather that her vision was a sign of temptation and entrapment.  Upon seeing the image, she would have recognized the folly of her actions and determined she was being tempted away from her true vocation.  It seems she took this sign to heart.  After this event, Sister Hilaria/Rosanna continued in religious life, pioneering to Santa Fe in 1852 and remaining in the Southwest until her death in 1916.

Our second tale is much longer and takes place in Denver, Colorado, in 1864 at the original St. Mary’s Academy.  Sister Joanna Walsh wrote the account between 1897 and 1910 at the request of Sister Vitalis, the first graduate of St. Mary’s.  The story begins with the addition of a new boarder to the house, who was admitted even though the school was already quite full, in order to help pay off the debt of acquiring the new St. Mary’s property. 

St. Mary’s in 1864

Our wonted tranquility was shortly disturbed by the addition of another boarder.  All preliminaries seemed satisfactory and Miss N was admitted.  Her mother was delighted, for at the time she found N difficult to control.  The girl was also pleased.  She was not remarkably studious, but obedience, docility and respectful love for the Sisters gave hopes that her stay with us would be advantageous to her.  In about a week after entrance, during the noon recreation, a sudden change came over her.  Her countenance assumed a disturbing appearance; her lips quivered and her eyes looked strange.  The Sister Superior was questioning her sympathetically to find out what could be done for her relief, when suddenly she sprang up, or seemed to be lifted up from the floor and as quickly dashed down.  There she lay, writhing and foaming at the mouth.

Upon the beginning of this fit, one of the other boarders went to fetch the doctor, who was unable to help “N.”  He prescribed medicine, which was later discovered to simply be water.  The fit continued all night.  As Sister Joanna described it, “she writhed, twisted, turned all night and screamed fearfully.  It took four or five to hold her.” 

All this took place in the parlor.  Close to the door, outside, lay a big, black dog with red eyes that poor, dear Sister B. thought must be the devil, for he would not be driven from the porch until morning when he left reluctantly, it would appear.  Dear Sister B, who was greatly annoyed at his presence, watched him and said that he seemed so enraged that he pulled off some of the pickets of the fence and disappeared.  I do not recollect whether his departure occurred before or after Mass.  It was after Mass, however, that poor N resumed her natural state.  She described her encounters or demonical visions from the previous noon till after Mass next morning.  She said that the devil had horns and seventeen eyes of fire.  I cannot recollect all, but she said that when she screamed so terribly and made so many contortions, he was then approaching her with a trail of coiling serpents after him, all ready to seize her, etc.  She said, too, that at night she saw a holy man praying for her, and felt some relief thereby.

At this point, Sister Joanna explains that the Vicar General had been called to tend to “N” but had never entered the room where she lay, instead retreating to the Chapel to pray for her.  She and the other Sisters concluded this must have been the holy man she saw praying for her.  They also decided that saying the Holy Mass the next morning succeeded in “chas[ing] away the old fellow,” i.e. the devil.  

When “N’s” mother arrived, the Sisters were surprised by her lack of concern.  It became clear that these fits were common for her daughter and that she believed they stemmed from the Spiritualist Circles in which her daughter partook.  Although her daughter had caused a great deal of trouble, Sister Joanna writes that “the poor mother begged us: Now that N is over her spell, loves the Sisters so much, and the total absence of an opportunity to join the circles of Spiritualists, to permit her to remain in our school, offering to double the tuition if we would.  We certainly felt sorry for the poor lady, but neither entreaties nor inducements could obtain our consent.”  Unfortunately for the Sisters, the woman brought her case to the Vicar General, who “decided it best to give the girl another trial.”  The Sisters assented, but “N” was unable to return that day. 

This part of our story is particularly interesting, as it brings in the influence of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism was a popular religious movement that gained traction in Western Europe and the United States around 1840-1920, with its height in the 1890s.  Spiritualism focused on the idea that spirits and the dead could commune with the living.  This practice is often characterized by spirit circles or séances in which a medium would attempt to communicate with the deceased “through the veil.”  These events often featured flickering lights, mysterious knocking, and even floating objects.  This is most likely the type of Spiritualist Circle “N’s” mother refers to.

Belief in Spiritualism in the 1800s fell all over the board, with some avid believers, many skeptics, and some who believed the Spiritualists were playing with dangerous and evil forces, not the spirits of loved ones.  The Catholic view was usually in one of the two latter camps.  It is evident from our story, however, that the Sisters at St. Mary’s believed that the Spiritualists allowed harmful influences to enter into “N” and somehow brought her into close contact with the devil.

Our story continues with the return of “N” to St. Mary’s.

Unfortunately, that uncontrollable daughter of hers, contrary to her mother’s will, took part in the Spiritualists’ Circle, and returned to us bearing a fresh supply of its diabolical influence which shorted the duration of her second trial.  We knew nothing of this till afterwards.  She tried to give satisfaction for a day or two, though her behavior in the Chapel, where the boarders used to say night prayers, was somewhat reprehensible.  The night following she laughed there, and commenced her former antics. …

The spectacle she presented was a counterpart of the former… This time we resorted to holy remedies.  We asked Father V.G. to exorcise the poor victim of Spiritualism; but for some reason or other, he did not go even in sight of her.  He felt greatly distressed about us, fearing that we should break down under heavy work and this trouble.  We confidently replied that we thought God would support our strength until we got help, there being no one else to do it.  He gave us a relic of the True Cross to apply to her forehead or heart.  Thus armed, one of us volunteered to remain alone by her bed whilst the others took a night’s rest, which everyone needed sadly after the exploits of the preceding eight days.

Perhaps today, “N” would have been diagnosed with seizures or another medical phenomenon which would explain her abnormal behavior, fits, and foaming at the mouth.  Even so, the first response of our Sisters was to call the doctor and to apply religious remedies only after his visit.

No trouble during the night.  There she lay, not a scream, but held, seemingly, in a convulsive sleep, foaming at the mouth.  When, from time to time, she would make a motion to start up, the Sister would apply the relic, and as if subdued, she would gradually sink back and remain so for a while.  Finally morning dawned, and at the usual hour Father V.G. came to offer the Holy Sacrifice, after which the demon and his legions were again disarmed.  She was herself again.  She believed that it was the Holy Mass that freed her.  Among many other things she said that she wanted to pray devoutly the previous evening when the pupils went to the Chapel, but in spite of herself she was forced to misbehave and laugh.  The mother arrived by the first coach.  She was sad but was not alarmed.  She said, “I knew at once, on receipt of your telegram, that N was under the influence of those spirits.  I could not dissuade her from attending their circle that night, she would go.”  She was disappointed and disheartened, and with many regrets she and her daughter bade us farewell.  We never saw either afterwards.  Our surmises led us to believe that the devil became enraged a N’s entering our school, knowing that convents are not comfortable abodes from him and his legions.

And thus ends the tale of diabolical influence at the original St. Mary’s Academy.  Current students at St. Mary’s, fear not! The school, while still open, has changed locations several times in its history in order to accommodate its growing numbers of students.

Our Sisters have traveled the world and have thousands of fascinating tales.  These stories not only entertain, they also help us to understand the viewpoints and experiences that shaped the Sisters’ decisions.  These stories and their historical context bring life to names written on old ledgers and remind us of our living past.

Happy Halloween!

Ayla Toussaint

Ayla Toussaint

Ayla Toussaint is archivist for the Loretto Heritage Center on the Loretto Motherhouse grounds in Nerinx, Ky. Her occasional posts may be found on the Heritage Center’s blog, “LOREetto.”
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