“Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”—Fulton J. Sheen.
What can’t nuns do? I mean, besides have intercourse, get married, or anything else that falls outside their holy promise. From tending to the sick to feeding the poor, and generally helping the community at large, “the nun” historically enjoyed status as an image of endless charity. But is that the case for every nun? Before they were known for doing good works, nuns were much more hidden from mainstream life. Cloistered in devotion, their concealed lives invited writers and laymen the world over to imagine holy sisters both as untouchably obscure and teeming with hidden desire.
But what was the truth? Has every nun in history been so willingly devoted? Which nuns were famous killers? What goes on underneath the veil? Read on to learn these 41 shocking facts about the secret lives of nuns.
41. It’s a Living
At the age of 11, Arcangela Tarabotti was forced into a convent by her family. Shockingly (to some), she grew up to be one of the most radical voices of critique against her own profession. Considered a radical proto-feminist today, she wrote seven works (five published in her lifetime) which defended female education but also argued against the practice of “monachization”—the enclosure of women and children into nunnery life against their will. It’s a stretch to call her a self-hating nun, but she was not afraid to call out the worst parts of the job.
40. Church Noir
As a precursor to the modern “femme fatale,” the “wayward nun” was an early trope in Christian medieval literature which also straddled the line between sex and mystery for kicks. Writers would alternate between lauding the charms of this untouchable figure of learning and demonizing her transgressions of social norms. Sound familiar, film noir fans?
39. Double Trouble
Before Hortense Mancini was a mistress to Charles II of England, she was exiled to a nunnery by her abusive husband.While there, she took up, romantically and otherwise, with a young woman named Marie-Sidonie de Courcelles. Naturally, the ladies spent most of their time pranking nuns and making zany escape attempts up the fireplace.
38. They Can’t Sing Her Praises
In 2015, singer Katy Perry faced off with a group of nuns that ended in litigation, music, and death. The singer was seeking to buy a tract of land from a Catholic archdiocese. Unfortunately, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary argued their California home was not the archdiocese’s to sell; instead, the nuns opted to sell their $15.5 million property to a restauranteur. At one point, Perry offered them a private performance (with lyrics read from her phone), but the nuns wanted to go with the deal where they got more cash. Unfortunately, one of the nuns dropped dead in the middle of court, leaving the other surviving one to sort out this bizarre case in both Hollywood and holy history.
37. What Lies Beneath
There’s no standard for what to wear under a nun’s habit. Some modern nuns even wear T-shirts, sneakers, or nothing at all (in hot days) underneath their uniform. It’s up to the sister.
36. Extramarital Evangelization
After losing favor with her lover, Louis XIV of France, Louise de la Vallière became a Carmelite nun. However, it took work to even begin achieving penitence. Both Louis and his new mistress, Madame de Montespan, wanted Louise to stay at court in the public position of Louis’ mistress; Montespan was married too, and they needed Louise to be their shield against charges of “double-adultery.” After months of Louise’s begging, the couple finally relented. From the convent, Louise would go on to have an illustrious publishing career.
35. Mama, Can You Hear Me?
The “Black Nun of Moret” was an 18th century French nun who claimed to be the secret lovechild of Queen Maria Theresa of France. This nun, Louise Marie-Thérèse, was mixed race and even once greeted the Prince as “brother.” The memoirs of her contemporaries seemed to proffer the idea that the neglected wife of Louis XIV mothered a secret child with a courtier.
34. A Little Help From My Friends
Nuns played a part in founding Alcoholics Anonymous. In the 1930s, a real man with the fake-sounding name Dr. Bob Smith was suffering from addiction in an era with few resources to help. While working at an Ohio hospital, Smith became acquainted with Sister Mary, who was also a nurse. She encouraged Smith to approach alcoholism as if it were a physiological illness like any other. This philosophy would form the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous.
33. Veil-Wearers Beware
It was dangerous to be a nun in 1850s America. The “Know Nothing” Party was an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant league that waged frequent acts of violence against Catholics, with no exemption for holy sisters.
32. Move Over, A-Team
Established in 2009, the Talitha Kum are an international collective of Catholic nuns who fight human trafficking. Operating in countries where human trafficking and slavery are prominent, the nuns often disguise themselves to infiltrate criminal rings. Their less risky operations include providing shelters and legal assistance to victims.
31. You Only Live Twice
Christina the Astonishing was a 12th century Belgian nun whose life began when it ended at the age of 21. Not only did she come back to life, according to legend, but she also began to float into the ceiling. From there, she went on such adventures like sending herself down the river, allowing herself to be whirled around a mill, spend time in prison, and be bit by dogs. With enough lifetime under her belt, Christina died—for good this time—at the age of 74.
30. Sisters Who Fight
Christianity isn’t the only religion to have nuns, nor is it the only faith to have warrior nuns. Case in point is Ani Pachen, the 20th-century Tibetan nun who became a freedom fighter against China in the 1950s. For her participation, she spent 21 years in various prisons before her release. From the age of 48, Pachen continued her work in monasteries and even fulfilled her lifelong dream to meet the Dalai Lama before her death in 2002.
29. My Little Messiah
Early Christian nuns vetoed motherhood. However, they would sometimes compensate by taking care of Jesus-lookalike dolls. On certain holy days, these would be their babies.
28. Can’t Fence Me in
Associations between “nuns” and “cloistered life” weren’t always absolute. It wasn’t until 1298, with Pope Boniface VIII’s decree, that all nunneries were to be officially set off from the secular world. Of course, it met a lot of resistance from communities who depended on nuns for valuable service.
27. Take a Chance on Me
Joanne Pierce already had her doubts about the holy life when she was recruited to be an FBI agent in the 1970s. She had been teaching high school and feeling the urge to start a family when she came across an FBI job opening. Although Pierce was taught to be as handy with rifles as she was with prayer—and got involved in several key operations—she eventually left because the FBI kept passing her over for promotions. They didn’t have much “faith” in her to be a supervisor because of her gender, not her past.
26. Faith in Iambic Pentameter
Was Anne Whateley a holy sister and lover to William Shakespeare, or was she just a clerical error? Biographers of the Bard still debate whether Shakespeare’s first love ever existed. In some retellings, she was a nun who conducted a passionate affair with the playwright. Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s other consort, Anne Hathaway, became pregnant. Thus, Whateley would return to her faith while Shakespeare would (allegedly) immortalize Whateley as the Dark Lady in his sonnets.
25. Honor Thy Father and Handyman
What Galileo Galilei made up for in notoriety as an astronomer and scientist of the Renaissance, he lacked in (1) ability to put a ring on his baby mamas and (2) money to take care of his children. To remedy the latter, Galilei sent his eldest illegitimate daughter Maria Celeste into a nunnery when she was just 13 years old. However, she did maintain an otherwise close relationship to her father; Galilei remained in her life, even repairing her convent’s clocks and windows.
24. Where Is My Mind?
She’s not called the “Headless Nun” of Canada for nothing. The ghost story goes that in the 1700s, a nun named Sister Marie Inconnue was viciously beheaded, either by sailors after she refused to spill the location of treasure, or simply by a “mad trapper.” In either case, off went her head; it’s said she now haunts the city of Miramichi in New Brunswick. Of course, that “Inconnue” means “unknown” in French says a lot about the veracity of this tale…
23. Registered Trademark
In 2017, Mother Theresa’s iconic white and blue sari was registered as an intellectual property by Missionaries of Charity. This greatly upset the Vatican.
22. Prayer Should Be Accessible
When Sister Mary Louise St. John was born in 1943, her mother found it hard to get her the education she deserved; St. John had muscular dystrophy and schools were remarkably inaccessible. When she became a nun in 1970, St. John devoted her life to reforms that made enclosed religious life more accessible for women with all kinds of bodies. In addition to her disability rights work, St. John was also active in the gay community, even speaking at the 1998 Erie Gay Pride Rally. What’s worship if it doesn’t include everyone?
21. The Survivor
In 1969, Sister Maurina Borges da Silveira thought she was merely fulfilling her duties when she leased a room in her Brazilian orphanage to some boarders. Unfortunately, these renters were guerilla warfare members. Maurina was arrested as a conspirator and spent five months in prison as the only Religious Sister to endure arrest during Brazil’s military occupation. To break her faith, jailers forced her to sign a paper which stated she had broken her vows by being a militant’s mistress. Eventually, she was released in a hostage exchange, but she had to spend 14 years of exile in Mexico, where she continued her work with the poor.
20. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
In 2002, a nun named Sister Leticia Lopez was convicted (after a retrial) for the murder of her fellow nun, Sister Luz Amparo Granada. Granada was beloved for her assistance to street folk. It’s believed Lopez strongly disapproved of Granada’s involvement in these communities, which caused her to murder her fellow nun. Talk about breaking your vows.
19. From the Cradle to the Convent
Bridget of York is best remembered as the 10th and final child of doomed Edward IV of England and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. While her siblings would become infamous players and victims in the War of the Roses—her sister married Henry VII; her brothers might have been murdered as The Princes in the Tower—Bridget escaped to the peace of a nunnery career. Her parents might have intended this for her since birth, as she was entrusted to Dartford Priory at a young age.
18. Intolerance, in My Congregation?
In the early 19th century, black nuns were excluded from worship by their own “sisters.” They could only participate by hopefully “passing” for white in the congregation, or else making their own orders. Nellie Morgan was the first known African American sister, who did just that by using her mixed-race heritage to pass among white nuns.
17. License to Bro
Catalina de Erauso began her career as a 17th century Spanish nun, but she ended it as a pardoned lieutenant and then retired to a respectable life as a mule driver. Catalina had escaped her convent by disguising herself as a man and entering the army. Escaping execution by revealing herself as a female virgin, the Pope was impressed enough by her exploits that he granted her a permit to live in men’s clothes for the rest of her days.
16. Faith for Sale
In 2011, the Catholic Church in Spain was shocked by allegations of kidnapping and selling babies. The first to be charged: an 87-year-old nun named Sister Maria Gomez. Her ring was accused of presenting new mothers with corpses, then taking the real baby away to adoptive families, often in exchange for huge amounts of money.
15. Mother Superior in Intellect
The founder of natural history in German was also a Benedictine abbess named Hildegard of Bingen. In particular, her texts on human sexuality laid the groundwork for both medicinal and cultural generations in the future. It is said even Popes looked to her for advice.
14. Going Stag
From 12th century France, the radical feminist writings of the nun Héloïse formed the basis of women’s philosophy for generations. Despite (or perhaps because) of her station in the Church, Héloïse wrote in open scorn toward the institution of marriage: “What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children…? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?” For context, Héloïse was in a convent in the first place because of her marriage and pregnancy scandal with a little dude named Peter Abelard…
13. Happily Never After
Before she was a nun, Héloïse was a ward and student of noble scholar Peter Abelard. Their relationship ended with pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. After the child was sent way, Héloïse’s uncle spread rumors to damage Abelard’s reputation. For her safety, her beloved husband put her in a nunnery. Héloïse’s uncle ended up punishing Abelard by castrating him. And still, convents and castration somehow equal one of the greatest love stories in medieval French history.
12. Long Live the King
In the 1960s, Elvis Presley was knocked off his #1 perch in the music charts by a singing nun named Sister Luc-Gabrielle (aka Jeannine Deckers). Her song “Dominque” got her on the Ed Sullivan Show and convinced her to ditch the habit for mainstream fame.
11. Swan Song
After leaving the nunnery for her burgeoning music career, Sister Luc-Gabrielle came out of the closet as a lesbian. If that weren’t unconventional enough, she also released a pro-birth control song named “Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill.” Unfortunately, her career never reached such heights again; in 1985, both the former Sister Luc-Gabrielle and her girlfriend took their own lives together.
10. Stars Are Born
In the early twentieth century, a group of nuns helped shaped astronomy forever by literally mapping and counting stars for plate-grass photographs. As happens often, the women never received public acknowledgement for their work, and their names were thought to be lost to history. That is, until 2016, when a Jesuit priest for the Vatican found their names in the archives. Because they deserve to be named: these ladies were Emilia Ponzoni, Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi, and Luigia Panceri.
9. Having Nun of Her
Joan of France wasn’t born to be the great abbess she became. Instead, she was born be, briefly, a French Queen. Likely born with a curvature to her spine, she was married to the future Louis XII of France when the bride and groom were respectively 12 and 10 years old. When Louis rose to the throne upon the death of Joan’s brother, her dear husband annulled their marriage on the grounds that he was too young to consent. Which is fair, but then he also brought up her physical deformities and claimed, wrongly according to Joan’s testimony, that the marriage was never consummated. Joan initially fought back hard, but she was ultimately replaced, and ended up joining a nunnery.
8. Ex-Wives Club
Joan’s career fared much better at the Abbey than it did on the throne. The princess/ex-Queen founded her own religious enclosure called the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The illustrious collective made her a renowned abbess, such that Pope Pius XII sainted the Queen later in 1950. Take that, Louis.
7. The Party Don’t Start ‘Til I Walk in
A group of nuns, some demons, and a priest walk into a convent; it ends with the priest burning at the stake. It’s not a joke: it’s (allegedly) what happened in 1634, when a group of Ursuline nuns claimed to be possessed by demonic spirits. On the part of the nuns, this supposed possession led to obscene convulsions and abusive language. The priest, Father Urbain Grandier, tried his best to exorcise the demons, but he ended up executed for allegedly summoning the demons himself.
6. Condemned for Not Shipping It
In the days when Henry VIII was getting ready to burn all the bridges in the world by divorcing his wife to marry Anne Boleyn, one woman turned to prophecy to stop him. In 1532, a Catholic nun (and mystic) named Elizabeth Barton prophesied that if the King married Anne Boleyn, he would die and go to Hell. She was promptly arrested by the next year and forced to admit that she’d made it all up (which, let’s be fair, she probably did). Barton was beheaded for her treason and her head was put on a spike on London Bridge. She remains the only woman in history to have her head decorate the bridge.
5. ‘Til Death
Cecile Bombeek, aka Sister Godfrida, was a Catholic nun in the 1970s accused of a violent crime wave of theft and murder. As she worked in a hospital, nurses began to notice how Bombeek’s patients had a higher-than-normal mortality rate. Even worse, she was developing a reputation as a cruel caretaker, even ripping catheters out of patients. Sure enough, she confessed to killing the patients after a spell in rehab. It got even worse: she even stole $30,000 from her patients to fund her morphine addiction. I’m not sure that’s covered in the holy vows.
4. Thought$ and Prayer$
What does a nun do with blood money? If you were serial killer Cecile Bombeek, you might have used the money to fund your illicit affairs. It’s rumored that in addition to using the money filched from her patients to fund her addiction, “Sister Gofrida” put the money towards bankrolling a decadent lifestyle with her roommate and her lover.
3. Early Bloomer
Born to humble Portuguese shepherds in 1907, Sister Lúcia of Fátima rose to international attention at the age of 10 for her alleged witness of the Virgin Mary’s apparition. Alongside her cousins, Lúcia claimed to be visited by visions of the Holy Mother on the 13th of every month. Initially, these claims just earned her beatings for being an “attention-seeker,” but eventually her visions started to predict certain events in nature and politics.
2. Lucky Guess?
As a child, Sister Lúcia of Fátima claimed to have been given three secrets by the Virgin Mary. The secrets and visions bestowed upon the future Carmelite nun were referred to as The Three Secrets of Fátima. The first of these secrets was a pretty straightforward vision of Hell. The second secret was more troubling: it predicted that World War I would end but another great war would follow soon, under the reign of Pope Pius XI. Skeptics will point out that this secret wasn’t revealed until 1941—in the middle of World War II.
1. It’s a Secret
In 1944, Sister Lúcia of Fátima disclosed her third and final “secret” prediction from the Virgin Mary to the Church, who did not publicize its contents until the year 2000, to mixed interpretations. Her final vision was confusing and less scandalous than the others, which led some to accuse the Church of not giving us the full text of Lúcia’s last hot take.
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