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Widow’s wonder

02 April 2012

William Countryman on a tale of the 1820s


Mrs Mattingly’s Miracle: The prince, the widow, and the cure that shocked Washington City
Nancy Lusignan Schultz

Yale University Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

IN 1824, Ann Mattingly, member of an old Maryland Roman Catholic family and sister of Washington’s mayor, was on her death-bed. Friends who had heard of miracu­lous heal­ings in Europe by a German priest and aristocrat, Alex­ander Hohen­lohe, appealed to him, and launched a novena of interces­sion. It con­cluded with a mass in Washing­ton in the early hours of the morn­ing, timed to coincide with that of the prince in Bamberg. Having, with difficulty, received the sacrament, Mrs Mat­ting­ly was visibly restored to health.

Americans were largely unprepared to deal with such an occurrence. Protestant and Enlight­en­ment influences made them sceptical of modern miracles. Even for Roman Catholics, it was startling (the phenomenon of Lourdes was still decades away), and the Church’s leadership (mostly drawn from English families that had arrived before the Revolution) was nervous about public reaction. While some saw the miracle as a vindication of the Church, others feared that it only made it seem foreign — a problematic quality in an era of newfound American assertiveness on the world scene.

Professor Schultz has retrieved a forgotten story through energetic archival work, and she connects the event well with important currents of its time. Unfortunately, her desire to produce a full-blooded narrative from sketchy sources has encour­aged a certain amount of historical over-reaching, from admittedly fictive “adumbrations” introducing each chapter to a rather free hand at filling in the thoughts and feelings of her characters.

As a result, she has not quite pro­duced either the good story some readers will want or the cautious history others look for. Still, patient readers will encounter here an intrig­uing event, recounted in the context of the very different world in which it was played out.

The Revd Dr William Countryman is Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Bib­lical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the Grad­uate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, USA.

GEORGE COURTAULD has com­piled The Pocket Book of What, When and Who on Earth: Fascinat­ing facts about Christian­ity (Bene Factum, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-903071-37-3): a gift hardback to dip into.

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