Therese Neumann: Modern Stigmatic, International Cult Figure, and Anti-Nazi Symbol

AHA Session 280
American Catholic Historical Association 15
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 204 (Hynes Convention Center)
Kevin P. Spicer, Stonehill College
Thomas A. Kselman, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

Therese Neumann of Konnersreuth (1898-1962) achieved fame as a subject of religious devotion, voyeuristic curiosity, and dismissive ridicule. Stigmatized in 1926, Neumann became a visionary who bled from her feet, hands, and eyes for over thirty-five years. She also allegedly spoke archaic languages during trances, experienced miraculous cures, and subsisted on communion hosts. After she underwent only one medical examination in the late 1920s, the authenticity of Neumann’s miracles remained contested until her death. She attracted the support of her rural town as well as a following known as the Konnersreuth Circle. Despite hostility and caution from German Church officials, Neumann’s popularity grew with lurid press accounts and book publications by witnesses to her symptoms. Over 10,000 people attended her funeral in 1962 and over 40,000 devotees wrote letters in support of her beatification process, which began in 2005. Nonetheless, Therese Neumann is ignored by historians of religion. Despite numerous thorough social histories of many aspects of German Catholicism written in the last thirty years, Neumann rarely even makes the footnotes. As an attempt to overcome this shortcoming in the historiograpahy, this panel analyzes Therese Neumann as a contested sacred space from international, national, and regional perspectives.

The Konnersreuth spectacle presents several points of departure. First, untangling truth and rumor about the so-called “Resl of Konnersreuth” proves extraordinarily difficult. Numerous advocates manufactured stories about her stigmata, while critics also tried to prove her fraudulence. However, separating myth from reality regarding her exceptional medical history constitutes a daunting task. A particularly vexing issue includes her behavior during the Third Reich. Neumann’s supporters stressed her connections to Catholic victims of the Nazis, but a comprehensive account of her relationship to National Socialism must still be written. Another complexity is Therese Neumann’s long career as a public object for adoration that spanned the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and the Federal Republic. The social and political context changed as her importance for others transformed. Finally, Neumann’s appeal spread far beyond Catholic Germany. She became an international phenomenon, especially in the United States. Therefore, the Konnersreuth Circle contained many dimensions worthy of examination from the local to the transnational context.

This panel offers three viewpoints about the multiple representations of this stigmatic. On one hand, Paula Kane examines the Neumann cult through the study of “religious tourism” by American Catholics who visited her from the 1920s to the 1950s. On the other hand, Ulrike Wiethaus explores the political symbolism of Neumann as an example of both passive and active resistance under Nazism. Finally, Michael O’Sullivan analyzes the German reception of this stigmatic among curious journalists, skeptical Church leaders, and pious pilgrims. While each paper situates Neumann’s miracles in historical context, our greater concern is her disputed and evolving cultural resonance in Konnersreuth, Bavaria, Germany, and the United States. In the spirit of the conference’s theme, we examine how a seer, her followers, and her opponents interacted with a changing social context to produce varied religious meanings throughout the twentieth century.

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