Monday, November 5, 2007

The Incorruptible Sister Irenita

In 1931, Sister Irenita, a young nun of St. John’s parish in Fresno, died from appendicitis. One person remembers her last words: “I don’t want to die.” For some years thereafter, Sister Irenita could still be spotted by nuns and students in St. John’s Catholic School and the nearby cathedral, lingering around the rectory and flicking lights on and off in empty classrooms. She did so until a special mass was said for her soul.

Apparently, in 1936, her coffin was unearthed and opened by vandals. Upon investigation, the story goes, the Monsignor discovered something very strange: he found that the corpse was uncorrupted--the body was free of all decay even though she had been dead for years. Sister Irenita’s story was recently published in a Halloween edition of the Fresno Bee; journalist Tom Bisson included her story with other “spooky tales” of “those phantoms who hoot and gibber and drag the clanking chains of mystery down the stairs of our collective unconscious.” This is how the tale of Sister Irenita is remembered by local residents: as a creepy ghost story, an uncanny brush with the horrific.

But let me just say this: had this story been told 700 years earlier, Sister Irenita might have been called a saint. Medieval narratives of sanctity--hagiographies, the lives of the saints--abound with tales of incorruptible bodies, that is, saintly corpses that prove resistant to decay. Goscelin of St. Bertin’s eleventh-century Vita S. Wihtburge (The Life of St. Wihtburh), for example, tells us that upon the opening of Wihtburh’s tomb, everyone was amazed by the radiance of her undecayed body: “her face glowed for the Lord with rosy cheeks, animated with the breath of life; her breasts are firm and upright in their incorruption, her unwedded limbs blossom with the loveliness of paradise.”

When the papacy began to crystallize an official canonization process in the twelfth century, incorruptibility was seen to be one of the strongest recommendations for the deceased’s legitimacy as a saint. Incorruptible bodies, to medieval peoples, signified purity, sanctity, loftiness. A body that was radiant though in death reflected a soul that was rejoicing among the blessed in paradise. Indeed, an undecayed body could even represent the union of flesh and spirit the saint had achieved while alive.

St. John’s parish did not, of course, begin to whisper about the possibilities of beatification and ultimate canonization. There are no altarpieces, festivals, or medallions commemorating Fresno’s local saint--only an entry in the mysterious annals of ghost lore. Why? First, one may realize that, around the 16th c., the Catholic Church lost its obsession with discovering and creating new saints. Furthermore, the New Code of Canon Law (1983) abandoned most of the complex and subtle criteria--including incorruptibility--for determining sainthood. But this does not explain why Sister Irenita has, failing saintliness, in fact become ghostly. To explore this, I might leave behind ecclesiastical law and look instead to intersecting folklores.

Mexico has a lively and deeply entrenched tradition of “folk saints,” those luminaries (such as deceased curanderos) who are followed, revered, and summoned for healings but are not formally recognized by the Catholic hierarchy. This practice has often caused strife between local believers and the Church, for the Church feels that its monopoly on sainthood--almost a thousand years strong--is threatened by folk saints. And indeed it is: as cultus develops around such folk saints as Nino Fidencio, Fidencistas threaten schism. The Church has responded by frantically discussing the possibility of canonization in order to regain control.

With the wave of Mexican immigration in the first half of the twentieth century, California’s Catholic parishes decided to take an active role in the Americanization of the new immigrants. Although their flocks were largely hispanic, California’s Catholic hierarchy, at the time, was predominantly Irish-American. Irish-American Catholicism in the late nineteenth century, traumatized by the potato famine and rebuked by ecclesiastical reform, de-emphasized the presence and power of the saints. It also found less value in the bodily aspects of sainthood--medieval traditions of saintly healings and paradisiacal bodies (still present in Mexican folk Catholicism) gave way to a strictly liturgical experience of the divine. Perhaps the story of Sister Irenita and her incorrupt body as ghost story, then, became another means of acculturation for Mexican immigrants. The story would, of course, enforce the Church’s grip on the manufacturing of saints by infernalizing Sister Irenita’s miraculous body. But it would also ensure an acculturation to Irish-American forms of folk Catholicism, in which saints were far less quotidian and were, instead, more likely to be disembodied, abstract, and antique.

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