My recently completed dissertation, “The Life and Afterlife of Anna Katharina Emmerick: Re-imagining Catholicism in Modern Germany,” concerns the life and subsequent cult of a Westphalian woman discovered to exhibit stigmata during the Napoleonic occupation and secularization of German Europe. Emmerick’s wounds and ecstatic visions stirred controversy across Europe and the United States, becoming symbols manipulated in debates over the boundary between religion and superstition, natural and supernatural. Her life thus provides an entrée into the state of German Catholicism at the moment of its supposed transition from Enlightenment austerity to post-Revolutionary fervor. Her afterlife in the popular imagination, furthermore, can serve as a red thread through the labyrinth of German Catholic culture. From the bestselling publications of her Passion visions by Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, to the 21st-century reiteration of these visions in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, from the pious veneration of her grave by German villagers to her beatification by John Paul II, Emmerick has remained a public touchstone.
My book manuscript will greatly expand the scope of my dissertation, which focused primarily on Emmerick’s lifetime. By examining the twists and turns of her long afterlife up to the present day, it will reveal how Catholics have continually sustained and re-imagined their inherited faith traditions to meet the evolving challenges they faced as modern Germans; to determine who was able to participate in this process; and to track how this changed over time. Taking into account the interplay between the conditions that made possible modern “imagined communities” with the deep history of the Church’s ever-evolving tradition, it will explore how generations of German Catholics have fashioned a usable past from their religious heritage to assert belonging and to address their present-day needs and desires.
My Second Book: Transatlantic Catholicism in the Industrial Age
As I complete this project, I am also looking forward to new research endeavors. My second book, tentatively titled “Transatlantic Catholicism in the Industrial Age,” will use the tragic sinking of the passenger liner SS Deutschland in 1875 as a jumping-off point. Aboard the vessel were five Franciscan nuns fleeing anti-Catholic regulations in Bismarck’s Germany, intending to establish a new monastery and serve German immigrants in the St. Louis area. All five nuns died in the sinking of the Deutschland, which ran aground on British shores. English Catholics buried the five nuns with great solemnity. The tragic event inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins to write one of his most famous poems, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which would not be published until after his death.
This event linking Catholics in three different countries across the Atlantic led to reflection on the “ties that bind” Catholics in this period, the heyday of the steamship, mass newspapers, and telegraphs. Not long ago, scholars of “modernization theory” argued that all the technologies and transformations of the modern world eroded the traditional ties that bound a German to his family, community, and especially his church. The nineteenth century was, without question, a time of rapid change on multiple fronts. As the century went on, more and more German Catholics left their tight-knit rural communities for growing metropolises (and not just Berlin, Hannover, or Munich, but also Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis). They traveled to these cities on an ever-spreading network of trains, steamships, and, eventually, automobiles, which expanded individuals’ horizons even as they made the world “smaller.” Mass-produced goods replaced homespun products or the work of independent artisans. New kinds of employment, from blue-collar to white-collar, changed the dynamics between husbands and wives, parents and children in the home. Given these transformations – which Ferdinand Tönnies collectively described as the move “from to community to society” – many scholars have argued that the traditional “ties that bound” religious communities together were fraying or entirely severed. How could the traditional world of religion, long sustained by moral instruction in the home, alongside the support (and surveillance) of the community, survive the dissolution of these communities?
The event of the SS Deutschland’s sinking, however, brings to light all the ways that these very same technologies became new “ties” binding Catholics together, not just within their communities but across vast distances. Though the five Franciscan nuns bound for St. Louis never made it to their destination, any other German religious orders established sister houses in the United States or relocated entirely. During the 1870s, this was a reaction to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, but the phenomenon of sending German Catholic orders to America predated Bismarck and lasted beyond his tenure as Chancellor. Running schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, these German nuns (and a few male clergymen) not only provided vital services to immigrant communities: they also helped these communities sustain their ties with the Fatherland. Until the First World War led many to distance themselves from their German heritage, the technologies of steamships, newspapers, and railways helped bring many Catholics together, rather than apart. This second project, then, will focus on demonstrating how Benedict Anderson’s idea of modern “imagined communities,” sustained not through actual personal relationships but through technologies like print culture, is equally applicable to religious communities at this time.
Finally, I have two research projects I am planning to turn into conference presentations and/or articles sometime within the next two years. First: in my dissertation research, I came upon a series of sources dealing with German Catholics using Emmerick’s mystical visions to “discover” new sacred sites in the Holy Land. A number of German biblical scholars and archaeologists took the time to refute these claims in print. The controversy stirred up some other responses – pilgrims’ accounts, more secularly-minded travel literature, and so on. As I do not think this material will make it into the final form of my dissertation, I am planning to write an article about German “visions” of the “Holy Land” during the Kaiserreich.
Secondly: I recently learned that there was a fairly extensive network of German POW camps throughout Idaho, my home state, from 1942-46. Having done some preliminary groundwork, it appears that there is a significant body of sources relating to this camps, from German-language newspapers published by the prisoners to oral histories of Idahoans who contracted with the government for these POWs to help work their farms. From what I gather, many Idahoans complained to the government that the German prisoners were treated too well. It appears that a number of the POWs emigrated and returned to Idaho from Germany as soon as possible, which suggests they did receive good treatment. On the one hand, this story strikes me as a forgotten chapter in the history of U.S. detention camps, which could be interestingly juxtaposed with the contemporaneous internment of Japanese Americans, as well as camps for emigrants and POWs today. On the other hand, however, I think this story is also a German one: a story of how the formation of Germans’ postwar ideas about America did not derive from “doughboys” alone, but also from civilians left behind to harvest potatoes and sugar beets. It is hard to say more about the scholarly implications of this topic without further research, but it strikes me in any case as a forgotten history on a regional, national, and transnational level, and one that is worth recovering.