The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Anna Catharine Emmerich

Blessed Anne Catherine EmmerichArticle

The name of the ecstatic of Dülmen, the Servant of God, Anna Catharine Emmerich, is known and honored throughout the whole Christian world. God set her as a shining light for all who seek the truth in these days of unbelief and indifference and as a standing challenge to the rationalistic spirit of the times. It is certain that her marvelous life has brought consolation and courage to many in these days of affliction for the Church and that many have been aroused by it to a life of renewed religious zeal.

Sanctity manifests itself especially in purity of intention and in virtuous action. Extraordinary gifts of grace are not absolutely necessary to it. In Anna Catharine Emmerich all these are abundantly united.

She was born on 8 September 1774, in Flamsche, a farming village near Coesfeld, Westphalia. Her parents were poor. In her earlier years she was obliged to work at home and among strangers as well. She was able to attend school regularly for only a few months; still, people were astonished at her knowledge and her skill in handicrafts. While yet very young she received revelations in matters pertaining to faith and enjoyed visible converse with heavenly persons, especially with her guardian angel, who lovingly instructed her in many things. This was quite an ordinary matter for her, so that she was altogether surprised when she learned that others saw nothing of the sort. Her holiness became manifest at an equally early age. She had the greatest horror of every sin, a tender charity for the neighbor, and she would weep over the misery of others as if it were her own. She found a pleasure in prayer unusual for one of her age and a delight in every kind of self-denial.

No one was surprised that a vocation to the religious life soon developed in this child; but circumstances seemed to be against her being able to follow it. Her parents were by no means willing to part with their daughter; they were not able to give her a dowry, and no convent was found willing to receive her without it. A convent of Poor Clares in Coesfeld needed an organist. So Catharine, now twenty-five years old, obtained permission from her parents to take lessons on the organ from Soentgen, the organist at Coesfeld, with the hope of being received into the convent without the dowry. But she found the family of Soentgen in straitened circumstances, and her charity prompted her to relieve their misery by the work of her hands. Learning the organ was thus out of the question. Through her intercourse with Catharine, Soentgen’s daughter Clara developed a religious vocation. She applied to the Augustinian Sisters at Agnetenberg, Dülmen, and being an expert organist was gladly received. But Soentgen informed the Sisters that he would give his daughter leave only on the one condition, i. e., that Catharine also would be received. The condition was reluctantly accepted. Catharine’s parents found the sacrifice very hard. When she was leaving and asked for a trifling sum of traveling money, her father, otherwise so charitable and pious a Catholic, said to her: “If you were to be buried to-morrow I would indeed pay the funeral expenses, but for a journey to the cloister I shall give you nothing.”

Thus Catharine, already twenty-eight years of age, saw her desire at length fulfilled on 18 September 1802. But if she had hoped to find her life free of care and suffering she would have been grievously disappointed. In Agnetenberg there was little of the spirit of a convent, the rules were in great part neglected, and there was no spiritual direction. The Servant of God was ill-treated by the Sisters, who considered her as useless on account of her weak health. On her entrance she had asked the superior to accept her as the meanest in the house. Only too literally was her prayer heard. She was regarded as a servant girl for the convent. Her piety and the extraordinary conditions to be observed in her only gave these Sisters occasion to think lightly of her. Catharine bore it all very well. One day she complained to Our Lord in the chapel that there was no one who understood her or with whom she could share her feelings. She received the answer: “I am enough for you.” In fact the continual nearness of the tabernacle – she was for a long time assistant of the sacristan – the frequent opportunity for prayer, the consciousness of having given all to God by her vows, compensated for all want of regard on the part of others. It is touching to note what love and enthusiasm she had for her vocation, though she met with so little gratification in it.

No one, therefore, felt the blow as heavy as she when in 1811 the convent of Agnetenberg was secularized. The news made her ill; they feared even that her end had come. But the most important period of her life was just beginning. A French priest, Vicar Lambert, who used to say Mass at the convent and had been impressed by her modest behavior, had the sick and neglected Catharine brought to his residence in Dülmen. It was long before her condition improved. Toward the end of 18 12 her confessor, Father Limberg, a secularized Dominican, who came to give her Holy Communion, saw on the backs of her hands bleeding stigmata. He told Vicar Lambert of his discovery and both thought it was wise to make nothing of the matter and to keep it secret. Father Limberg had no liking for the visions, ecstasies, and other extraordinary things he noticed in his penitent. Catharine had experienced before her entrance into the convent the pains of the crown of thorns and now were added the stigmata and a doubled cross upon her breast. The bleeding of the wounds was of frequent occurrence, especially on feast-days and Fridays.

In March 1813, Catharine’s former sister in religion, Clara Soentgen, paid her a visit and saw the stigmata. In a few days all Dülmen knew of it. Great excitement arose among the people, some favorable to her, some against her. A young physician, Dr. Franz Wilhelm Wesener, who had lost his faith at the university, visited the sick Sister with the intention of unmasking the fraud. But the first visit was sufficient to convince him of the genuineness of the stigmata and to effect in him a radical reform of his life, especially when the sick person showed herself thoroughly acquainted with the condition of his soul. Under Wesener’s direction a joint investigation of the stigmata was held in which the physician Krauthausen, the parish priest Dechant Rensing, Father Limberg, and Vicar Lambert took part. A record of the proceedings was sent to the episcopal court at Münster. A few days later the vicar-general and administrator of the diocese, Clement August von Droste Vischering, afterward archbishop of Cologne, accompanied by the president of the seminary Bernhard Overberg, and the medical consultor, Professor von Druffel, came to Dulmen to make accurate inquiry into the matter and to interfere directly should any suspicion arise from the investigation. To this many other persons were invited. It occupied four weeks and its verdict was in every way favorable to Catharine. It was extremely painful for her to see every one’s attention turned upon her, for, as her biographer says, “she was a soul hungry for solitude.” 141 Often she besought Our Lord to remove the visible wounds and leave her only the suffering.

But worse was to befall her. The State undertook to meddle in the matter because stubborn doubters raised a cry of fraud. Governor von Vincke appointed a committee of investigation in 1819. The members came to Dülmen firmly persuaded that they were to deal with superstition and common trickery, and this inspired their treatment of the Servant of God. The head of the committee, Karl von Bonninghausen, forcibly removed her to another house and here kept her prisoner under the closest observation for three weeks. They subjected her to the most painful examination, watching her day and night. They spared neither flatteries nor promises, denunciation nor threats to induce her to acknowledge fraud. She had but one answer – that she was willing to die, but could not say what was not true. The committee acted the part of guard at the sepulcher of Our Lord. But they were obliged to acknowledge the fact of the wounds and their bleeding and to admit that it was as clear as midday that all fraud was absent. They departed ashamed of their rude behavior and their defeat; but there were some members of the committee who afterward audaciously spread a rumor that fraud had been found, though no confirmation or reason was alleged in support of it.

In view of the many observations of numerous witnesses not to be suspected of favor and in consideration of the innocent and wholly unselfish character of Catharine Emmerich there remains not the least doubt of the genuineness of the stigmata. It is another question whether they could be explained by mental suggestion or whether they are to be attributed to a supernatural cause. The biographers affirm the latter. Those who do not agree with them must at least admit that the passion of Our Lord had taken hold of Catharine’s mind in quite an extraordinary manner. Yet this would hardly account sufficiently for all the accessory visions.

Catharine possessed in a high degree the gifts of contemplation. The whole life of Christ passed before her mind in clear pictures. She lived in sympathy with Him. Clement Brentano was sent to her by Providence – an event she had long foreseen – to receive an account of her visions. Most extraordinary was her knowledge of the secrets of hearts and of distant events. She was obliged to suffer much and to pray for important events in Church and State of her days, for high Church dignitaries, for certain dioceses, and for particular persons who were wholly unknown to her. She was a secret instrument in God’s hand for the salvation of many souls.

We behold in Catharine Emmerich a noble flower of supernatural holiness, a rare miracle of divine grace. We can understand how those who came near to her were so powerfully impressed by the sight of her. Day after day this highly favored virgin displayed from her bed of suffering the deepest humility, the most inspired love of the cross, the most self-sacrificing charity. She had no other interest than the cause of Christ. Her life was an offense to unbelievers – but a consolation to the faithful. She passed from the earth on 9 February 1825. Bishop Hermann Dingelstadt gratified the desires of many when in 1892 he instituted the preliminary work toward the process of her beatification.

MLA Citation

  • Father Constantine Kempf, SJ. “Anna Catharine Emmerich”. The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, 1916. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 March 2018. Web. 18 November 2018. <>