1601, Ferrara. Convent of Santa Lucia.

By Isabel Harvey, 14/04/2020

Protagonists: Suor Leonora Agelli, Dominican and Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra, Carmelite.

Source: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1601, Lett. C-G. (See the sources here).

In a letter from December 16, 1600, the Bishop of Ferrara Giovanni Fontana reported to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars in Rome the case of a certain Fra Giulio, whose actions prompted him to “immediately deplore such a scandalous case”:

A few months ago, I sent you a case made by my vicar against some of the Carmelites, about scandalous practices they had with the nuns of the monastery of Santa Lucia […] and in particular against Fra Giulio, who in those days was their confessor […]. Now, after hearing that one of the nuns gave birth to a girl, I sent my vicar to collect the information. He discovered, thanks to the testimony of some nuns, that the childbirth was real, and that it is possible to suppose that the child was suffocated and buried by this nun who gave birth; to then be dug out by two other nuns and taken to the refectory to show it publicly in before everyone. Other nuns said they saw that the child’s face was bleeding, and the father of that girl would be Fra Giulio.

The bishop then recounts a story that seems particularly sordid: a nun named Suor Leonora Agelli reportedly had sexual relations with her confessor, Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra, which resulted a pregnancy, which then hid from her religious sisters under the pretext of severe dropsy. She eventually gave birth in her cell to a girl who died in the process, in the presence of the convent nurse, the converse sister who assisted her, and two curious nuns. The converse, Isabetta, then buried the body of the newborn in the henhouse, but only a few hours later, four nuns come to dig it and expose it to the eyes of everyone—nuns and ecclesiastical superiors—in the refectory of the convent. At the moment when the Bishop writes to Rome, he is at an impasse. An initial investigation was carried out by the ecclesiastical superiors, the Carmelite brothers, who questioned the nuns of Santa Lucia one after another, conducting a reputation survey about Suor Leonora and Pocaterra, the confessor. It was a long, drawn-out effort that ended in nothing but cloister gossip—until the day when two nuns openly accused Suor Leonora of intentionally causing the death of her child.

The accusations of infanticide—and all the surrounding scandal—prompted the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars to request a proper episcopal inquiry. This resulted in a trial. The Carmelite inquiry is included in the trial, which now turns to the main protagonists of the case. Interrogated by their ecclesiastical superiors, Suor Leonora and Giulio Cesare Pocaterra maintained the same version of their story: she had been raped just once, and he agreed to this version, as he later confessed, in order to accelerate the proceedings and to be judged internally, to avoid the painful and humiliating justice of the secular arm of the law.

Doubting that an infanticide could have been committed, the Vicars of the Bishop Fontana took the investigation very seriously. It was discovered that Suor Leonora had many opportunities to sin with the confessor—or with anyone else, if she pleased—because she had the keys to the convent, being the convent’s porter. More troubling still, the history of a long and questionable friendship between Suor Leonora and fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra was discovered, a friendship that was the source of a deep division among the nuns of Santa Lucia, because the confessor’s preferences challenged the status of a nun who was in higher social standing than Suor Leonora, Suor Doralice, as he obliged his favorite to spend as much time as possible with him. The wounded honour of Suor Doralice and the nuns who were loyal to her dig tensions between family groups and factions that divided the community, kept in the shadows until the opportunity arose in order to force the superiors to look in the convent’s disputes. This is the occasion of Suor Leonora’s pregnancy, who, instead of being hidden by the community was deliberately and theatrically brought to the eyes of the superiors by the presentation the baby’s body to the refectory.

During the interrogations, Suor Leonora admitted little by little that the sinful act was voluntary, that she herself opened the door of the enclosure to the confessor, and that they repeated the sin for several months, between January 1600 and Lent. In the end, the accusations of infanticide were abandoned but both were convicted of violating their vow of chastity and for Pocaterra, the sacrilege that is having sexual relationship with a nun. Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra was condemned to death by Pope Clement VIII, who insisted that the priest be executed publicly. Suor Leonora was confined to the convent.