January 19 2021

The Flying House of Loreto and the Growth of Catholicism with Karin Vélez

Karin Vélez explains how the 12th century myth of the flying house of Loreto, which tells the story of the home of the Virgin Mary flew away from the Holy Land and settled on the coastal town of Loreto, Italy, served as narrative grounding for the expansion of Catholicism through varied, voluntary, independent devotional movements across the world.

Vélez is assistant professor of pre-1800 global history at Macalester College and the author of The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World (Princeton University Press, for which she won AAR's 2019 Award for the Best First Book in the History of Religions. She is interviewed by Kristian Petersen.

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News, I'm your host Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Karin Vélez, associate professor of history at Macalester College and winner of the Best First Book in the History of Religions award. She's here to speak to us about her book, The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World, published with Princeton University Press. Congratulations Karin, and thanks for joining me.

Karin Vélez:

Thank you.

Kristian Petersen:

So this was a really interesting topic. The subject matter you cover really kind of grips you and brings you in, and you take this innovative approach. I'm wondering if you could just start us off a little bit about how this project started to emerge for you? Where does it fit into the types of questions that you're interested in answering? And what were some of the broader conceptual interventions you were hoping to make with the book?

Karin Vélez:

Great. Yeah, thanks. This is a project that took me many years, and I came to it in a very kind of roundabout way. I was very interested in miracles in Christianity, and I came across the story of the flying house of Loreto, which is the house of the Virgin Mary reportedly carried away from the Holy Land by angels in the 1290s and deposited on a coastal hilltop in Italy. So that miracle account intrigued me, but what actually really drew me beyond that was that Jesuits were fascinated by this miracle as well. And in general, people tend to associate Jesuits with being more prosaic and practical in the spectrum of Catholic missionaries, but they actually liked the idea of Loreto so much that they ended up creating replica holy houses in a later period in the 1600s and carrying them to missions all over the world. And I was mystified by that. I just didn't quite understand why the Jesuits would do that, and that drew me to answering the bigger question of how does Catholicism move? Why do people choose to move it? And how does it move to new places and take root?

So originally when I started this project, I thought I would find a handful of Jesuits who very deliberately had a plan to move Loreto to missions that they named after Loreto. And I looked at three different missions, Lorette among the Huron in Canada, Loreto among the Mojos people in Bolivia, and Loreto Conchó, which was in Baja, California among the Monqui. And I didn't find that at all. Actually, I found that the Jesuits who did end up rebuilding Loreto holy houses and naming missions after Loreto did not have some kind of organized plan. And actually part of the mechanism that moved the devotion was kind of rogue and spontaneous and serendipitous. There was no master plan, and that's where the book was born.

Kristian Petersen:

Now this myth in the central, it's really interesting, and I could see why you would be captivated by it to find out more. Can you tell us a little bit about kind of just the background we would need to know to understand this a little bit better if we're not familiar with Christianity? So who were these communities of Christians that were upholding this narrative myth, who were the subjects that were spreading it, what was going on at this time that they would be going to this various locations?

Karin Vélez:

Yeah, that's a great question. One of the difficulties of studying this particular miracle account is that I think historians tend to want to pin it on a particular time and place. For instance, Jesuits in the 1600s, and I can tell you a little bit about each of those communities, but one of the interesting things about Loreto is that it involved a lot of different time periods and a lot of support. So it's many different communities. It was very kind of collaborative and cross time and cross region.

So the Jesuit missionaries were my lead and kind of entry point to this. I was using a lot of their accounts and sources to study this, and they are or were, in the 17th century, a relatively new group of Catholic missionaries who had a strong agenda to spread Catholicism overseas. So they tended to travel to the farthest frontiers, the most dangerous zones, really wanting to convert people. Loreto in Italy is associated with a shrine that is kind of obviously a much older Christianity.

So I would classify the Christians who were working at that shrine as a kind of older Christians. Then you have these Jesuit missionaries who are actually trained in teaching Christianity who are kind of middle Christians, but the most interesting activity to me around Loreto were the new Christians. The populations that I was looking at were indigenous communities on the frontier who were being introduced to Christianity for the first time, and who really found aspects of the Holy House of Loreto and the Virgin Mary to be very appealing. So the Jesuits introduce it and teach it, but the real energy comes from these newer populations who actually then end up contributing to the Miracle of Loreto. And they're not easy to find in the historical record, because they're not named, like the Jesuit missionaries are all named and credited with it, but the people who are actually carrying forward the devotion are new.

And just to give one kind of concrete example of that, the mission of Lorette among the Huron in Canada was a specific group of Huron refugees who actually had initially converted to Christianity in the Great Lakes in the Saint Marie mission, and then because of warfare ended up fleeing that site. They fled about 800 miles to Quebec City, resettled on the outskirts of Quebec City and the Jesuits built a new there to Loreto. And for those Huron, they had actually converted to Christianity in their lifetime, and heard the story of Loreto from the Jesuit missionaries, but then took pride on this mission being named after Loreto and carried it with them to new branches of the Loreto Mission.

Kristian Petersen:

These case studies really flesh out your approach, which I think is one of the appealing things about your book. And you use this structure where you have a juxtaposition of this narrative feature alongside a more historical context, and then kind of a synthesis. And so can you tell us a little bit about this framing? How does this approach help you analyze your subjects?

Karin Vélez:

Thanks for that question. Basically in my book, I felt like I wanted to showcase the methodology and the difficulty of trying to decipher miracle accounts, because they do kind of resist historicization in a particular way, partly because they're additive. So if you freeze them at a particular moment, they might sound irrelevant, abstract, difficult to believe, but what gives them their power over time is actually that they have additive layers of people's personal experience with a narrative and new interpretations.

So what I was trying to do with each chapter of the book was to show that, to actually start with the narrative, and then show the different layers that were being added onto it by people's lived experience. And demonstrate again, not just the history of the Flying House of Loreto and how that helped to spread Catholicism, but also just a way of doing history and understanding miracle accounts. And I feel like at this particular moment in time, it's especially relevant, partly because the additive layers of the Loreto story tend to be tied to people who were moving. Refugee communities, stories that were carried from one place to another, and particularly in 2020 with pandemic and climate change, people are moving a lot, and in their wake, I feel like we're going to get a lot more stories that sound like the Miracle of Loreto, right? Houses must and will fly.

And our histories are, actually what I mean by that, is that our histories are going to look a lot more like these miracle accounts, which right now people don't really know how to read or understand how to read, because they're presented as ahistorical. they're presented as validated only by belief instead of by true historical experience, and there's a way to actually study and understand miracle as history that I was trying to showcase in my book.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. And this, I really appreciated from the book, I think part of the success of the book is both the synthesis of previous scholarship, but then this kind of advancement of new interpretive strategy. So could you outline these new paths you've taken in relation to what previous scholarship has done? How might we think about this in kind of broader context, these interpretive strategies you outline?

Karin Vélez:

Each chapter that I outlined in the book, what I was trying to do is not just show the layering, but actually specifically counter particular ways that historians have looked at this in the past. And just to give an example of one of them, a lot of times when historians approach Catholicism, just the history of Catholicism in general, they tend to look for a political agenda, right? It's like a wizard behind the scrim. There is a Jesuit who believed in Loreto when he transmitted it to other people. So they want to tie it to a particular person who had a specific political agenda, not even necessarily a religious and spiritual agenda, but like a political ability to profit from it.

And so rather than describing the history of this in that way, there were certain chapters where I was trying to counter pinning it on a single Jesuit author. For instance, the Jesuit who brought the replica Holy House to the Mission of Lorette in Canada had a very interesting past, but the chapter in which I talk about him, instead of crediting him with like actually bringing Lorette to the Huron single-handedly, I discuss him in a chapter on accidental pilgrims, where I'm actually trying to highlight that far from being kind of this deliberate Machiavellian author who wanted to profit from this, he came to Loreto in a very roundabout weird way himself. He was a runaway as a child who joined the Jesuit order late, and he had this miraculous encounter at the Shrine of Loreto in Italy that sort of inspired him to take a vow to remember her wherever he ended up. And he ended up in Canada with this community of Huron refugees.

In the chapter on accidental pilgrims, I talk about Pierre Chaumonot, the Jesuit, and his experience as a pilgrim, kind of an accidental pilgrim who ended up in Loreto by coincidence. I compare his experience to that of one of the Huron refugees, a man called Ignace Tsaouenhohoui, that particular Ignace, ended up running away from the Great Lakes region and kind of having various encounters with Christianity that solidified his fate. But it was very serendipitous, as with Pierre Chaumonot, there wasn't a lot of kind of deliberate authorship, or again, the word that I keep thinking of is Machiavellian, right? A particular person who says I will deliberately spread Loreto so I will profit from it. No, these are both men who came at it through pilgrimage in this very organic way and in a very voluntary way. And that counters the way that historians usually tell the story, and it also counters a lot of interpretations that we have about Catholicism that it spread largely through sinister indoctrination, or only by the sword, or only when there was great force behind it. It actually highlights this kind of area of voluntary participation. A category that is difficult to describe with traditional intellectual analysis, and that requires a layering.

So to get back to the question that you'd originally asked me about how I actually set it up in the book, again, with chapters like accidental pilgrims, I'm trying to offset old patterns of how we talk about the transmission of Christianity by highlighting the overlap, and associations, and parallels between people from different regions, from different times, from different types of experience with Christianity and showing that that overlap is actually part of how Christianity spread.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. And you do that really well in some of the other areas of the book where you kind of highlight the idea of this kind of reception, and you talk about it in this idea of pairings, and you've mentioned this idea of this kind of additive type of property where you're looking at kind of that the outcomes of the introduction of the myth, and its associated, devotional practices within these new contexts. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that this tradition made room for communal creativity and devotional accumulation? How was the spread of Catholicism fostered by local participation and enthusiasm?

Karin Vélez:

Yeah. I like how you talk about it as devotional accumulation, because I think that describes really well sort of what I was trying to get at here with the spread of the Loreto devotion. One case study that I use in the book is actually Marion imagery. The icon of the Virgin of Loreto is a black Madonna statue. She's housed in the shrine in Italy. What I was trying to look at when I discussed that image is not just how it changes, but how that particular image of the Madonna of Loreto accumulates different layers. So it's not just that black statue, but there's a lot of devotional artwork that's associated with the Madonna of Loreto, and in a lot of the paintings and images that were carried to the new world, she goes from a 3D statue that's dark, to a white Madonna that's kind of a standard painting of Mary. And then in addition to just that media change, you get this phenomenon in frontier missions of a lot of women who are actually seeing this imagery, and also being named after Mary. And so I was making an argument in that chapter that some of these new converts and women who were named Mary were actually contributing to the image of Mary, or her public image by their actions, and often they are self-conscious and deliberate repetition of things that they saw in images.

And the example that I give in one of the chapters is Marie Tsaouenté, who was one of the converts at the mission of Lorette in Canada. And the Jesuits describe her giving a speech on her doorstep and their description of the speech very much calls to mind a famous painting of the Madonna of Loreto that was done in Italy by the famous artist Caravaggio. And he drew the Madonna of Loreto standing on the threshold of a house, barefoot and kind of leaving that domestic space. And I think a lot of times people consider different art media separately, and privilege particular representations over others. But the beauty of the mythohistory of Loreto is that actually for many people, the way they experienced this was as many different images layered one on top of the other. So for their experience of Catholicism, they would not necessarily have distinguished between a black statue of Mary, a white painting of Mary, Huron women called Marie, all of those were Mary. All of those contributed to the way they felt about the Virgin Mary as she moved through the world, and as she was represented.

So I was trying to, again, skirt a lot of the analytical categories that we impose us as scholars to get at that kind of lived religious experience of how people encountered particular aspects of the devotion of Loreto, the Virgin Mary, the flying house, the litany of Loreto. How people encounter different aspects of it and experienced it really as something that had power by association.

Kristian Petersen:

Now there's obviously a lot more to the book, so listeners will have to go out and get a copy and read through, but I'm wondering if you have any kind of final takeaways that you might want to offer for folks in the broader study of religion. How might they benefit from your work either in applying your conclusions or your methodologies, or what might you want them to know about the book?

Karin Vélez:

Yeah, I guess a couple of different things, the first, the most important one to me would actually just be this kind of collaborative dimension to religion. That there's a lot of unofficial, unlicensed, unacknowledged unsolicited participation from people who aren't Jesuit missionaries, and who aren't super well-trained. And that actually contributes to Catholicism in ways that make religion look a lot more like Wikipedia than we usually acknowledge, right? You actually have a lot of kind of rogue contributors who are contributing to how religion spreads and how it grows and transforms. So that's the first part. And the second takeaway would just be that again, the miracle of the Flying House of Loreto was a very beautiful thing with this whole idea of the angels carrying the Holy House and depositing it in Italy. But I would just say it's kind of interesting to me, still in 2020, that angels are sometimes easier for us to imagine than what actually happens.

So today I think we have a lot of skepticism about voluntary participation, or the idea that religions might spread partly because there was an appeal to it, or certain people actually really did resonate with it, right? I kind of feel like that has gotten lost in a lot of recent scholarship that has emphasized the violence, the top-down imposition of religion, and I don't want to say that that never happened, or that that area of study is not important because it is, but it has so overshadowed scholarship lately that people haven't been giving voice to this other idea of voluntary participation being key to the survival and spread of a religion.

Kristian Petersen:

Well, it's really a very interesting book, and I hope it will be widely read, and congratulations on the award.

Karin Vélez:

Thank you very much. Thank you.