When Fr Victor Jouët’s church caught fire in 1897, he noticed a terrifying sight. Burned into the wall of the neo-Gothic Sacro Cuore del Suffragio in Rome was the image of a face seemingly crying out for help. The priest concluded that this could only be one thing: the soul of a deceased man in purgatory, calling out to the living for prayers to ease his passage to heaven.
The image spurred Fr Jouët to dedicate the rest of his life to searching Christendom for similar instances of the dead contacting the living. What resulted was the Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, one of the most unusual collections of artefacts in Rome.
Housed in Fr Jouët’s Sacro Cuore church, the museum is really little more than a cabinet on a wall. But what the museum lacks in size it makes up for in strangeness. There’s the nightcap of a man who woke to discover his deceased wife’s handprint burned into it; an apron with a similar mark; and fingerprints seared into the pages of prayer books. Indeed, hands and fire are a theme that runs through all the exhibits that Fr Jouët collected from across Europe.
Among the most striking is a prayer book from 1838 with the prints from a thumb and four fingers clearly burned into it, as if the hand was searing hot as it touched it. The museum guide says the prints belong to the deceased Joseph Schitz of Sarralbe in Lorraine, who asked his brother George for prayer in reparation for his lack of piety during his earthly life.
It is difficult to see how these careful marks could have been faked with the technology of that time, at least not without setting the whole book alight.
Another is a photograph of a mark left by a woman named Mrs Leleux on her son’s shirt when she appeared to him one night in 1789 in Belgium.
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