Our Lady of Emmitsburg, Visionary Culture, and Catholic Identity

Seeing and Believing

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Jill Krebs
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , December
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the small-town of Emmitsburg, Maryland, a Catholic woman named Gianna Sullivan began having visions of and hearing messages from the Virgin Mary in 1989. Over the next twenty years, a community of followers began organizing weekly prayer meetings and constructing a grotto at the site of these visions. The Baltimore Archdiocese declared in 2001 that these visions were not supernatural, and began discouraging devotion at the site in 2008. But a community of devout was already well established. “Our Lady of Emmitsburg”—as the vision is now known—has since spurred community, controversy, and questions about Catholic identity. These themes are the focus of Jill Krebs’ ethnographic study of the “Emmitsburg Catholics” and their relationship with one another and “Our Lady.”

Krebs’s Our Lady of Emmitsburg, Visionary Culture, and Catholic Identity: Seeing and Believing is a thorough study of the Catholic community that surrounds Our Lady of Emmitsburg. With this book, Krebs contributes to scholarship on Marian devotion and contemporary Catholicism in the United States, as well as to an increasing interest in prayer practices among scholars of religion.

One of the primary strengths of this volume is how Krebs approaches the phenomenon of devotion to Our Lady of Emmitsburg from a variety of perspectives: the individual experiences of followers; the “visionary culture” within which these devotees have a relationship with Mary; and the tension-filled relationship between “Emmitsburg Catholics” who acknowledge the presence of Our Lady of Emmitsburg, and the Catholic hierarchy, which does not.

Using the frameworks of “autobiography” and “narrative methodology,” Krebs details how the devout situate themselves in relation to Mary. For example, she tells the story of a devotee named Julie who felt pushed toward Emmitsburg by a series of events in her life. Julie, Krebs argues, wove together a series of seemingly unrelated events to describe her calling to the Emmitsburg prayer group. These details illustrate how devotees see their lives intertwined with Mary.

Krebs’s work is carefully attuned to the broader context of what she calls “visionary culture.” This has two meanings: There is the immediate—and somewhat illicit—community of the devout who persist in worshiping Our Lady of Emmitsburg despite the archdiocese’s dismissal. But as Krebs argues, Our Lady of Emmitsburg is part of what a larger “Marian revival” of the last thirty years. The Mary that Gianna Sullivan saw in Emmitsburg has been shaped by the appearances of the Virgin at Fatima and Lourdes, as well as by Marian appearances in Conyers, Georgia and Bayside, New York. Krebs helpfully describes the ways in which these visions are interwoven for the community of the devout in Emmitsburg.

While Krebs’s work is primarily ethnographic, her portrait of contemporary Catholic practices also challenges some of the dominant historical narratives about Catholicism in the 20th and 21st centuries. Krebs contextualizes the devout in her study as “conservative” Catholics who vote pro-life and resist changes in Catholic teachings on artificial birth control. They interpret Our Lady’s warnings about secularism and liberalism as God’s warnings about the effects of these ideas. Yet, these Catholics freely resist the hierarchy’s dismissal of their devotion. They, much like “liberal” Catholics, refer to their individual consciences, and pray that Church leaders will convert to the Truth—capital T—of Our Lady of Emmitsburg. In drawing out these inconsistencies, Krebs’s study confirms the ongoing need for scholarship that considers the inheritance of the Second Vatican Council in the contemporary United States.

In addition to attention to these three perspectives on devotion to Our Lady of Emmitsburg, Krebs’s book concludes with a focus on the role of social media and religious practice. She joins an increasingly significant cadre of thinkers who argue that social media formats such as Facebook and Twitter are more than communication about Our Lady and events surrounding her: these media platforms are also the work of religious practice as they shape devotional practice, as when people tweet prayers to Mary or offer thanksgiving in a Facebook post.

Throughout this text, Krebs works carefully to point out the many binaries collapsed by the people in her study: between enchantment and modernity, between miraculous and empirical, between pre- and post-Vatican II, and between popular and official religion. The pay-off of this attention to nuance is a rich portrait of an under-studied subculture in contemporary American Catholicism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katherine Dugan is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jill M. Krebs is academic programs coordinator at McDaniel College.


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