The Silent Body of Audrey Santo
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
Mathew Schmaltz, College of the Holy Cross
Date: October 11, 2005
Location: 24 Quincy, Boisi Center
Mathew Schmaltz, professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, presented “The Silent Body of Audrey Santo” on October 11. Santo is a twenty-one year old woman who, since the age of three and a half, has lived in a comatose state as a result of a swimming pool accident in 1987. Since that time, Santo has purportedly manifested the wounds of the stigmata, and statues have appeared to weep blood and oil in her presence. Five Eucharistic hosts have also reportedly bled when consecrated in her proximity. For nearly two decades, Catholic pilgrims have journeyed to the Santo home in Worcester, Massachusetts seeking healing and communion with her.
Schmaltz’s work, the first scholarly study of Audrey Santo, evaluates the competing interpretations of this phenomenon. He made it clear that he is unconcerned with proving or disproving the validity of the miracles associated with Santo. Rather, he has sought to explain the different notions of human embodiment and gender that have swirled around this young woman for the majority of her life. Although Audrey has not uttered a word in eighteen years, her “silent body” speaks within the context of the social construction of bodies, the abortion debates, and the notion of the Catholic Church as the body of Christ. For example, supporters have actively sacralized her body, creating a chapel replete with relics, photographs and videos. Many believers understand Santo as a “victim soul” atoning for the sins of others through her own personal suffering. The plight of Audrey, according to Schmaltz, has also been a locus of empowerment for women. Women, including Audrey’s mother Linda, lead the Apostolate of a Silent Soul—the lay organization formed to publicize and orchestrate the ministry of Audrey. The virtues of motherhood are celebrated and emphasized through the person of Linda and her utter devotion to her child. And Schmaltz further argues that Audrey’s suffering connects to women who live lives of “silent suffering” as under-appreciated care-giving professionals or as daughters and mothers in patriarchal families.
Schmaltz’s vivid picture of Audrey Santo generated a lively discussion. Among their many questions, audience members asked about the ethics of the public “consumption” of the incapacitated Santo, the attitudes of the official church toward her, and the phenomenon’s relationship to the supposedly increasing privatization of religion in America.