There is a gem that exists in Rome that is surprisingly not well visited or even known.It is the Piccolo Museum of the Poor Souls in Purgatory and many pilgrims miss it on their pilgrimage to Rome.It is comprised of one large display case on a single wall tucked in the back of the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio – the Church of the Sacred Heart of the Suffrage.
It is just a short distance from the Vatican, on the street that runs parallel to the Tiber, the Lungotevere.
The Church itself is a brilliant gothic jewel amid the otherwise heavy Renaissance churches in Rome. Inside, its three naves are crowned with altars to the Saints: outside, its central tower soars above the rest, points to Heaven moving the soul upward.
Over the entryway is a marble relief sculpture of the Poor Souls, who also look upward with hope, for Heaven is their destined home after their time of suffering is over. They look upward seeking relief. Catholic doctrine teaches us that Purgatory is a place of suffering, where souls atone for their sins.
The artifacts in the Museum attest to these truths. Each glassed display holds a different item – Scriptures, prayer books, a tabletop, an article of clothing – that bears the singed marks of the hands of souls in Purgatory.
These souls were permitted by God to return to earth to ask family members or friends for prayers or Masses and leave behind some evidence of their suffering. Thus, they give testimony for Catholics of all epochs that Purgatory exists, a physical place of fire and suffering.
Origin of the Museum
In the 19th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, ‘modern’ minds were already doubting these truths of the Catholic Faith. One good defense of the Faith came from a French priest, Fr. Victor Jouet of the Order of the Sacred Heart – founded in 1854 by Fr. Jules Chevalier with the purpose of saying Masses and prayers for the repose of the Poor Souls.
In 1897, the Order in Rome had a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. On September 15, the chapel caught fire. When it subsided, the clear image of a suffering face, portraying a soul in Purgatory, was noticed on one charred wall. This impressed Fr. Jouet deeply, and he became interested in finding other concrete evidence of manifestations of the souls in Purgatory to those living on earth.
With the support of Pope St. Pius X, Fr. Jouet traveled throughout Belgium, France, Germany and Italy, collecting these relics – proofs of the existence of Purgatory – to house in the Gothic Church that the Order was building to replace their chapel in Rome.
Part of the modest display case that composes the small Museum The Small Museum officially opened to the public the same year the Church opened for worship in 1917. Fr. Jouet’s successor, Fr. Gilla Gremigni, closed the museum in 1920, to give him time to authenticate the pieces. It remained shut for 30 years before it was again reopened.Here are a few of the items you can see at this little museum.
The scorched hand mark on the nightshirt of Joseph Leleux; below, fingerprints on the German prayerbook
Fingermarks, Joseph Schitz, Poor Souls Museum In one exhibit, we see a mark made by the deceased Mrs. Leleux on the sleeve of her son Joseph’s shirt when she appeared to him on the night of June 21, 1789, at Wodecq, Belgium. Her son later related that for 11 consecutive nights, he had been awakened in the night by frightening noises.
On the 12th night, his mother appeared to him to remind him of his duty to have Masses said for her soul in compliance with the terms of a legacy left him by his father. Then she reproached him for his way of life and beseeched him to change his behavior and to practice his Catholic Faith.
Before she disappeared, she placed her hand on the sleeve of his nightshirt, leaving a clear impression. Joseph Leleux was converted and later founded a pious congregation for the laity.
The second demonstration shows a prayer book of George Schitz, which bears the singed fingerprints of his deceased brother Joseph.
He appeared to George on December 31, 1838, at Sarrabe in Lorraine, France, and asked for prayers. Joseph told his brother that he was making expiation in Purgatory for his lack of piety during his life on earth.
Before he disappeared, he touched George’s prayer book, from which his brother had been praying, with his right hand, leaving burn marks.
Hand mark left by Marguerite Demmerle In another exhibit, you can see the mark left on the copy of The Imitation of Christ that belonged to Margherite Demmerlé of Ellinghen Parish in the Diocese of Metz by her mother-in-law.
She appeared to Margherite in 1815, 30 years after her death in 1785, dressed as a pilgrim in the region’s traditional dress. She was coming down the stairs with a sad face, as if she were looking for something, Margherite told her parish priest. When Margherite asked her who she was, she answered, “I am your mother-in-law who died in childbirth 30 years ago. Go on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariental and have two Masses said for me there.”
When Marguerite asked her for a sign, she put her hand on the copy of The Imitation of Christ her daughter-in-law was reading and left burn marks of her fingers. After Marguerite made the pilgrimage and the Masses were said, she appeared to her again to tell her that she had been released from Purgatory. This was all documented by her parish priest.
One of the most impressive exhibits is a rectangular slab of wood that displays two burn marks – a scorched hand mark and a sign of the cross. These marks were left on a small wooden table by the deceased Fr. Panzini, former Abbot on the Benedictine Olivetan Order in Mantua. On November 1, 1731, Fr. Panzini appeared to Ven. Mother Isabella Fornari, Abbess of the Poor Clares Monastery of St. Francis in Todi as she sat at her work desk. He told her he was suffering in Purgatory. As evidence of his state, he placed his flaming left hand on the table top and left a hand mark, and then he etched a cross on it with his finger. Before he disappeared, he touched the sleeve of her tunic with his right hand, leaving a burn mark on the tunic that passed through it to the chemise, all the way to the flesh. There is a clear mark on the chemise, which is stained with blood from the burn Mother Fornari received. The tunic and chemise are displayed in another exhibit.
The Abbess reported this visit to her confessor, Fr. Isidoro Gazata, a Holy Cross father. He wrote a report and ordered her to cut from her tunic and chemise the parts where the burn marks were made and to give them to him to keep. He also preserved the tabletop with the scorched hand mark and cross. These artifacts were examined by theologians and other experts of the Diocese, and determined to be of supernatural origin.
When Fr. Victor Jouet began his search at the beginning of the 20th century to find evidence of vestiges left by the Poor Souls in Purgatory, the Monastery gave him all of these relics, which were duly authenticated and are now displayed in the Small Museum. This collection was part of the legacy he left his Order of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage, which was founded with the aim of spreading the devotion to the Sacred Heart as a source of help to the souls in Purgatory, according to the revelations of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
On the night of June 5, 1894, the deceased Sister Maria of St. Louis Gonzaga, known for her piety, appeared to Sister Margherita, another nun in Poor Clares Convent of St. Clare in Bastia, Perugia. To the surprise of Sister Margherita, Sister Maria said that she was in Purgatory.
A close up of the scorch mark left on Sister Margherita’s pillow As recorded in the Convent annals, Sister Maria had been suffering greatly from tuberculosis, high temperature, coughs and asthma. She became depressed and prayed that she might die quickly so as not to endure such suffering. She died a holy death a few days later, on the morning of June 5, 1894.
It was that same night that she appeared to Sister Margherita dressed in her Poor Clare habit. Although the atmosphere around her was hazy, Sister Margherita could recognize her. Sister Maria told her that she was in Purgatory to expiate for her lack of patience in accepting God’s will, and she asked for prayers.
As a proof of her apparition, she placed her forefinger on the pillow of Sister Margherita, leaving a scorch mark, and promised to return. In fact, she appeared again to the same nun on June 20 and 25 to thank her for her prayers and to tell her she would be released from Purgatory. She also offered some spiritual advice for the community.
Three finger prints burned into the prayer book cover of Maria Zaganti On March 5, 1871, Palmira Rastelli, who had died on December 28, 1870, appeared to her friend Maria Zaganti. She asked Maria to tell her brother, Fr. Sante Rastelli, to have Masses said for her soul because she was suffering in Purgatory.
Palmira left proof of her appearance by touching the cover of Maria’s prayer book. Three scorched finger marks can be seen on it.
What is clear from these examples is there is a fire in Purgatory, as in Hell. But in Purgatory, the soul suffers with perfect resignation, knowing that it is heading to Heaven. Blessed Ann Catherine Emmerich had frequent contacts with poor souls. Describing one of her visits to Purgatory, she said:
“It is touching to see the Poor Souls so quiet and sad. Yet their faces reveal that they have joy in their hearts, because of their recollection of God’s loving mercy. On a glorious throne, I saw the Blessed Virgin, more beautiful than I had ever beheld her. She said: ‘I entreat you to instruct people to pray for the Suffering Souls in Purgatory, for they certainly will pray much for us out of gratitude. Prayer for these holy souls is very pleasing to God because it enables them to see Him sooner.’”
From these examples, we see that God permitted certain Suffering Souls to return to earth to ask for prayers and Masses to be said for their souls so that they might receive relief in their sufferings and end their time of expiation sooner. Surely this should stimulate us to help the Poor Souls in Purgatory, especially in these days of crisis in the Church when they are so forgotten.