Postcards from Purgatory at Rome’s Smallest Museum

The spires of the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio are dwarfed by the nearby bulk of the Palazzaccio – Rome’s Palace of Justice, famous because it’s too heavy for its foundations and is sinking slowly into the ground. Inside the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore, a hallway holds Rome’s smallest museum, and one of it’s strangest – a glass case filled with items imprinted by the hands of souls trapped in purgatory.

When I first wandered into the purgatory museum, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. I had a vague idea that according to someone, a place called purgatory existed as a sort of holding cell for those not good enough for heaven nor truly wicked enough for hell. I imagined it as a perpetually gray existence – one where there is no mozarella di bufala, but no Nickelback either.

creepy statue pope lighting halloween ghost church rome italy
Nothing better than a creepy statue of a man in a pope hat.
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View of the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio from across the Tiber river.

I later learned that the Catholic church teaches that souls which have left earth must be cleansed in purgatory before they enter heaven. It is believed that the singed handprints found on the prayer books, nightcaps, tables and cash found in the museum come from souls trapped in purgatory begging their loved ones to pray harder.

Limbo is a concept anyone with a TV is distantly familiar with, the idea that souls can somehow be stuck somewhere in time and space, pending judgement of some sort. The idea has fueled centuries of ghost stories. Having grown up in a Protestant church, attending Sunday school in a lightless rooms where I was taught that believing in ghosts was an ultimate sin, I find it fascinating that a church would host a museum of this sort, where singed handprints are the sign of what I can only describe as ghosts reaching out the the mortal world. But then, I still think the Pope’s hats should be considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Exploring the Sacro Cuore and tales of purgatory

We ended up waiting outside the church for around 20 minutes before a grumpy-looking man with tousled grey hair shuffled out, pushing open the heavy front door and unlatching the gate. The dimly lit church has all the trappings of the neo-gothic, with rows of thick columns ending in pointed arches. To the right of the altar, a hallway with plain white plaster walls and fluorescent lighting leads out to a courtyard. I nearly wandered outside before realizing I’d walked right through the museum without noticing it.

Though we knew the museum would be small, it was laughably so. All of the relics are held in a single glass display case mounted on the wall, a collection of handprints and crosses singed into various materials and mounted in tacky golden frames. Handouts printed in various language detail the story of the different artifacts in dry un-descriptive prose:

A finger print left by the pious Sister Mary of St. Luigi Gonzaga, when she appeared to Sister Margareth of the Sacred Heart, on the night between 5 and 6 June 1894. As recorded in the annals of the monastery of St. Clare of the Child Jesus in Basita (Perugia)…

The story goes on to describe Sister Mary’s struggle with tuberculosis, her acceptance of God’s will, and her holy death. That same night, however, she appeared to another nun with the news that despite her piety, she had ended up in purgatory. Mary begged Sister Margareth to prayer for her soul, and placed her forefinger on the pillow to leave proof of her visit, along with a promise to return. Before her ascent into heaven she reappeared to Sister Margareth to give her spiritual advice straight from the realm of the dead.

sacro cuore church rome italy purgatory museum weird creepy halloween
Just one small part of the museum’s collection. If I showed it all to you, you wouldn’t have to go.

Another story tells of a deceased Abbot who reappeared to an abbess, leaving a handprint on her tunic which passed through into her underclothes and stained them with blood. Another relic, Joseph’s shirt, is accompanied by the tale of a young man’s 11 nights of terror hearing strange noises within his home. Then, one night his mother appeared to him, reproaching him for his sinful habits and begging him to change his ways and to work for the church. Joseph later converted and died within the church.

The museum won’t take much more than 10 minutes of your time to see, unless you have an active imagination. Regardless, coupled with the quiet (and creepy) tranquility of the church, and the fact that it is free, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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