ROME — Where can you find one of the world's eeriest museums? A museum that provides proof that some people have "returned to earth from the beyond?"
It's here in Rome, and for more than 35 years it has drawn tourists who are fans of the occult. Anybody who enters the Purgatory Museum flanking the River Tiber sees some truly mystifying things.
Known also as the House of Shadows, the museum displays some pieces of charred cloth, a painting, several photographs, a plank of wood and a few old prayer books. Each of these has a reason for being in the unusual array: Each bears the print of a hand or finger burned into the surface by "some soul who came back from purgatory asking for prayers that would release him into paradise."
Although the museum was built with the encouragement of Pope Pius X and Pope Benedict XV, the Vatican today remains steadfastly silent about the "signs from those who return."
Yet each thing on exhibit is there because its history has been thoroughly documented, according to the curator, the Rev. Renato Simeone.
For instance, there is the burned hand print of Madame Leleux on her son's sleeve, which dates to June 21, 1798. Dead 27 years, according to museum data, she appeared in front of her son and begged him to change his sinful ways--which he did.
Before she left she touched his sleeve to provide him with a visible sign of her visitation. After the apparition the son converted to a life of Christian principles, founded a religious order and lived out his days in a pious and charitable way.
In another documented case the apparition of a young woman's mother-in-law, who had been dead for three decades, asked the woman, Margherita Demmerle, to make a pilgrimage and have two Masses said for her.
Fingerprints on Book
After she carried out the dead woman's request, Margherita was visited again by the apparition, who reported that she had at last been liberated from purgatory. As the mother-in-law was about to depart, Margherita asked for a sign to prove her authenticity.
Placing a trembling hand on a nearby open prayer book, the visitor burned a deep hole through some of the pages. That was in 1814. The prayer book with the fingerprints is on permanent display here.
Perhaps the most important relic on exhibit is the mark of a left hand and a crude cross, both burned into wood. Originally this was the top of a worktable owned by Mother Chiara Isabella Fornari, prioress of the Clarisse Sisters of Todi.
On the night of Nov. 1, 1731, the nun received a visit from the dead Abbot of Mantova, Father Panzini. Although the details of the conversation between the priest and the nun were never given, she did report that Father Panzini left evidence of his presence by drawing a cross with his finger and leaving his hand print on the table.
Closed in 1920
"The assortment in the Purgatory Museum was started by Father Vittore Jouet toward the end of the 19th Century, and he traveled far and wide to accumulate quite a large collection of things," Rev. Simeone said.
"The museum remained open until 1920, when his successor, Father Gilla Gremigni, decided to reorganize the exhibit and eliminate all but the most thoroughly authenticated pieces. The museum remained shut for 30 years, and when it reopened only a very small number of things had survived penetrating inquiry, thanks to some solid documentation."
All the remaining exhibits have been placed behind a locked glass panel in a large cupboard in the annex of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio Church, which is on the Lungotevere Prati within view of Castel Sant'Angelo. There is no sign or arrow to indicate where the showcase is, but a visitor will find it by walking to the door at the right of the altar.
Often one must ring the sacristy and ask the custodian to open the door to the Museum del Purgatorio. Admission is free.
Silently he will lead you into a dark corridor and then into a windowless room. Though small, it's enough to burn its own imprint on your mind.