Conspiracies and Catholicism: Nunsense

Didn’t you hear about that big archaeology dig they did a decade or two back, that one that found a bunch of dead babies secretly buried near a nunnery?
You mean the one with the babies in the septic tank?
No…
You mean the one in South America?
No…
You mean the one in Spain?
No, the one with a monastery and a secret tunnel connecting them… Somewhere in Europe, anyway. Rome? Italy?

I’ve taken a bit of artistic license* with an online conversation I had recently with peone who are not prone to Conspiracy Theories or even thinking poorly of others, and we spent quite a while trying to ferret out the exact version of this story– “a recent excavation found that nuns secretly buried a lot of their illegitimate children near the nunnery”– and never did actually find one that matched the details he remembered, although we did establish that he knew that Chick Tracks are best viewed as bad humor.

Now, the short and simple version of the answer for where this story came from is that nunneries often did nursing or other medical care, people would abandon children there, and– sadly– about half of the kids born up until recently would not survive to adulthood, even if their mothers were the healthiest around. This is one of the reasons that nunneries and monasteries often had graveyards, besides caring for their own members. (Burying the dead is an act of mercy.)

Here’s the more in detail version of answers for the various ‘you means’ above.

Babies In A Septic Tank

This is a fairly recent bit of mangled reporting. In England, a kindly lady knew that the locals cared for a little, unmarked cemetery at what use to be a government home for unwed mothers which was run by nuns; they knew there were seven (something) hundred. The lady was researching the nuns’ records and the government files to compile a list of names so the dead could have a little monument. A historian heard about it from researcher and also interviewed a man that had found bones in a stone-covered hole in the ground; at some point the historian became involved with a well-known anti-Catholic sensationalist and decided the two stories were connected, and the secular media got a hold of the story…and you end up with a report that almost eight hundred babies were found in a septic tank. The Catholic Anti-Defamation League did a very good job of collecting and correcting information on this story, although they missed Dr. McCormic’s letter to the editor, published in the Irish Times, pointing out that there is was a commonly used type of grave that (to an eight year old boy) would look a lot like a septic tank.

In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries.

South American

For this one, the country changes while the story doesn’t; a generic “secret tomb full of infants found while rebuilding an old church.” The only example that had anything close to specific was from the Snope’s message board, where someone’s brother in law claimed it happened in 2001 in either Chile or Argentina, and a Catholic Answers message board post from someone whose father had a street kid in Guatemala offer to show him where the nuns have their babies.
The utter lack of any details or– if it were horribly common– a single example of so much as a poorly characterized orphanage, similar to the Irish story, suggests that South America was just a handy place where one might think it’s possible for things to happen without being reported on in the daily news. (Well, before the Pope was chosen from the area. You know that if there was even a slightly plausible story, it would be all over the place, just from sensational appeal.)

Spain

Babies found in walls during renovation. I haven’t actually been able to find any sources beyond “things said to tourists” for this, but there’s a very probable source for it: Spain has some really impressive (and possibly freaky– click with care) ossuaries, and it’s reasonable to expect that even churches that don’t reach the level of building with piles of skeletons are going to be used by tour guides. Notably, this version I found as many mentions of just “bones” as I did “babies,” even when specifically looking for claims of dead infants.

Secret Death Tunnels

This is a surprisingly common theme– one that even anti-Catholic sites have people mentioning that they heard when they lived in places like Italy, and recognized as urban legends. Thankfully, I finally found a specific source for this one!

Pervy Anti-Catholic horror stories.**

No, really, let me quote the linked Catholic Answers Magazine story on the history:

In this tidal wave of anti-Catholic literature, books detailing convent horror stories became enormously popular in the United States in the 1830s, and most of these were imported from England. Works such as Female Convents and Secrets of the Nunneries Exposed established the common elements of anti-Catholic convent horror stories: lecherous priests, secret tunnels between seminaries and convents, and the babies who resulted from these unholy unions slaughtered and buried in the basements.

I’ll let you draw your own comparisons to more modern horror movies and their notorious tendencies involving attractive young women.  Please go read the rest of the article– it’s got several sad stories of mentally disturbed people being exploited, but you might need to have an idea of where to start countering some of the more basic stories.

In short, the stories of dead babies born to nuns and murdered by the same are a mixture of misunderstanding the evidence, trying to impress tourists, and sensational, attention-getting stories going back centuries.

Notes:
*I have tried to find the original conversation that inspired this post, and I believe it was at According to Hoyt, but booger all if I can manage it; if someone else does, I’ll gladly link to the entire chain.  It would have been sometime between October and December and I think it has some wonderful examples of people looking for the truth.

**I can sincerely say that I never would have pictured myself even thinking this phrase.

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