NEW JERUSALEM CATHOLIC CHURCH TIMELINE
1886 (January 8): Giuseppe Maria Abbate was born in Isnello, Sicily, Italy.
1906 (April 22): Abbate arrived in the United States. After a brief stay in Brooklyn, New York, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a barber.
1906: Abbate saw Jesus walking into his barbershop. Sitting in a barber chair, he announced that Abbate was the Celestial Messenger, requesting him to preach to humanity and ordaining him to the priesthood.
1910s: Abbate received frequent divine messages. He studied the Bible, in particular, the Old Testament prophetical literature and the Book of Revelation, gradually realizing that he was the Messiah, the Second Coming of Christ.
1912: While in St. Mary’s Church praying to be healed from rheumatism, Jesus appeared to Abbate. Subsequently, he had a vision of an angel. When leaving the Church, Abbate was brought up in the air and heard God’s voice saying: “My divine authority is already in you.”
1913: Abbate had a vision of a blue cross over Lake Michigan and the words “I am, who I am” appeared before his eyes.
1915: The reincarnated Virgin Mary was born in Chicago.
1917: By this time, God had revealed to Abbate that he was born on Mars but died aged seven. After that, his soul was brought to Heaven. However, he only stayed there briefly as God wanted him to save humanity from perdition. Therefore, he was transported to earth being reborn in a family in Isnello.
1917: Abbate founded La Chiesa Cattolica Nuova Gerusalemme del Messagiero Celeste (The New Jerusalem Catholic Church of the Celestial Messenger). The church acquired a house at 2021 DeKalb Street, which housed the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, a school as well as Abbate’s and his closest co-workers’ residences and offices.
1917 or 1918: Abbate founded a male religious order, the Order of the Celestial Messenger.
1918: Abbate consecrated Lumeno Monte a bishop.
1919 (May 2): The New Jerusalem Catholic Church filed a Common Law Trust with the State of Illinois.
1922 (April 10): The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was damaged in a bomb attack.
1922 (September 10): Abbate, now most often known as Padre Celeste, was reported to the police for having abused a twelve-year-old girl sexually.
1923: Abbate was tried for sexual assault, declared criminally insane, and confined to Elgin State Hospital.
1925: Abbate was released from the hospital.
1926: The authorities investigated the New Jerusalem Catholic Church for tax evasion and seized Abbate’s crown and pectoral cross.
1926: Abbate founded a female religious order: The Order of Our Most Blessed Mother, Queen of Peace Reincarnated.
1931: Abbate was reported to the police for statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. At the subsequent trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
1932: The Supreme Court of Illinois invalidated the first trial and relegated the case to a lower court. At the new trial, Abbate was sentenced to ten years in prison, but was later declared criminally insane and once more brought to the mental institution.
1933 (December): Abbate was released from Elgin State Hospital but was soon forced to return.
1935 (June): Abbate was released from the hospital for the last time.
1945: The New Jerusalem Catholic Church members left their old house and moved their headquarters to the Old Irving Park area on the Northwest Side of Chicago. There they began to construct a separate church building, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
1955 (June 4): John E. Schweikert was ordained a priest in the North American Old Roman Catholic Church.
1958 (June 8): Schweikert was consecrated a bishop in the North American Old Roman Catholic Church.
1963 (October 13): Abbate died, and Marianna Monachino, the Mother General of The Order of Our Most Blessed Mother, Queen of Peace Reincarnated, took over the administration of the New Jerusalem Church.
1964–1965?: The Mother General approached the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chicago, trying to convince them to send a priest who could administer the sacraments in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
1965: By referral of Roman Catholic clergy, the Mother General contacted John E. Schweikert, who had recently become the Archbishop-Primate of the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. He accepted to administer the sacraments while investigating the status of the New Jerusalem Catholic Church.
1965 (September 16): Schweikert said his first Mass in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
1967 (December 1): The Mother General appointed Schweikert the Successor of the Celestial Messenger, Giuseppe Maria Abbate, though Schweikert did not believe in Abbate’s divine status, nor accept his episcopal consecration.
1968 (February 18): Archbishop Schweikert was enthroned as the Celestial Messenger’s successor, and he was given the name Santo Padre Maria Michael I.
1969: The last remaining member of the Order of the Celestial Messenger died.
1971: The nuns started the Little Sisters School for disabled children.
1987: Schweikert consecrated Theodore Rematt bishop. As Schweikert was very ill, Rematt was nominated his co-adjutor and successor.
1988 (May 29): Schweikert died and was succeeded by Archbishop Rematt.
1989: The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart was closed.
1990-1995. A series of legal processes took place between Archbishop Rematt on one side and the nuns and part of the church members on the other.
2004: Archbishop Rematt left the Sacred Heart Cathedral, which was closed down and sold. The parishioners were scattered.
The Chiesa Cattolica di Nouva Gerusalemme del Messagiero Celeste (the New Jerusalem Church of the Celestial Messenger) was a religious group founded in Chicago towards the end of the 1910s. It was led by the Italian-American Giuseppe Maria Abbate, [Image at right] who claimed to be divine. He was usually called Padre Celeste (the Heavenly Father). Abbate died in 1963, but the Church survived his death. Still, from the mid-1960s onwards it was led by clerics who did not believe in his divinity. However, the reverence for Abbate persisted among members of his religious orders and the vast majority of the congregation.
Giuseppe Maria Abbate was born in Isnello, Sicily on January 8, 1886. By the time of his birth, the town had around 4,000 inhabitants, and as many other rural parts in Sicily, the local economy focused on agriculture and pastoring. Abbate’s father, however, was a police officer, and the family did not belong to the area’s most impoverished strata; he attended school until the sixth grade. Nevertheless, for Abbate and several of his relatives, leaving Sicily seemed the only viable option.
At the age of twenty, in 1906, Giuseppe Abbate immigrated to the United States. Having arrived in New York, he stayed briefly in Brooklyn, before moving to Chicago. In the years after the turn of the century, vast numbers of Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. Many of them returned after a period overseas, but Abbate was among those who remained in the United States, never returning to Italy, not even for a visit. Arriving in Chicago, he became a barber, and at that time, his name was often anglicized as Joseph or Joe.
According to news reports from the late 1910s and the Church’s later publications, Abbate’s life changed dramatically in 1906. Still, it is difficult to establish an exact chronology of the series of spiritual experiences he experienced a few years before and after 1910 as the sources are somewhat vague. According to his testimony, one afternoon in 1906, when wielding a razor, Christ entered his barbershop on Polk Street. Taking a seat in the barber’s chair, Christ asked Abbate if he knew Hebrew. Answering in the negative, Christ used Latin to state that God had chosen Abbate as his Celestial Messenger, ordering him to preach and found a church. On this occasion, Christ also ordained him to the priesthood so that he could fulfil this mission.
Still, the story about how he became sure of his mission and full powers seems to be more complicated and gradual. In the years around 1910, Abbate received divine messages regularly, and he began studying the Bible. His studies focused on the Old Testament prophetical literature and the Book of Revelation in search of clues that could explain his role and the future the world at large.
A significant change took place in 1912 or 1913. Abbate had begun to suffer from rheumatism and had problems moving his limbs. To pray for recovery, he went to St. Mary’s Church near his home. Before a statue of Christ, Abbate prayed to him and Our Lady of Lourdes. Suddenly, he saw the image smiling and blessing him. After that, he had a vision of an angel, who was dressed as a warrior. He was wearing helmet, mantle, a staff with a five-pointed star, a sword by his side, and a lance in his hand. When Abbate walked out on the street, he was suddenly brought up in the air and realized that he was healed. According to later church publications, he could have chosen to go to Heaven but decided to fulfil his mission on earth. Then God said: “La mia Podestà Divina è già in Te” (“My divine authority is already in you”). To Abbate, it was a confirmation that be possessed divine powers, that he was omnipotent and omniscient.
Apart from realizing that he possessed divine powers, Abbate somewhat later claimed that God had revealed that he had an extraterrestrial origin. He was born on Mars, a planet he described as sin-free and a place where the people showed great reverence for their creator. However, at the age of seven, he was run over by a chariot and died. After his death, Abbate traveled through the universe and came before God’s throne. Nevertheless, he only remained there briefly as God wanted to send him to earth to work for the salvation of the increasingly sinful humanity. Abbate was hesitant at first, but then said “Eccomi, manda me” (“Here I am, send me”). After that, an angel brought him to Isnello, [Image at right] where he was reborn in a Sicilian family. Later in life, Abbate made detailed drawings of Mars and its cities, significant events during his childhood, and his travels through space. The pictures were printed in the Church’s missionary publications complemented by texts in both Italian and English.
Abbate reported yet another vision in 1913. Then he saw a blue cross over Lake Michigan with the words “Sono quel che sono” (“I am who I am”), a phrase that later appeared on his coat of arms. [Image at right] Another important revelation was contained in the words “Alfa, Elfa, Sette,” which would appear in all the Church’s publications and on many religious objects. It referred to the persons in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Apart from the stories about his background, the election to carry out God’s mission in the End-time and his divine powers, there is little information about the contents of Abbate’s actual teachings in the early years.
Combining his roles as barber and priest for some time, from around 1915, Abbate was able to dedicate himself to full-time ministry, focusing on the Italian immigrants, not least the recently arrived. He became increasingly well-known for his healing powers. These reports naturally contributed to his popularity. Abbate kept a register of all the miracles and later publications included many testimonies of that kind. Still, he maintained that his powers went far beyond the Italian community in Chicago. Among other things, he maintained that he had caused the Spanish flu to combat human sinfulness and that he was responsible for the epidemic stalling. Moreover, he thought that if humanity only had submitted to his authority, the World War would have been halted, as he was the promised Prince of Peace.
In Abbate’s understanding, the Old Testament prophecies and the Book of Revelation foresaw his arrival to earth, the divine election and the inauguration of a new church. Though a somewhat stable group of adherents existed before, in 1917, Abbate founded a formal church organization. It was called La Chiesa Cattolica di Nuova Gerusalemme del Messaggiero Celeste (the New Jerusalem Catholic Church of the Celestial Messenger). In Italian, the word is usually spelt “messagero,” but the Church always used “messagiero.” At about the same time, Abbate also established a male religious order, The Order of the Celestial Messenger.
The New Jerusalem Church had its headquarters in a small, three-story building at 2021 DeKalb Street in the Near West Side area of Chicago, in one of the “Little Italies.” It housed a school and a kitchen on the base floor. Upstairs was the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, also known as the Santo Tempio (the Holy Temple) and sometimes the Tempio del Sole (the Temple of the Sun). At the top level was the monastery, where Abbate lived and had his offices. By the last years of the 1910s, Abbate called himself Giuseppe Maria Abbate di Carmelo. After the church was founded, Abbate most often referred to himself as Padre Celeste (the Heavenly Father). Most, if not all of the early adherents, were Italian immigrants, and the vast majority of them women. It is difficult to establish the exact number of followers, but they were at least 300, and at some point maybe as many as 500.
In May 1919, the New Jerusalem Catholic Church of the Celestial Messenger filed a Common Trust Agreement with the State of Illinois, which later incorporated it. According to the official statutes, Abbate was “the sole trustee of the Church,” and the document underlined his absolute authority and his uniqueness as divinely elect and even divine. Although he might have successors as the church leader, none would have the same elevated status as he had. No list of members seems to have been extant, but there is a formal document, dated February 1920, that certifies that Abbate was a member of his own Church. He signed the certificate as Padre Celeste.
Still, Abbate was not the only celestial character present in the New Jerusalem. When reporting from a 1919 trial, a journalist from the Chicago Tribune noted the presence of a four-year-old girl, whom the group believed to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. [Image at right] She was of Italian origin but born in Chicago in 1915. She is present at the Padre Celeste’s side in many photographs, at least until the end of the 1920s. In the eyes of the faithful, the reborn Virgin Mary was another very tangible sign that God had chosen them as the true Christians in the End-time. Abbate claimed that she was the result of a virgin birth, while some reporters asserted that she was Padre Celeste’s daughter.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the press devoted numerous articles to Abbate. Media attention focused on a long series of legal processes against him. He was first reported to the police in 1922 for assaulting a twelve-year-old girl sexually. She was a church member, and the reports and the following legal process divided the congregation. At the trial, members who had left and Abbate’s loyal adherents had to be kept apart so that they did not to resort to fistfights. Abbate was sentenced to prison but was then declared criminally insane and confined to Elgin State Hospital, a large mental institution located outside Chicago. He was released in 1925. By that time about 100 adherents remained in the Church. The year after, he founded a religious order for women: The Order of Our Most Blessed Mother, Queen of Peace Reincarnated, which would play a central role in the life of the Church throughout its existence.
Between 1931 and 1935, the press, once more published numerous articles on Abbate. Almost all were related to a new series of legal processes against him. This time, Abbate was accused of having raped a thirteen-year-old girl. The articles described the complicated legal turns and the discussion of whether he should be sentenced to prison or be declared criminally insane. In the end, he was brought back to Elgin State Hospital.
Abbate must have been a very charismatic person, who was able to remain in control and attract adherents, even when he was sentenced for serious crimes and was absent for years. The New Jerusalem Church survived his long absences. Although the number of faithful ebbed and flowed, he always had a loyal group of at least a hundred church members. Some authors have suggested that the New Jerusalem Church disintegrated in the 1930s and that Abbate disappeared from the religious scene. However, it remained in existence until he died in 1963, and even after that. Still, it is easy to understand why the few who have researched Abbate have thought the group had disintegrated. After being released from Elgin State Hospital in 1935, neither he nor the Church was mentioned in the Chicago newspapers.
In 1945, the headquarters of the New Jerusalem Catholic Church on DeKalb Street was torn down, as the City of Chicago demolished many of the old neighbourhoods. At that time, the Church moved to the Old Irving Park area on the Northwest Side of Chicago where they acquired a house at 4200 N. Kedvale Avenue, which served as the rectory. The nuns’ convent was situated in a separate house nearby. Moreover, Abbate initiated the project of building a new church located at 4154 W. Berteau Avenue. The foundation was covered with a roof, and the construction became known as the “Basement Church,” though, as before, the official name was the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. Though Abbate planned the construction of a more prominent church, the project was halted, probably due to financial constraints.
Padre Celeste died on October 13, 1963, at the age of seventy-seven. He was buried at Elmwood Cemetery, River Grove, [Image at right] where the Church had acquired burial lots for the clergy, the nuns and the faithful at large. Abbate’s tomb is quite impressive. The inscription on the front reads “The Most Rev. Father Giuseppe Maria Abbate D.C. Padre Celeste, January 8, 1886, † October 13, 1963”. Abbate’s central phrase: “Alfa, Elfa, Sette” appears there as well as his coat of arms with the message “Sono quel che sono.” On the backside of the grave monument, one can read the following inscription: “The Promised High Priest Hebrews 7:15–17 Founder of Chiesa Cattolica La Nuova Gerusalemme del Messaggiero Celeste, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church”.
According to the 1919 Trust Agreement, Abbate could freely name a successor. Still, he had not been able to find a suitable candidate. As Padre Celeste had not named a successor, after his death the administration of the Church was transferred to Marianna Monachino, the Mother Superior of the Order of Our Most Blessed Mother, Queen of Peace Reincarnated. In the following years, she tried to find a priest who could administer the sacraments to the congregation. As far as we know, she first contacted the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, asking them for a priest, who could say Mass “because their priest had died.” Unsurprisingly, the church authorities were not forthcoming, stating that the parish was not under their jurisdiction and that they would not send a priest to serve in a non-Roman Catholic congregation.
There are some indications that the Mother Superior also established contact with the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, whose bishop agreed to send priests to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church to say Mass there on Sundays. Part of the reason, the bishop stated, was that some of his priests “wanted to work on their Latin.” Still, the evidence on these contacts, based on oral history accounts, is somewhat hazy.
By referral of individual Roman Catholic priests, the Mother Superior came in contact with a bishop of the North American Roman Catholic Church (NAORCC), John Emil Schweikert (1924‒1988). [Image at right] In 1955, he became a priest in the NAORCC, and three years later a bishop. The NAORCC has a background in European Old Catholicism, which became more widespread as a reaction against the First Vatican Council (1869‒1870). In the decades to come, Old Catholic churches were founded in several European countries. In 1908, Arnold Harris Mathew (1859–1919) became bishop for Great Britain and Ireland, but only two years later, he broke with continental Old Catholicism, regarding as it too Protestant. At that time, he founded the Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain.
Through Rudolph de Landas Berghes (1873–1920), a bishop consecrated by Mathew, Old Roman Catholicism came to the United States. Landas’s consecration of Carmel Henry Carfora (1878–1958), an Italian-born former Capuchin in 1916, became the starting point for the NAORCC. Three years later Carfora became its Metropolitan-Primate, an office he upheld for almost four decades. During this time, he consecrated more than thirty bishops, though the majority left him and established jurisdictions of their own or left ministry altogether. During Carfora’s time, the NAORCC was a very multi-ethnic church, including, for example, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Mexican, Afro-Caribbean and African-American faithful. Archbishop Carfora did not name a successor, and after his death in 1958, several men claimed the position of Metropolitan-Primate, something which led to the proliferation of new jurisdictions with the same or very similar names. John E. Schweikert, who would serve the New Jerusalem Church, was part of the jurisdiction led by Cyrus Augustine Starkey (d. 1965). (For more details on Carfora and the different branches of the NAORCC, see Trela 1979 and Melton 2009).
On September 26, 1965, John E. Schweikert, who in the meantime had become Archbishop, said his first Mass in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. In correspondence from 1966 and 1967, he stated that he was somewhat reluctant and did research into the history of the parish and the New Jerusalem Church (copies in Magnus Lundberg’s archive). Though Schweikert did continue saying Masses in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, there is nothing that indicates that the Archbishop ever believed in Abbate’s divine or that accepted his ordination and consecration, which he thought were non-existent. Schweikert’s argument was that through his holy orders and apostolic succession, he brought valid sacraments to the Sacred Heart for the first time. (In Lundberg & Craig 2018:54, 57–58, we argued that Schweikert said Masses at the Sacred Heart of Jesus during Abbate’s lifetime. Still, the newly encountered letters from Schweikert does not support that assertion).
Eventually, the nuns must have been satisfied enough with Archbishop Schweikert despite him not being an Abbate believer. Thus in late 1967, the Mother Superior decided to appoint him Padre Celeste’s successor: Il Santo Padre. On February 18 1968, she formally enthroned, naming him Maria Michael I. (copy of the document in Magnus Lundberg’s archive). Though now appointed Abbate’s successor by the Mother Superior, Schweikert never wore the white cassock and zucchetto, nor did he allow anyone to call him Santo Padre.
Over time, Schweikert tried to reduce the congregation’s devotion to Abbate, replacing it with more traditional Catholic beliefs. Still, he seems to have been quite diplomatic and cautious. He did permit the shrine/altar dedicated to Abbate to remain in the Church, and the nuns and faithful used to adorn it with flowers and candles. Moreover, the barber chair where Christ sat in 1906 remained, having a sacred status for the adherents. During Schweikert’s time at Sacred Heart about a fifth of the regular churchgoers were people from the neighbourhood or dis-enfranchised Roman Catholics, while some 80 per cent were first, second or third-generation adherents of Abbate. There were still a few older people, who had been members of the New Jerusalem Church since its foundation. However, there are clear indications that some in the outsider group knew much about the claims of the Celestial Messenger; by them, he was simply called “Bishop Abbate”, the founder of the parish.
It was indeed a peculiar ecclesiastical situation. The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was not formally a part of the NAORCC but ministered by an archbishop of that Church. While he was named the leader of the New Jerusalem Church, Santo Padre, officially he never wanted to appear as such more than in a legal function, being the sole trustee. At the same time, the nuns under his jurisdiction and most of the parishioners were adherents of the New Jerusalem Church of the Celestial Messenger. One sign of this situation was that Schweikert used stationary bearing the name Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, while the nuns had letter paper with the New Jerusalem Catholic Church printed on it (see copies of documents in Magnus Lundberg’s archives). Still, it seems that this odd state of things worked out reasonably well during in the more than the two-decade-long period Schweikert was the pastor of The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
By 1970, all the brothers of the Order of the Celestial Messenger were dead, while five nuns remained, most of them aged between 65 and 75 years. At that time, and with the strong support of Schweikert, who had a PhD degree and earned his living as a college teacher, the nuns started a school for children with special needs, the Little Sisters School. The by-far youngest nun, Mary Bernadette (b. 1925) played a significant role for the school until the early 1990s, though there were also some external employees.
In 1987, when Schweikert had become severely ill, he chose a priest in the Old Roman Catholic tradition as his successor. It was Theodore Rematt (1945–2016), whom Schweikert consecrated a bishop on June 22, 1987. In May 1988, Schweikert died, and Rematt succeeded him. When Rematt came to the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, he knew nothing about Abbate’s special status.
As Rematt took over after Schweikert’s death, his first decision was to finish the construction of the church building, which had been halted decades before. In 1989, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart [Image at right] was completed and was ready to be consecrated. A few days before the ceremony, an anonymous woman contacted Rematt by telephone, recounting the stories about Padre Celeste. As the bishop was not convinced, she told him to go into a closet in one of the bedrooms of the rectory. There, behind a false panel, he would find all the proof he needed. Rematt, indeed, encountered abundant documentation on Padre Celeste and the history of the New Jerusalem Catholic Church: transcripts from his trials, affidavits of support, church publications, and photos. The bishop was shocked by what he saw and later decided to burn all documents.
On the whole, Rematt tried to put an end to the Abbate veneration among his flock. He had the shrine to Abbate in the Church dismantled and moved, the famous barber’s chair was sold, and in all possible ways, he actively counteracted the legacy of the founder. Thus, his form of proceeding was very different from Schweikert’s diplomatic approach. Needless to say, the nuns were appalled about this development as were many of the faithful, Abbate believers as they were. The radical changes met stiff opposition and ex-communications.
Without any doubt, Rematt’s time at Sacred Heart was turbulent, and there were a series of legal conflicts in the first half of the 1990s, about the administration and economy of the Church. Though he wanted to erase the devotion to Abbate, in these court cases, Rematt argued for legal continuity with the Church Abbate founded in 1919, and that he, as Abbate’s legal successor was the sole trustee and had absolute authority to make decisions, financial and otherwise.
With a decreasing group of parishioners, Archbishop Rematt served in the Sacred Heart Cathedral until 2004. At that time, the church building was sold, and it was later turned into condominiums. At that time, there was the only remaining cleric under the Schweikert‒Rematt line. After the closing of Sacred Heart, the parishioners were scattered. The priest, James W. Craig, [Image at right] remained in contact with a few to whom he administered the sacraments. Some former parishioners became members of the Roman Catholic Church, Independent Catholic groups or did not join any other congregation. In many ways, the traditional devotion to Abbate ended with the shutting down of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, though it had been counteracted for decades.
The New Jerusalem Church of the Celestial Messenger was long-lived, and it survived the death of its founder, though in a modified way. Though the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church does not exist anymore, it is evident that Abbate still is an object of worship, though the number of devotees is minimal. One sign of the kept memory is that there are fresh flowers at his grave at all times.
The focus of the New Jerusalem Church doctrine was Abbate’s claims of divine status and his role in salvation history. By the last years of the 1910s, Abbate called himself Giuseppe Maria di Carmelo Abbate. When the Church was founded, he was referred to as Celestial Messenger (Messaggiero Celeste). Later his title became Padre Celeste. Still, he also referred to himself as the Universal Protector, St. Michael the Archangel, the Prince of Peace, [Image at right] God’s Vicar on Earth, and the Celestial King. Thus, Abbate claimed to be something of a combination of a pope, an archangel, a prophet, a king and God incarnate. In his interpretation, each first letter in his full name, Giuseppe Maria Abbate di Carmelo, Padre Celeste, had a symbolic meaning in Italian summarizing his mission on earth. In English translation it was: Jesus, Incarnate, Made Human, Most Holy Immanuel, Eternal Prince of Peace, sent to be reincarnated in Abbate to Bless Everybody Eternally. Divinity Incarnate. Celestial Angel, King, Immanuel, the Messiah Arrived, the Ordained Angel. The Door to God. Elected Religious. Christ, Immanuel, Eternal Light, the Sound of the Seventh Trumpet.
Some central parts of Church’s beliefs and its role in salvation history are found in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah (chapters 9, 11 and 61). They all refer to the arrival of the Messiah. Chapter 9 includes a prophecy on the coming of the Prince of Peace, who will establish justice and peace on earth. Chapter 11 is on the Branch from Jesse, who will appear with a spirit of wisdom and righteousness and will create peace, and a world where human and animals will live in harmony. Finally, chapter 61 is on the year of grace, when the world will be renewed, the poor will be uplifted, the captives released and the saddened comforted.
In the last parts of the Book of Revelation, there is a prophecy about the new world, the New Jerusalem, coming down from Heaven. The arrival of Abbate, the Celestial Messenger, inaugurated this new world, which would mean consolation and life abundant for the righteous and death and suffering to the wrongdoers and oppressors. The New Jerusalem had begun to unfold in the New Jerusalem Catholic Church in Chicago, and with time it would be spread to all corners of the world.
The reincarnated Virgin Mary, a girl, born in Chicago in 1915 was another crucial part of the belief system, a clear sign that the Church had an exceptional place in salvation history. Just as Abbate, the Second Coming of Christ, the reborn Virgin Mary took a prominent place in religious services, both sitting on thrones. Another essential and related part of Abbate’s teachings was that his followers, or at least some of them, were incarnations of celestial characters and dressed up accordingly. Faithful to this belief, images of the living saints, the church members, were featured in the chapel.
Though Abbate’s claims of divine status and extraterrestrial background were uncommon, liturgically the New Jerusalem Catholic Church of the Celestial Messenger followed the traditional Roman Catholic Church liturgical books: the Missal of 1570 and the Ritual of 1614. Abbate’s copies of at least some of liturgical books are still preserved.
In the early days of the Church, in 1919, the press reported that it was Bishop Lumeno who said Mass in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, while the Celestial Father sat with the reincarnated Virgin Mary on his lap. Still, at least later, Abbate himself said the Mass at a large altar. In religious services, Abbate could be dressed either as a king with a crown or an angel-like character or in clerical vestments in the papal white. When in his offices, he would wear a white cassock, and when missionizing outside he wore a black suit and clerical collar.
Apart from the Masses, processions played a vital role in church life. On feast days, parades were organized at the top level of the building at DeKalb Street. On some occasions they had processions on the street outside, but that inevitably led to confrontations with Roman Catholic clergy and others. A news report describes the processions that followers wore tunics of bright colours, silk stockings wrapped with ribbons, helmets and medals paraded before him. Girls were garbed as angels and women as saints. Pictures published by the Church concur with the journalistic accounts.
In 1919, Abbate’s New Jerusalem Catholic was incorporated by the State of Illinois. The trust agreement which was appended to the application included clauses on the church organization and Abbate’s role in it. The New Jerusalem Catholic Church was defined as a hierarchical organization governed by a single individual, Giuseppe Maria Abbate. He was “the sole Trustee of the Church,” and the document underlined his absolute authority and his uniqueness as the divinely elect Celestial Messenger and the Celestial Father. Although he might have successors as the church leader, none would have the same elevated status that he had.
No successor shall ever be named or considered as Padre Celeste. All successors shall assume and bear the name of Santo Padre, and who shall, so far as God may give them power, prosecute and carry on the heavenly tasks entrusted to the said Giuseppe Maria Abbate, and who shall have the same power to nominate and appoint a Successor as is herein given to the said Giuseppe Maria Abbate, and all subsequent successors shall be endowed with the same powers as the first successor of the said, Giuseppe Maria Abbate. — He [Abbate, but also his successors] may establish branch churches, societies or congregations, at any and all places wherein, in his judgment the same may be required.
The male Order of the Celestial Messenger was founded at a very early stage, possibly by 1917. Apart from Abbate, who was ordained by Christ, there were only two other clerics in the history of the New Jerusalem Catholic Church, as far we know. In 1918, he consecrated the Italian-born Lumeno Monte (1896–?) a bishop. Still, Monte seems to have left the Church in the 1920s. Apart from him, one man was ordained to the priesthood in the 1930s. His name was John Higgins, and he seems to have been one of the few non-Italian church members. Most independent Catholic churches stress the importance of apostolic succession, meaning that a bishop needs to be consecrated by a valid bishop, who is believed to be in an unbroken chain from the Apostles onwards. For the New Jerusalem Catholic Church, this was a non-issue as Abbate had been ordained directly by Christ and was divine.
Most monks who joined the Order of the Celestial Messenger in the 1920s and 1930s remained there until their death three or four decades later. All of them had regular jobs outside the monastery, in most cases as construction workers, at least when they were younger. Still, some monks only remained for a brief period.
The female Order of Our Most Blessed Lady, Queen of Peace Reincarnated was founded in 1926. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, the convent was led by the fifty-six-year-old Mother Superior Francesca. Apart from her, the thirty-four-year-old Maria Mogavero was registered as a nun and Mary Monachino as a teacher. Still, the latter took the vows somewhat later, as did Maria Falzone, who was called an “aspiring nun” in the Census. The future Mother Superior Marianna Monachino (1904‒1989) and Sister Maria Grace Falzone (1895‒1985) who took the vows in the 1930s would remain nuns until their death. In the 1940s and 1950s, three more sisters would join
Padre Celeste died without having named a successor. After his death, the nuns searched for a successor to Abbate and somebody who could administer the sacraments. The solution came with John E. Schweikert, an archbishop in the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. In 1967, Mother Superior named him Santo Padre of the New Jerusalem Church. To some degree, he had jurisdiction over the nuns, but they remained a strong and somewhat independent group. The Mother Superior and a group of three parishioners were expected to choose Schweikert’s successor at his death. But in 1987, Schweikert consecrated Theodore Rematt a bishop. He became Schweikert’s successor, but it has not been possible to establish whether the nuns and the parish council were involved in the election. When Rematt took over, only two nuns remained, and they had very little power left.
Not surprisingly, from the very beginning of his mission, Abbate met with a lot of hostility on the streets. Appearing in public while preaching his message, he was physically attacked, harassed and ridiculed for his spiritual claims, which most people regarded as outrageous. In the press, he was often called a cultist and the Church was referred to as a cult. The first mention of the Celestial Messenger in The Chicago Tribune on July 25, 1919, focused on the trial of a young woman who was an adherent of Abbate’s. She was charged with “contributing to the delinquency of her two younger brothers by taking them to the ‘Church of New Jerusalem,’ in DeKalb street, too often.” In the end, the judge decided that “the cult was morally clean” and could not be accused of leading young people into criminal behaviour.
Abbate also encountered much opposition from the local Roman Catholic Church representatives. Apart from declaring his Church heretical and the leader a charlatan, they accused him of fooling Roman Catholics, not least because he targeted newly-arrived Italians and went dressed in a clerical collar. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the overwhelming proportion of the Italians in Chicago were males who came from southern Italy, including Sicily, and many of them were anticlerical and not frequent churchgoers. Overall, the Italians were seen as a kind missionary field, one that was hard to convert, not least because there were Italian priests, Scalabrinians missionaries who were from northern Italy. The relation between these priests and laypeople was conflictive. For the Roman Catholic Church, it also was a significant problem that Abbate chiefly attracted female adherents, an important group of practising group of Roman Catholics. (On the relations between Italian-Americans and the official Roman Catholic Church, see Vecoli 1969 and D’Agostino 2004).
As a way to counteract Abbate and his Church, in 1919, the Roman Catholics inaugurated the St. Callistus parish at 2167 DeKalb Street, just a few blocks away from the New Jerusalem Church headquarters, which was pastored by Italian clergy. The Archdiocese explicitly stated that the foundation was a reaction to the local presence of Abbate and his congregation. Moreover, on Sundays and feast days, Roman Catholic clergy stood outside the Celestial Father’s Church telling the faithful that they were automatically excommunicated if they attended the religious services there.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the main conflicts involving Abbate had to do with the severe crimes Abbate committed, being accused of sexual assault and rape of at least two young girls. In the first case, in 1922, he was charged with having assaulted a twelve-year-old church member. One group part of the congregation reacted strongly against him and left the Church while another group supported him, seeing Abbate as an innocent victim, persecuted by enemies of God. Having told the judge the story of his mission and extraterrestrial background, he was declared criminally insane and was sent to Elgin State Hospital.
On April 10, 1922, a bomb exploded in the Church’s headquarters at DeKalb Street destroying a part of the church hall. In testimonies to the police, Abbate said that beginning in 1921 he had received threats that if he did not stop preaching, he would be silenced. Still, as the bomb at the headquarters was one of four that detonated in different places in the neighbourhood within half an hour, and so it is probable that the crime primarily had economic and not explicitly religious motives. It seems to have been a part of the “Mano Nera,” a more general practice of racketeering. In 1926, the authorities investigated the finances of the New Jerusalem Catholic Church accusing them of irregularities and tax evasion, and the court seized a crown and a pectoral cross, valued at $ 2,250, that members had donated to Abbate.
In the second main court case, in 1931, Padre Celeste was accused of raping of a thirteen-year-old girl. [Image at right] In the first trial, Abbate was sentenced to life imprisonment for statutory rape. However, in early 1932, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois disallowed the prosecution. The judge stated that the evidence was faulty and that Abbate unorthodox beliefs had played a part in the verdict. In a second trial, the judge first noted that Abbate had been sane enough when he committed the crime in 1929, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. However, later he was declared criminally insane and once again brought to Elgin State Hospital. Towards the end of 1933, he was released from the asylum. as a judge said that “he was but a harmless religious fanatic and had recovered his sanity.”
Nevertheless, Abbate was soon brought back to the mental institution, as five psychiatrists were called in as expert witnesses and found him dangerously insane. This time, he remained at Elgin State Hospital until May 1935, when a court declared him sane enough to be released. But just after he was freed, the police arrested him again. As he was out of Elgin, the state attorney once again wanted to re-open the case, so that Abbate, whom he considered a menace to society, would serve time in prison. However, there was no further trial as the girl whom he had raped did not want to appear in a court yet another time. In total, Abbate spent about five years confined at the Elgin State Hospital. During these years, it is plausible that the number of Church members decreased to about a hundred.
While there were conflicts during Archbishop Schweikert’s time as the pastor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus between 1965 and 1988, the situation became much worse as his successor, Theodore Rematt, arrived and understood the background of the church. His opposition against everything Abbate-related led to protracted conflicts. He excommunicated some of the Abbate believers, barring them from even entering the church building, while they protested on the street outside. On June 19, 1991, he moved to excommunicate Sister Maria Bernadette, stating that she “is no longer a religious of any kind; [she] no longer [has] a right to occupy any benefice or place of residence within our jurisdiction.”
The disputes between the bishop on one side and Sister Maria Bernadette and part of the congregation on the other gave rise to a series of legal processes. Most of them had to do with financial issues as Rematt used money from the convent and the school for the construction of the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Still, the 1919 Common Trust agreement gave him supreme power, and he won the processes. The number of Abbate believers who attended the Sacred Heart church diminished. When Rematt left in 2004, the church building was sold. Though one priest who he had consecrated cared for a small number.of parishioners, the closing of the Church meant that the Abbate believers were scattered, though some continued and continue to revere him.
Image #1: A young Giuseppe Abbate in Chicago.
Image #2: Abbate on his way from Heaven to Isnello, saving the life of his father-to-be.
Image #3: The Celestial Messenger in the late 1910s‒early 1920s.
Image #4: The Re-incarnated Virgin Mary, ca. 1920.
Image #6: Archbishop John E. Schweikert
Image #7: Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Image #8: Archbishop Theodore Rematt with Fr. James W. Craig on the day of his ordination to the priesthood in 1994.
Image #9: Giuseppe Abbate: The Prince of Peace.
Image #10: The Celestial King and his Queen.
Image #10: Abbate, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and the girl who brought charges against him in 1931.
** Unless otherwise noted, this profile is drawn from Magnus Lundberg and James W. Craig. 2018. Giuseppe Maria Abbate: The Italian-American Celestial Messenger, Uppsala: Uppsala University, Department of Theology. See this volume for reference to primary sources, more contextual information and images.
Candeloro, Dominic. 2013. “The Celestial Messenger 1920s.” Chicago Catholic Immigrants Conference. Accessed from http://blogs.lib.luc.edu/ccic/the-celestial messenger-1920s/ on 15 May 2020.
Catrambone, Kathy and Ellen Shubart. 2007. Taylor Street: Chicago’s Little Italy. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
D’Agostino, Peter R. 2004. Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Melton, J. Gordon. 2009. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions. Eighth Edition. Detroit: Gale Research Inc.
Randolph, Vance. 1943. Americans who Thought They Were Gods: Colorful Messiahs and Little Christs. Girard: Haldeman-Julius.
Trela, Jonathan. 1979. A History of the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. Scranton: Straz Printery.
Vecoli, Rudolph J. 1969. “Prelates and Peasants: Italian Immigrants and the Catholic Church.” Journal of Social History 2:217–68.
Prior to the publication of Giuseppe Maria Abbate: The Italian-American Celestial Messenger in 2018, there had only been brief mention in the academic literature (See, Randolph 1943:18; Catrambone and Shubart 2007:114; and Candeloro 2013).
For references to primary sources on which this group profile is based, I refer to our monograph while is available open-access. However, after publishing the book, new source material has become available that has helped further to clarify some aspects of the group’s history and correct some misunderstandings. In these cases, this profile will refer directly to the primary sources, copies of which are found in the Magnus Lundberg archive, at Uppsala.
Copies of other original documents relating to the New Jerusalem Catholic Church and Archbishop Schweikert is found in Magnus Lundberg’s archive, Uppsala.
16 May 2020