Almost four years ago, I wrote the book Giuseppe Maria Abbate: The Italian-American Celestial Messenger in collaboration with James W. Craig. At that time, we thought that basically all archival material related to Abbate and his New Jerusalem Catholic Church of the Celestial Messenger was destroyed in the early 1990s.
However, recently, a sizeable collection, once part of the church archive, appeared. It includes publications, documents, photos, and objects. Not even the official publications, such as the L’Araldo magazine, are found in any research library I know. Thus, the collection contains unique material and will be a basis for further studies about Abbate and his church. Currently, the archive is deposited with me, and I’m preparing an article about the foundation and the early development of the church, and hopefully, other studies will follow. In the near future, I will publish a selection of reproductions of photos and pictures of objects from the collection on this website. Below you will find a few images of the collection before I began to organize it.
The New Jerusalem Church of the Celestial Messenger was a religious group based in Chicago that can be said to have existed from the early 1910s to the early 1990s. However, it is debatable when it became a formalized religious group and when and if the church formally ended its activities, as the administrative and jurisdictional particularities are complex. From the early 1910s through the early 1960s, Sicilian-born Giuseppe Maria Abbate (1886–1963), the founder and church leader, claimed that he was a celestial messenger–Messagero Celeste, and, later, God reincarnate, the Celestial Father–Padre Celeste. By his side, he had a girl, Graziana, who was believed to be the reincarnated Virgin Mary.
Nevertheless, the records found in this collection do not have the character of a “complete archive” that grew organically from the activities of the New Jerusalem Church of the Celestial Messenger/Sacred Heart of Jesus church and parish. Instead, it includes well-selected parts of the more substantial archive destroyed in the early 1990s. These parts were rescued shortly before the purge.
The Church of the Celestial Messenger was formally founded in 1917 when it acquired a building in downtown Chicago that would house the Sacred Heart church. The entity received official status in the State of Illinois in 1919. At its height, it had some 500 members. However, by the late 1920s onwards, the number of adherents oscillated between 200 and 300. With time, the church included a religious order with a female and a male branch, called the Order of Our Most Blessed Lady, Queen of Peace Reincarnated, and the Order of the Celestial Messenger, respectively. Abbate did not ordain more than one priest in 1919, but that priest soon left the church. Still, from the 1920s onwards, priests from different independent Catholic groups said Mass in the Sacred Heart church regularly.
At his death in 1963, Abbate had not appointed a successor, and he gave the Abbess of the Order the responsibility to find one. From 1965 onwards, the Sacred Heart parish, then located in northern Chicago, and the newly established mission in Wheaton, Illinois, were pastored by Archbishop John E. Schweikert (1924‒1988) of the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. In a sense, the parish belonged to both the New Jerusalem Church of the Celestial Messenger and the North American Old Roman Catholic Church. Still, the Abbess hesitated to make Schweikert Abbate’s formal successor.
Eventually, in 1968, Schweikert received this office after taking an oath before the abbess confessing that Abbate’s miracles were genuine and even that he was a “supernatural being.” After taking this oath, Schweikert became Santo Padre Maria Michael, Abbate’s successor and the sole trustee of the church. Still, he seems to have worked towards making the congregation more orthodox, but records, photos, and objects related to Abbate abounded in the parish and convent premises, including an altar in the chapel featuring him and the reincarnated Virgin Mary.
Shortly before he died in 1988, Schweikert consecrated Theodore Rematt (1945–2016) and made him his successor. No oath was involved, nor were the nuns or the congregation. There had been conflicts between the Abbate believers and Schweikert. Though Schweikert seems to have been diplomatic, their beliefs differed. The diplomatic approach would not last during Rematt’s leadership.
When taking over the responsibility, Bishop Rematt did not know that most of the faithful believed in the reincarnate Celestial Father; he thought it was a more ordinary independent Catholic parish. In 1989, however, Rematt became aware of this situation. After receiving a phone call, he found hidden documentation that led him to understand the situation and became very upset.
Following his discovery, there were severe clashes between the archbishop and the Abbate believers in the congregation (there were others, too). Excommunications and legal processes ensued between 1990 and 1995. Rematt could claim that he was the sole trustee of the church, ironically stating that he was the lawful successor of Abbate, while the Abbate believing parishioners thought that they, as a community, had not had their say and that Schweikert could not name a successor at his own, but needed the community’s, basically the nuns’ authorization and that Rematt required to take an oath of obedience to the teachings of Abbate, which, of course, wouldn’t happen. As the sole trustee, Rematt won the legal battles.
After discovering the history, Rematt decided to eradicate the memory of Abbate from his parish. He went through the church premises and collected all Abbate-related records, images, and objects he could find. At first, Rematt intended to give a researcher access to the written material but eventually sent them to destruction. At this time, he also sold some items of monetary value, including one of Abbate’s crowns.
Still, many documents escaped destruction; those that constitute the collection that now is in my possession. They partially came from the archives found in the parish and convent and probably from individual adherents, too. Having been rescued, they were guarded in a member’s home. The documents do not seem to be randomly amassed. Most documents are central to understanding Abbate’s biography, self-understanding, supernatural claims, miracles, and persecutions (i.e., legal processes). However, the collection also includes a stock of propaganda material, including leaflets, posters, and, not least, photographs.
The majority of the records – both originals and copies – are from the Abbate era. Still, there are post-Abbate photos and documents, including transcriptions of extended interviews with Sister Bernadette Maria (1925–2020), the youngest of the nuns of Abbate’s order, who at this period was about to be evicted from the convent.
For some 25 years, the collection remained in the custody of an adherent. In 2017, a Chicago antique dealer encountered the records and objects in a garage and bought them as part of an estate. At the time, he contacted institutions that should have had an interest in the material, but without success. In the fall of 2021, when he moved his business to another locality, the antique dealer re-encountered the material. Searching for information about the Celestial Messenger on the internet, he found our book. Subsequently, he contacted me, who, with the help of the Department of Theology, Uppsala University acquired the collection.
The records were in disorder, basically thrown down into eleven large boxes. There was hardly any traceable internal order. To be useful for further studies, I had to organize the contents systematically. Moreover, I had to take steps to preserve the longtime conservation of the collection. In the first phase, I removed all the plastic files and folders in which most records were kept and disposed of paper clips and other metal material, which already had harmed the material and risked causing even more significant damage. Some of the plastic was heavily affected by mold and some metal with rust. After these precautions, the records are generally in fair condition, though affected by moisture. Finally, I organized the documents in basic thematic order, dividing them into 17 volumes, including folio-sized archival boxes, rolls, and larger boxes.
The collection also includes various objects, for example, a ceremonial trumpet and two ceremonial swords, specially made for Abbate in the late 1910s and early 1920s, some jewelry (a ring, a bracelet, and several brooches), and about twenty printing plates. Moreover, there are some books from Abbate’s library and liturgical vestments, many patterns for such vestments, and a collection of relics kept in an iron box, including Abbate’s hair and beard as well as finger and toenail clippings!