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Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project

Focus on a Miracle of Mary Story: The Pregnant Abbess

By Wendy Laura Belcher

April 11, 2024

The Pregnant Abbess may be the most famous European Marian miracle story every written.

A translation of a European version of the Pregnant Abbess story appears in A Selection of Latin Stories, ed. Thomas Wright (London, 1842) 38-40. It goes like this:

There once was a noble abbess who ruled her flock according to the rigors of the order and with a zeal for penitence. Because of her severity, many of the nuns envied her and sought out opportunities to cause her downfall.

The wickedness of the ancient serpent then mixed with their envy and caused the pious mother to commit the crime of incest with her table servant by whom she conceived a child. Still, she did not stop restraining the follies of the nuns with her usual rigor. 

As the time of childbirth neared, however, she was discovered pregnant by the womanly wisdom of the nuns, as much by the way she walked as by what she was eating.

They rejoiced that they had found in her a cause for accusation, and this discovery was as pleasurable for them as it was damning for the abbess.

A letter of accusation was written, about which the abbess knew nothing. Soon the bishop was to arrive, and thus the abbess entered a certain private chapel, where she was accustomed to singing the Hours of the Blessed Virgin.

She prostrated herself and with heart and soul and tearful prayers, she begged the Blessed Mother of God for forgiveness through her intervention for the charges leveled against her and that she might escape the shame of imminent embarrassment.

The pious Virgin then appeared, accompanied by two angels, and gently consoled the abbess, who had been overcome with sleep.

She said, “I have heard your prayer. Know that I have asked my son for forgiveness for your sin and for full freedom from the shame that you fear.”

Then she instructed the two angels to unburden the abbess of her offspring and to take it to a nearby hermit whom they were to instruct to care for the child for seven years.

The abbess awoke, felt that her burden was gone, and thanked the Virgin unceasingly.

Meanwhile the bishop Antistes had arrived and entered the chapter house of the convent. He had the abbess summoned, who then hastened to the chair where she was accustomed to sitting.

Once she was seated, he began to attack her with shameful accusations and insults and forced the exalted woman to leave the room.

He sent two women after her to examine her for evidence of her crime.

They returned, however, to report that no sign of pregnancy whatsoever could be found on her.

The bishop, thinking they had been bribed, then examined her himself, but he also found no sign of crime.

Thus, he threw himself at the abbess’s feet and begged her forgiveness for the insults he had heaped upon her.

He also wanted to expel the nuns from the convent for accusing the abbess falsely.

When the abbess saw what was about to happen, she decided she would rather reveal her sin to the bishop than allow the accusing nuns to suffer, even though they had acted truly with wicked intent.

 She then prostrated herself before the bishop and revealed the entire ordeal.

The bishop then sent two youths to retrieve the newborn child who had been delivered that very day to the hermit and entrusted to him by Mary.

The bishop permitted the hermit to raise the child until the boy turned seven years old, at which time the bishop saw to his education in letters in which he later reached proficiency and then succeeded the bishop in the episcopacy.

pricenton ethiopian eritrean & egyptian miracles of marry project

The Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project is a comprehensive resource for the 1,000+ miracle stories written about and the 2,500+ images painted of the Virgin Mary in these African countries, and preserved in Geʿez between 1300 and the present.

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