‘The Century of the Holy Spirit:’ How One Nun’s Prayers in 1895 Led to the Modern Pentecostal Movement

02-28-2020 CBN News Cheryl Wilcox

In 1895, Sister Elena, a devout Catholic nun in Lucca, Italy, and foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, prayed to God again and again. “Generi, in nome di Jesus, trasmettono avanti il vostro spirito e rinnovano il mondo….” “Father, in the name of Jesus, send forth Your Spirit and renew the world.”

As the world stood poised to enter the Twentieth Century, sister Elena’s passion for the Holy Spirit would spread far beyond the walls of her small order. 

Between 1895 and 1903, Sister Elena penned 12 confidential letters to Pope Leo XIII. She urged the Pope to lead the Church back to the “Upper Room” – to a posture of expectant prayer displayed by the apostles, Mary, the Mother of Christ, and other believers before Pentecost. Elena wanted the Church to experience a “perpetual Pentecost.”

“And the amazing thing is the Pope took it very seriously, and in fact, responded to that,” historian Al Mansfield told CBN.

Prompted by Elena’s letters, Pope Leo called for a special time of prayer each year between Ascension Day and Pentecost. The Bishops and Cardinals soon lost passion for the special prayers, but Elena did not. She encouraged the Pope to teach more fully on the Holy Spirit, which inspired him to write a letter to the bishops. The letter, entitled “Divinum Illud Munus,” emphasized the indwelling and miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.

“A landmark document on the Holy Spirit,” Al Mansfield said. “It’s still looked back today as just a milestone of writing on the Holy Spirit.”

Still not satisfied, Elena urged Pope Leo to invoke the hymn, “Veni Creator Spiritus” – Come, Holy Spirit – over the first day of the new century.

Outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Topeka, Kansas

“And of course, at the very same time, January 1, 1901, in Topeka, Kansas, there was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the little group gathered at the Bethel Bible School,” said Mansfield. 

Agnes Osmond, a student at the Bible school, received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues late New Year’s Day after prayer and the laying on of hands. Her experience – echoed by several other students – sparked the modern Pentecostal movement.

Agnes Osmond

“So it’s interesting how something was happening in Rome, the Pope calling down the Holy Spirit, and then in Topeka, Kansas we have the beginning of the Pentecostal movement. It’s very interesting how the Lord began the twentieth century by pouring out his Holy Spirit that way,” remarked Mansfield. 

The Fruit of Sister Elena’s Prayers Spreads

By 1906, members of the Bethel Bible School group, most notably William J. Seymour, were leading the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles.

Sister Elena’s prayers again bore fruit in 1958 when white smoke billowed from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of Pope John XXIII who, like Sister Elena, longed for the Holy Spirit to renew the Church. He said the Holy Spirit had inspired him to reset the Church’s relationship with the world. It was time.

Prayers for a “New Pentecost”

In 1962, Pope John convened a church council, later called Vatican II, hoping to pave the way for Christian unity. He asked Christians everywhere to join him and “joyfully echo” his prayer to the Holy Spirit: “Renew Your wonders in our time, as though for a new Pentecost.” 

Pope John XXIII

“He was looking for energy. He was looking for power from on high. He was looking for God to do something. He was looking for new Pentecost,” said Dr. Ralph Martin, professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

Pope John passed away in 1963 before Vatican II concluded. He was succeeded by Pope Paul VI who found the world devolving into chaos. A new generation was thumbing its nose at convention. Students took to the streets in protest. Turbulence ruled the decade.

Hungry for More of God

David Mangan was a graduate student in physics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He belonged to Chi Rho Society, a group of Catholic students who met before classes to pray and study scripture. Hungry for more of God and seeking this “New Pentecost,” they went away together on a retreat at the Ark and the Dove in February 1967. 

“We were given a little paperback book called The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson, who was a Pentecostal pastor who worked with drug addicts and, in miraculous ways, brought them to healing and salvation merely through prayer,” David recalled.

David Wilkerson’s “The Cross and the Switchblade”

Patti Mansfield was a 20-year-old French major at Duquesne when she attended the retreat. 

“I kept saying, ‘this is happening today? Well, why aren’t these things happening in my life?'” Patti said.

“Where’s the Dynamite?”

The students opened each session of the retreat with the hymn, “Veni Creator Spiritus,” –  Come, Holy Spirit – the same hymn Pople Leo invoked over the 20th Century. One of the speakers taught from Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”

“The word for ‘power’ is the same Greek word where we, in English, would get the word ‘dynamite.’ And He likened the coming of the Holy Spirit to dynamite,” said David. 

David joined his small group session and asked a question, “Where is the dynamite?” He later recorded in his notes his desire to hear someone speak in tongues.

“And then I put a dash,” Mangan said. “And I put ‘Me!’ with an exclamation point.

David then went off by himself to reflect on the teaching.

“When I opened the door and walked into the chapel, the presence of God was so powerful, I could hardly move,” he recalled. “The only way I could say it was, ‘I was lost in Christ and happy to be so.”

“And I forgot – completely forgot – about all my pushing to say, ‘Where’s the dynamite, where’s the dynamite?’ and that’s exactly what it felt like,” David described. “It felt like little explosions in my body were going off as part of this whole experience. I don’t even know how to describe it beyond that. So I started opening my mouth to thank God for what He had done, and I started praying in another language.”  

Later, Patti joined David in the chapel.

“I began to tremble,” Patti recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘But God is here.  And He’s holy and I’m not holy.’ And so just kneeling there in the quiet of my heart I said  ‘Father, I give my life to You.  Whatever You ask, I accept it.”

Other students were also drawn into the chapel. 

“Some people were laughing for joy, others were weeping for joy,” Patti said. “Some said they felt like they wanted to praise God but they didn’t know if it was going to come out in English.  And anyway, we were there and just in awe, just in awe of the sovereign God.”

The small gathering of Duquesne students who walked away from that retreat center say they were never the same. But what they didn’t know at the time was that their life-changing experience was meant to be shared – and it was just the beginning.

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Steve Martin

STEVE & LAURIE MARTIN - LOVE FOR HIS PEOPLE FOUNDERS My good wife Laurie and I (married 45 years), founded Love For His People Ministry in 2010. This work gives love and support to our friends in Israel and other nations with friendship and humanitarian aid. Through social media, Steve's messages, and our Ahava Adventures trips to Israel, it is a growing, effective organization. Steve has also authored and published 36 books. We live in the Charlotte, NC area and have four adult children, spouses, and eight grandkids. Ahava and shalom with blessings on ye head!

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