For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
Eph. vi. 12
St. Sofia and the Cave
St. Sofia was born Sofia Antunes in Lisbon on June 12, 1661. Her family made a modest fortune in the India trade, and St. Sofia's surviving letters indicate her father Lino was often absent when she was a child, leaving her upbringing in the hands of her mother Sabina and older (by eleven years) sister Rafaela. At the age of twelve, Sofia was entered into convent school outside the city. There she received a typical woman's education of the day. It was, by all accounts, an unremarkable time in her life. She took her holy vows at the age of seventeen and joined the life of the Collettine Poor Clares as a religious sister.
Not long after, while still a novice, St. Sofia came across a strange cave in the hills. Within the cave was the remains of an ancient chapel, one that was apparently from the days when Lisbon was a Roman town known as Olissipo. Underneath the crumbling marble facade and painted mosaics, St. Sofia discovered an even more ancient structure, neither Greek nor Roman nor even Phoenician. What the ancient building's purpose had been was unclear, since very little remained intact. The Wall of Devils, as St. Sofia named it, was dominated by strange black and grey mosaics and paintings depicting eerie demonic figures and unsettling scenes of sacrifice and destruction. The mysterious cave was later destroyed, or at least sealed quite thoroughly, by the 1755 All Soul's Day earthquake.
This strange experience was a formative one for St. Sofia. She began to delve into the ancient history of Portugal, seeking for answers to her many questions. Her search consumed what little free time she had, and the other sisters began to murmur worriedly amongst themselves. The abbess of the convent often spoke to St. Sofia, but could not entirely turn the young sister away from her curiosity about the Portugal of antiquity and legend.
The Visions of St. Sofia
What came next would turn St. Sofia's focus inward. On March 25, 1680, just after Vespers (evening prayers), St. Sofia was walking through the convent's garden when she was frozen, as if turned to stone, and a glorious ecstasy overtook her. In her own words:
I could not look left or right, but straight ahead I saw the walls of the convent vanish and the Tejo [Tagus R.] flowed by. Then a wave rose up out of the river and seemed to sweep the entire city away. Despite this, I felt no fear, for I knew from Whom this came. I gave myself up and stood watching, waiting. Soon, all the world was shrouded in grey, like a thick morning fog, and then it parted and I beheld wondrous things. I saw creatures undreamt of by Pliny or Aesop, I saw dragons and unicorns and woses and beasts my simple words cannot describe. I saw men of great wisdom, sages of Persia and Greece and Chaldea, calling on unknown angels to work great wonders. I saw lines of light crossing Earth, webs woven by thrones and archangels that echo with the music of the Spheres. I saw cities of stone and iron rising in the dawn of history, rising to greatness and falling to dust before the Deluge. I saw the secrets of the ages, writ on warm gold and cold stone, hidden beneath the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of Cathay. All this I saw unfold in the blink of an eye, and more I cannot speak of.
That was only the beginning, though. No sooner had the visions of these hidden wonders ended than new ones began. Again in St. Sofia's words:
This passed and I was again back in the convent, but before I could steady myself, the clouds parted and the light of the full moon illuminated me, in and out and through. I trembled, for a voice spoke then, and I beheld an angel of light. "Fear not," he declared to me. "I have come to show you a wonder." And through his robes, I could see his heart burning with a bright red flame. "This is the Immaculate Fire, which was given to Adam and Eve, and quenched through their sins. But embers burn within your heart, daughter of Eve. Let it illuminate you as you seek illumination." "I do not understand," I said in fear, and he replied "Seek the glorification of your soul, and what was lost will be found." And then he departed in a blaze of light.
When the visions ended, St. Sofia returned to the quiet cell in the convent proper. Hours, days, even years for her were mere moments in the living world, and St. Sofia trembled as she began to realize all that had been given to her. Weeping, she hastened to reveal what she had beheld to her confessor, and then wrote it all down while the visions were still clear in her mind's eye. These writings, collected and later published (and still in print), proved to be quite popular throughout the Catholic world, although many Protestants and skeptics denounced them as superstitious Papist nonsense. To this date, the Red Sisters argue over some of the more obscure aspects of the first half of the visions.
Into the East
The publication of St. Sofia's visions proved to be very controversial within the Church, as well. Owing to her historical explorations, The young mystic had many adversaries, both secular and religious. The visions were a convenient enough excuse, for their content could be interpreted as rather heterodox even by charitable readers. Soon enough, the Inquisition was dragged into the matter at the behest of Father Vasco Pinheiro, Inq., an influential aide to the Patriarch of Lisbon. For a time, it appeared the Visions might end up on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the list of books banned by the Church for their immorality and danger to the faith). In the end, however, the trial passed and St. Sofia was fully exonerated.
Despite her exoneration, the episode had a profound and wearying effect on St. Sofia. Even after the trial ended, she was viewed with suspicion by many in Lisbon and the curia in Rome. This wariness lives on to the present day. There are more than a few learned and pious priests who wonder if the S.I.F. peers too deeply into mysteries best left undisturbed, or considers them outright magicians. This is, needless to say, the default position in Protestant countries, especially Britain and the German Empire. Mocking accounts of the Red Sisters often appear in zealously Protestant magazines and newspapers.
After the trial, St. Sofia found herself shunned even by some within her own congregation. Saddened, but adamant in her refusal to cease her quest (one which she had by now concluded was her specific, God-given mission), St. Sofia requested a leave from the Poor Clares. It was granted and she took ship to Portugal's Indian territories, arriving in Goa on June 11, 1684.
She stayed with relatives for a short time, then found a home in a local convent. The sisters there, after many encounters with the ancient and supernatural in Goa and environs, were more forgiving of St. Sofia's interests. It was here that St. Sofia wrote Philosophiæ Præternaturalis Principia, her magnum opus. It was here also that St. Sofia gathered around herself several devoted followers who shared her passion for the mysteries of the ancient and unseen worlds. The land of India was, of course, fertile ground for explorations along those lines, and St. Sofia learned many strange and wondrous things in her years there.
St. Sofia, with the support of the local Archbishop, established her own priory, the Priory of the Immaculate Conception (a.k.a. the Priory of the Labyrinth) on the edge of the city. It took the better part of a year, mainly because some local witch (later discovered to be a member of a cult of a mysterious devil-god) constantly plagued the construction with ill luck and stormy weather. Eventually, St. Sofia and the other nuns confronted the witch and prevailed against her. The priory was completed and St. Sofia took her place as the Prioress.
Long years passed in which St. Sofia spent most of her time in contemplation and prayer, learning to develop, however haltingly, those gifts God had given her and her fellow sisters. She also learned many things about the earliest epochs of Indian history, including many things few reputable historians would acknowledge. The archives of the Goa priory are filled with strange stories and obscure texts concerning that period, and many others.
St. Sofia lived a very long life, but eventually she too was called home from this land of exile. As might be expected for someone who spent her entire adult life investigating the mysteries of this world, St. Sofia's parting from it was mysterious. In 1729, on the very same day of the year she was born, St. Sofia took part in sext (noon prayers) and then left the convent building to take a walk in the labyrinth. When she hadn't returned in time for afternoon prayers, the other sisters started an increasingly frantic search for the 68 year old sister. She was never found and, after a year, was declared dead and given a full Requiem Mass in absentia by the Archbishop of Goa. A grave plaque was set in Bom Jesus basilica, not far from the remains of St. Francis Xavier.
Rumors soon arose about the true fate of St. Sofia. Some sisters held she had been assumed into heaven, like Enoch and the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a sign of her sanctity and wisdom. Others believe that, having established her fellowship, left Goa and returned to Europe to die peacefully in the land of her birth, or else ventured into some hidden corner of the world. A few hold that St. Sofia, having reached great insight into the divine order of creation, was gifted with immortality and still lives (there have been a few reported sightings of St. Sofia since 1729, but even the witnesses were unclear if they were physical or spiritual encounters). The S.I.F. officially shies away from any explanations, especially such presumptuous ones as the assumption, and leaves the matter open to individual speculation.
Canonization and Creation of the Congregation
The process of St. Sofia's canonization began soon after her disappearance. Her followers in Goa petitioned Pope Benedict XIII, but it was his successor, Clement XII, who initiated the formal procedure. In 1738, St. Sofia was beatified after the testimony of Sister Martha of Goa, a converted Hindu who knew St. Sofia and, after she was declared dead, prayed that the nun would intercede on her behalf so she might be spared the ravages of a debilitating illness. Sister Martha was miraculously cured, a fact confirmed by numerous local men of repute, including two doctors (one French and one Portuguese), and thus St. Sofia's cause was firmly established in the eyes of the Sacred Congregation for Rites. Fifteen years thereafter, her canonization followed by decree of Pope Benedict XIV.
St. Sofia's feast day was established as June 12th, and the first Mass celebrating the feast was held in Goa in the year 1758 (and in Lisbon some hours later). It was not long afterwards that the Sisters of the Immaculate Fire were established by Pius VI's successor, Clement XIII. Initially, the S.I.F. was found only in Goa, but by the turn of the century, there were priories in Lisbon (where her memory had been rehabilitated over the years), Porto, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Beirut and even Loanda in Portuguese Angola. Wider expansion was checked by the outbreak of the wars of the French Revolution and Empire. In those countries where the Sisters were established, they flourished, proving St. Sofia's belief that there was a hunger for knowledge of the true meaning of nature, as against the more mechanical world view promulgated by many learned men of the day. As time went on, the Red Sisters also learned that there were many strange forces and foes that even St. Sofia had never dreamt of. Many things lurking in the wilds and the great cities alike defied understanding, a fact that lead more than a few Sisters to crises of faith.
Since St. Sofia's death, the S.I.F. has continued to grow. While its priories are still concentrated in Portugal and its colonies, as well as Brazil, they can also be found across the rest of the Catholic world. There are even a few in the United States and the British Empire, although continuing anti-Catholic prejudice makes their work there difficult. The S.I.F. has many concerns as the 19th century wanes. There is a surge in interest in the supernatural among the middle and upper classes of Europe and the Americas. While most of this is harmless (at least to the body, if not the soul) dabbling, many curious seekers have been corrupted by what they have discovered. Cults and dark mystics are spreading all over the world, threatening to do great mischief. The S.I.F. is hard put to keep track of even the most overt cults, let alone deal with them.
He that adoreth God with joy, shall be accepted, and his prayer shall approach even to the clouds.
Ecclus. xxxv. 20
The S.I.F. has only the loosest organization, as is typical of religious sisterhoods. The priory in Goa, as the oldest and largest of the S.I.F.’s many priories, has pride of place in the sisterhood, and the Prioress of the Priory of the Immaculate Conception is the head of the S.I.F., although her role is largely one of first among equals. Next in prominence is the priory of Lisbon, and generally proceeding from there in order of seniority, down to the young priory in London.
Within a priory, the prioress has absolute authority. Any sister elected to this office has proven herself brave and wise, and deserves respect - in theory, at least, as there always cases where a local prioress is not worthy of her position and still manages to arrange her election by the other sisters. These are rare, however. Regardless of a prioress’ merits, obedience to her by the other sisters is essential for the proper functioning of the priory. In the field, on the other hand, sisters are trusted to fulfill their orders under their own initiative. As long as the task is completed without a whiff of scandal, few questions are asked about the finer details.
In addition to the prioress, most priories have other defined positions. These generally include the circuitor (the sister in charge of discipline and security), the librarian (who manages both the library and the priory's relics and artifacts, if any), the novice-master (who supervises and trains the novice sisters), the infirmerer (who tends to the sick and injured) and the treasurer (who manages the priory's accounts and also distributes alms to the local destitute). Finally, one of the sisters serves as advocatus diaboli, responsible for ensuring the priory does not investigate or, worse, hunt something that is not actually supernatural.
Ideally, one does not 'join' a religious order, one accepts her God-given vocation. The real world being what it is, especially in the 19th century, this is not always the case. However, very few young girls are driven into taking vows as a Red Sister; the S.I.F. is too obscure and esoteric and those who join it do so out of sincere commitment - whatever the exact shade of that commitment may be. In practical terms joining the S.I.F. is much like joining any other religious congregation, although the particular focus on mysticism and the occult means any hopeful candidate will be very closely scrutinized. Qualities such as courage and intelligence are prerequisites, along with piety and obedience. Once accepted by the local prioress, the candidate takes the first step on her long road with the congregation.
The next phase is the novitiate, which lasts several years and allows the young woman to acclimate herself to the congregation's particular duties and dangers. Generally, the novitiate takes four years, although it can be shorter or longer as circumstances dictate. During this time, the prospective sister undergoes the essential education that helps the Red Sisters conduct their work. Aside from the expected courses on theology, doctrine and Latin, novices also learn at least one foreign language useful to their region (English, French, German, Italian and Spanish are the most common, but there are numerous other possibilities depending on the location of the priory), occult philosophy, classics of the supernatural by both Catholic and non-Catholic authors, and more practical subjects such as self-defense (unladylike as it is, Red Sisters often find themselves forced to use fisticuffs and even firearms), first aid, and the like. In many priories, horseback riding is still taught, although this is less common in most of Europe and the United States than elsewhere.
Upon completion of the novitiate, the sister takes her vows. The S.I.F. holds to the three-fold vows typical of Catholic religious orders: chastity, poverty and obedience. These vows, when held, strengthen the spirit and bring the Sister closer to God by emulating the example of the saints.
What about the men?
A perceptive reader will no doubt have noticed that the S.I.F. consists entirely of women. As a congregation of religious sisters, the S.I.F. has less contact with men than the norm and, of course, has no male members. That doesn't mean no men take part in the S.I.F.'s work, it just means they are fairly rare.
But the Red Sisters often find themselves presented with a situation that calls for more than just scholarship and piety to deal with. For those occasions, every priory keeps discreet contact with a handful of local men that can be trusted to come to its aid. When a situation is likely to end in violence, these men are called upon for aid. Red Sisters who belong to the Falcons pride themselves on avoiding such requests, but even they sometimes encounter a threat too big to handle alone.
The prerequisites of a helper of the S.I.F. are that one is a Catholic man in good standing, one of good physical health and courage, and worthy of the secrets and obligations the S.I.F. may impose upon him.
In addition to these lay assistants, the Sisters often call upon ordained men. Priests must administer the sacraments to them, of course, but priests also are required for the rite of exorcism and other duties essential to the S.I.F.'s work. Every priory has at least two or three priests nearby who are aware of their ongoing spiritual warfare, and generally (but not always) the bishop of the local diocese is informed.
The Daily Life of a Red Sister
While St. Sofia never established a formal Rule, her successors gradually adopted a routine in keeping with the basic form of religious living. Ordinarily, a sister's day consists of morning prayer shared by all the members of the priory, breakfast, a period of private meditation or study, noon Mass and prayers, routine work around the priory, communal afternoon prayers, supper, communal evening prayers, a second period of meditation or study, nighttime prayers, both communal and then private and finally sleep.
Of course, this plan of contemplation, prayer and study is often disrupted. When the Sisters find some task that calls for their attention, an abbreviated form (morning and nighttime prayers) punctuates whatever specific work is required. The obligations of the Church - weekly attendance at Holy Mass, fasting and abstaining in the proper days and seasons, and so on - remain of course, no matter what the situation. (Those who are dispatched into the wilderness or non-Christian lands are directed to obtain dispensation from observation of Sunday and holy day masses from the local bishop prior to departing, as well as receiving the Sacrament of Confession.)
The Red Sisters often call upon the intercession of the saints in Heaven, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary. Prayers raised up to God through these particular saints are considered to be especially effective against the creatures and plots of the Devil: St. Agrippina, St. Andrew of Segni, St. Benedict, St. Columba of Rieti, St. Demetrius of Sermium, St. Denis, St. Dionysius the Aeropagite, St. Dymphna, St. Lucian, St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Quirinus.
In addition, the guardian angels and especially the archangels St. Michael and St. Raphael are powerful protectors against the devil and his wicked schemes. St. Sofia was especially fond of St. Raphael and wrote many prayers invoking his intercession, such as the following:
São Rafael, meu guardião, protegei-me nas minhas viagens e tribulações. Como zelastes por Tobias, zelai por mim. Que eu sirva a Deus como vós, e que a minha mão e o meu coração sejam tão fortes quanto os vossos.
St. Raphael, guardian mine, protect me in my travels. As you set your watch upon Tobias, set it upon me. May I serve God as you do, and may my hand and heart be strong as yours are.
The S.I.F. is no more monolithic a body than the Church as a whole. Just as the Church has ultramontanists and conciliarists (emphasizing the primacy of the pope or that of church councils, respectively), and many other movements in its ranks, the S.I.F. has numerous factions devoted to different issues. The most prominent of them are the ghost-focused Cacciaturi dâ Fantasmas, the Cloistered, the Falcons known for zealously hunting and slaying monsters, the mystic India Circle and the mysterious, perhaps even mythical, Whites.
Cacciaturi dâ Fantasmas
The Cacciaturi dâ Fantasmas are the S.I.F.'s experts in ghostly and afterlife lore. Put simply, they are obsessed with ghostly manifestations, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. The Cacciaturi have their own unique and well-developed view of the afterlife, one which draws on Catholic dogma and tradition as well as private revelations and reasoning. Other Sisters worry the Cacciaturi sometimes stray too far from the boundaries of the faith in such matters, not entirely without cause. The basic Cacciaturi scheme of the afterlife is four-fold, consisting of Heaven, Purgatory, Limbo and Hell, but there are many additions to that core doctrine. Following in Dante's allegorical footsteps, the Cacciaturi have divided the four realms of the afterlife into numerous domains and locations.
Limbo, in particular, is a fixation of the Cacciaturi, even if it is not Catholic dogma. The Cacciaturi hold that Limbo is the home of the vast majority of human souls and the source of most hauntings (other Sisters generally believe most ghosts are souls in Purgatory). The Caverns of Limbo (a term coined by the Cacciaturi) are described as a shadowy, twilight reflection of the real world, where the souls of the righteous who were unable to accept Christ dwell forever in a mild, natural bliss. A few Cacciaturi claim to have seen, or even traveled to, the Caverns; such claims are viewed with considerable skepticism by the rest of the S.I.F.
Another peculiar belief of the Cacciaturi is that when the End Times come, the souls still in Purgatory will rise up and join the heavenly host in battle against the hordes of Hell. Some Cacciaturi are even rumored to hope they will dwell in Purgatory long enough to take part in this great battle, which is why (according to rumor) they never pray for the souls of their departed sisters.
Their major concern at the present time is a bizarre cult active throughout Italy. The cult, its name unknown, is fixated on using dark Etruscan magic to summon and bind the most ancient spirits of Limbo, then wrench powerful antediluvian lore from the specters for their own sinister purposes. This blasphemous scheme may seem absurd, but the cultists are literally deathly serious; they have already killed two investigating Red Sisters and several sacrificial victims. Finding and stopping the cult is the priority of the Cacciaturi.
The unofficial head of the Cacciaturi is Sister Elisabetta Quattrocchi, a Sicilian who took holy vows almost half a century ago. Sister Elisabetta is a medium and one of the most gifted theologians in the S.I.F., even if a few of her particular theories about the nature, abilities and activities of spirits come close to heresy to some.
While the S.I.F. is an active congregation, there are some sisters who take their vows further and enter the cloistered life, never leaving the priory grounds or even speaking to those outside the congregation (except, of course, their confessors). Often, these are older sisters who have fought the good fight for decades and can no longer endure expeditions into tangled slums or uncharted jungles. Instead, they serve the goals of the S.I.F. through prayer, study and meditation.
Anybody who visits one of the S.I.F.'s priories will see them - quiet sisters, often elderly, gliding along the garden paths and stone corridors with their red habits and white veils trailing in their wake as they ponder obscure bits of theology and philosophy.
The cloistered also engage in simple works such as baking bread for church use and sewing vestments and habits for local priests and their fellow sisters. These modest ventures help raise money for the priory, which often has sizeable (and discreet) expenditures to account for.
Aside from those Red Sisters too old to handle the active side of their vocation, the Cloistered also consists of those poor souls who have been damaged by their experiences. Nietzsche, not an overly popular figure in the Church, was absolutely right when he wrote that "when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Demonic possession and madness afflict many Red Sisters; these must be cared by the S.I.F. itself, both because 19th century methods of dealing with the insane are none too gentle and because there is the risk they would reveal dangerous or embarrassing (at least in the eyes of the skeptical press) secrets.
The Falcons are the most active and least-organized faction of the S.I.F. They have made it their mission to seek out and destroy the creatures that prey upon mankind, rather than deal with such things as they emerge. This has given them a reputation for recklessness and aggression, one which isn't entirely undeserved. The Falcons do encounter and deal with monsters far more often than the rest of the Sisters, and the constant violence can take its toll on one's soul (to say nothing of one's body).
Despite their reputation as 'God's lady soldiers,' the Falcons do have an impressive understanding of all manner of monsters ranging from vampires and werewolves to obscure local creatures and spirits (such as the tikbalang of the Philippines) - all the better to hunt them with, of course. The Falcons are not blind to biology, and make the distinction between rare and unusual animals and truly monstrous creatures; the former are left alone or to mundane hunters, while the latter are hunted down without a trace of mercy.
When it comes to the philosophical side of things, the Falcons classify monsters in general as the minions, if not outright spawn, of Satan. The origins of vampires and werewolves are well known. More unusual creatures, and those who were never human, are viewed as either diabolical spirits in flesh, or the descendents thereof (animal counterparts to the half-angel Nephilim of Scripture, essentially). These beasts are often very deadly and hard to kill, and sometimes possess preternatural powers. Thus, Falcons who take up the hunt are often accompanied by local 'muscle' (usually experienced hunters and guides) in the field.
Few Falcons live a sedentary life and most rarely see the inside of their priories. Instead, they are usually found in the wilderness, tracking down rumors of this creature or that monster; for this reason, they are the most noticed by those outside the S.I.F., much to the chagrin of the rest of the society. The Falcons don't have a real leader - they are far too disorganized for it - but their most prominent member is Sister Catarina Fonseca; now in her late forties, the Portuguese Sister Catarina acts and looks like a woman half her age, and shows no signs of giving up the hunt any time soon.
The India Circle
One conclusion there is that we must fasten on as we hurriedly survey these world ideas which are to be found in every place; it is that they derive from an irrepressible longing, from a natural and passionate desire for those preternatural gifts which became useless by sin. These gifts were not intended as something contrary to nature, but as a support and perfection thereof. Today, after the Fall, man can only quench this most understandable desire for them by winning back, by the power of grace in true mysticism, something of that which has been lost.
Occult Phenomenon, Alois Wiesinger, O.C.S.O.
In an order focused on the preternatural, the sisters of the India Circle are preternaturalists par excellence. They study and speculate and, sometimes, demonstrate the variety of preternatural gifts and natural magic passed on from the dawn of mankind. Their goal is to become ever closer to God by understanding and perfecting the gifts He gave to man's unfallen ancestors, an attitude with shades of Eastern philosophy and religion in it. This is unsurprising since the India Circle is based in the subcontinent.
The India Circle counts a large number of theurgists among its ranks, gifted white magicians who follow in the footsteps of Sister Martha of Goa. Aside from traditional Catholic mysticism and natural magic, the India Circle also studies Siddhi, a Sanskrit term for spiritual power that includes a great number of preternatural abilities. Originally a Buddhist and Hindu concept, Siddhi has been 'baptized' by the India Circle and recast from a Catholic perspective. There are many Siddhis (the names and numbers vary depending on which Asian tradition one consults), but they are all powerful gifts. This fixation on Siddhi has given the India Circle a dark reputation in the rest of the S.I.F., to say nothing of the Church as a whole. The Inquisition, never friends with the Red Sisters in the best of times, keeps a close eye on the India Circle. Despite this scrutiny, the India Circle has never been formally accused of heresy (its detractors say this is merely a sign that the India Circle is very clever, not very holy).
Siddhi aside, the India Circle also has a penchant for delving into the mysteries of India's most ancient history. Many sisters of the India Circle are archaeologists, mostly amateur, who follow the latest developments in Indian prehistory and sometimes contribute to the body of knowledge themselves. The head of the India Circle, Abbess Monica of Pondichéry, is one of these archaeologist-sisters and has written several scholarly articles about the ancient civilization of pre-Aryan India. Her theory is that this culture contained a great deal of remnant knowledge inherited from a branch of the line of Seth, third son of Adam and Eve.
To most Red Sisters, the Whites are just a rumor, whispered of in secret and never ever mentioned to outsiders. The abbesses of the S.I.F. are unanimous - there are no Whites. But rumor persists despite, or because of, official pronouncements. In this case, the rumor is that within the S.I.F. there is a secret society of reactionary sisters involved in royal politics of most of Catholic Europe. They are said to be in possession of various obscure and ancient prophecies concerning both the Great Catholic Monarch and the coming century. Their goal? Nothing less than ensuring the survival of the necessary royal lines in order to bring about the Great Catholic Monarch.
The means by which this might be accomplished are unknown, and tend to vary with the teller. Manipulation both mundane and magical, and all manner of skullduggery, including creation or suppression of scandal, and arranged marriages, are the tip of the iceberg. Darker rumors about revolutions and repression are also spread about the Whites, who are viewed as arch-conspirators beyond Machiavelli's wildest imaginations or devout defenders of the future of Europe against a coming age of darkness, or sometimes both.
If they exist, and there is no real proof, the Whites are most likely centered in Iberia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Catholic monarchs sit on ancient thrones. France is lost to the Church and crown, but there are stories of Whites aiming to change that, despite the recent electoral defeat of the monarchist Boulangists, and also rumors of a White presence in Belgium and the Catholic monarchies such as Baden and Bavaria inside the German Empire. The leader of the Whites is said to be Abbess Elisabeth of the Innsbruck Priory; Elisabeth does come from an old noble house (the von Zastrows), and does have close ties with many influential figures in the Empire, but when someone is brave enough to ask her, she denies it with a laugh.
There are two groups of note, one inside the Church and one just outside it, that share similar concerns with the Sisters of the Immaculate Fire. The Paris Prieuré is a group of heretical, angel-worshiping nuns, while the Red Ring is a society of zealous monster hunters in the mold of the worst excesses of the medieval Inquisition.
The Paris Prieuré
Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any things, that are in heaven above, or that are in the earth beneath, or that abide in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, and thou shalt not serve them.
Deut. v. 8-9a
The sisters of the priory of Notre Dame Reine des Anges (Our Lady Queen of Angels) are one of the bitterest rivals to the Sisters of St. Sofia of Coimbra. It was not always so. Not so long ago, Reine des Anges was a faithful and valiant part of the S.I.F. But Prioress Marthe and her fellow sisters have fallen from the True Faith and now serve only themselves and their mysterious new masters.
History of the Paris Prieuré
Reine des Anges was established in 1855 and soon proved quite adept at unraveling the many sinister plots swirling around Paris. The City of Lights is home to dozens of cults and covens, not to mention hundreds of independent Satanists and warlocks. The sisters of Reine des Anges were hard pressed, but they excelled at their work under the guidance of Prioress Marthe.
But as the years passed, and more and more cults emerged, the sisters began to focus their attention on theurgy above all other tools. Therein lay their eventual downfall. Many texts of questionable moral value fell into their hands. One of these was a Renaissance grimoire written by a Théodore Clugnet. The text focused on the invocation and even summoning of angels. The sisters relied on it more and more, and when regular contact was made with the angels, their proper veneration turned to forbidden adoration (i.e., outright worship). It happened over the course of several years, but by the end of the 1860s, all the sisters of the priory were ensnared in Idolatry.
In 1869, Sister Nathalie, a novice from the Brussels priory, happened to pass through Paris. Young Sister Nathalie was horrified to discover the idolatrous practices of her fellow religious, and hastily fled and informed the mother priory in Goa. Matters swiftly progressed down the inevitable path - the Inquisition was called into the affair, and all the sisters, unrepentant, were excommunicated and driven out of the S.I.F.
Despite their expulsion, the sisters of Reine des Anges continued their work. They found an eccentric Old Catholic priest, one PPre Marc Boutefeu, to administer the Sacraments to them, and stepped ever deeper into their angelic Idolatry. They are now almost wholly divorced from Christian teachings and the dogma of the Church, but do persist in challenging the minions of Satan (although their primary duty now seems to be advancing the worship of their angelic tutors).
The sisters of Reine des Anges have two goals. The first is the old duty of countering the machinations of the Devil, and the sisters perform this admirably enough with the aid of their angelic magic. Their chief goal, however, is to spread their Idolatry among the people of Paris. They have had little success among the toiling classes, but there are many bourgeois possessing a tired disenchantment with the Church who have fallen under their influence. The wisdom of the angels is exotic and enticing, but not as dangerous (socially or otherwise) as outright diabolism. And Prioress Marthe's charisma cannot be denied; few can listen to her proselytize and not be unswayed at least in part. It is believed there are nearly two hundred adherents of varying devotion throughout Paris, and rumors of a new chapter to open soon in Marseille.
The hierarchy of the sisters of Reine des Anges is simple enough. It remains the same as when they were still members of Mother Church, only now Prioress Marthe is the highest authority. She is by all accounts something of a tyrant now, and perhaps slightly unbalanced. The 'doctrine' of her cult changes often, and without reason, according to her whims - or the dictates of the angels. It is said that Sister Barbe, a Breton and the youngest of the nuns, is next in favor to Prioress Marthe. Besides Prioress Marthe and Sister Barbe, there are Sister HélPne, Sister Magdala, Sister Tempérance and Sister Élisabeth. All are talented theurgists and all are zealous followers of their angelic masters.
The Red Ring
This people honoureth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me.
Matt. xv. 8
This obscure sect hides itself within Holy Mother Church. Their actions are cloaked in obscurity, but it is known they dabble in both the cruelties of the Church's best-forgotten past and in magic without scruples. They seldom cross paths with the S.I.F. - fortunately so, for such meetings are rarely friendly.
History of the Red Ring
The Red Ring was founded 1817 in Rome by Father Pietro Baccarin, a member of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. Father Pietro, a very gifted antiquarian and exorcist, became convinced of the reality of black magic in the course of his work in the hill country east of Rome. But despite his many appeals, eventually directed all the way to the Pontiff, Father Pietro's warnings were not heeded by the Curia. Eventually, embittered, Father Pietro confided his knowledge to a few of his closest colleagues. They were more receptive than the Curia and an informal brotherhood devoted to crushing the forces of darkness was born.
Sadly, it was a task beyond their native abilities. Soon, Father Pietro and his followers took to using magical texts they had recovered from defeated foes. This tactic was successful indeed, and became their sole method in short order. When Father Pietro disappeared in 1825, his nephew Father Giovanni S.J. became leader of the informal brotherhood. It was Father Giovanni who gave it its name, the Red Ring, after their early habit of wearing rings of red cloth while conducting their work (the origin of this practice is a secret to all except the Red Ring's surviving founders). More importantly, it was Father Giovanni who began the use of medieval instruments of torture on those the Red Ring had judged to be enemies of the Church. Father Giovanni died of old age in 1867 and was in turn succeeded by his nephew (the oldest son of Father Pietro's youngest brother) Father Constantino.
While the most important members of the Red Ring are priests and religious, there are plenty of lay followers as well. Most of them were former soldiers, especially Pontifical Zouaves and a few Swiss and Palatine Guards, succeeding the Sanfedisti (counter-revolutionaries of Napoleonic Italy) who supplied the muscle in the early days.
In the beginning, the Red Ring was merely an offshoot of the Inquisition devoted to a secret crusade against witches and cults. Over the years, its focus has shifted to subverting black magic (be it text or artifact) and turning it against the true minions of Satan. They aim to cleanse Christendom of the many magicians and necromancers who lurk in its shadows - in this, they are not very dissimilar to the S.I.F. It is their cruel methods that make them unlike St. Sofia's heirs. The Red Ring does not hesitate to use the worst relics of the Middle Ages to break their captured foes and learn whatever they can from them.
The Red Ring is believed to have a simple organization. Members work in small groups, the leaders of which answer to Constantino in Rome. In practice, they operate as they see fit. In this, too, they are much like the S.I.F. Although, owing to the Red Ring's paranoid devotion to secrecy, their activities are shadowy, the S.I.F. believes the Red Ring operates in several Italian cities (Naples, Palermo, Florence and Milan, at the very least) and, it is believed, in France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well. The 'inner circle' of the Red Ring is said to consist of Monsignor Constantino, his niece (daughter of Carlo Constantino, Father Pietro's older brother) Sister Giulia, a cunning and cruelnun, and Silvio D'Addario, a one-eyed, scar-covered former Pontifical Zouave said to be a soldier's soldier.