REGENSBURG, Germany — Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis breezed through her 500-room German palace, keys in hand and a bracelet of rubies and a Virgin Mary charm on her wrist.
She stopped to admire the ornate chapel where her great-grandmother-in-law Crown Princess Helene had died in bed and where her friend Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, once said Mass.
Then she headed down to the medieval cloister where she preferred to say her daily prayers.
In the crypt chapel, the diminutive, chatty and ebullient princess went silent as she removed her rose-tinted designer glasses, knelt in her Comme des Garçons pants on the upholstered kneeler and solemnly pressed her forehead against her laced fingers.
Colored light poured in through the six stained glass windows and onto the 58-year-old’s checked Yves Saint Laurent jacket as Msgr. Wilhelm Imkamp, a conservative prelate once touted by conservatives as a potential archbishop of Berlin, offered his lone parishioner communion.
The soles of her Hermès shoes — as white as the altar’s Carrara marble Jesus — faced the grating above the crypt where her deceased husband and his noble family’s ancestors lay in polished coffins.Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, wearing a two-foot bejeweled coif, with her husband, Johannes, at a ball in New York in 1987.CreditTony Palmieri/Penske Media, via Shutterstock
“Amen,” she said.
Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.
Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.
Princess Gloria, who is close with Hillary Clinton, the former Vogue editor André Leon Talley and celebrities like Quincy Jones, rejected any suggestion that she was running a secret society out of her palaces, where she said she provided an open house in which a visitor could meet a “transvestite or a nun.”
She said she thought the pope was “trying his level best,” but added with a laugh, he just “doesn’t sing my favorite hits first.”
She argued that instead of the pope’s emphasis on inclusion, the church needed to honor its laws and doctrines and undergo a spiritual conversion, much like she had undergone when her husband died nearly 30 years ago, to a more missionary and orthodox belief.Princess Gloria provides around 300 hot meals a day for the poor in this palace room.CreditKsenia Kuleshova for The New York Times
“We need to fight for the church,” she said, adding that Benedict had instilled in her the desire to “fight for the faith — not only to save the tradition, to save the faith, but also to fulfill your duties.”
The princess sees her responsibility as feeding hundreds of hungry people in her refectory every day and being supportive of increasingly isolated priests. But some of the priests in her court have answered the call of duty by going to war.
In August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published a letter accusing Francis of covering up abuse. His charges have so far proved unsubstantiated, but Princess Gloria called him a “whistle-blower.”
She recalled a “fabulous conversation” she had with him over the summer at a dinner party at the Rome residence of Cardinal James Harvey, an American and fellow archconservative.
The evening was sponsored by the Napa Institute, a wealthy conservative American Catholic group run by Timothy Busch, who sits on the board of the conservative Catholic media outlets that published Archbishop Viganò’s letter. She said she did not talk with Archbishop Viganò about his bombshell letter, but hoped it would be “a wake-up call for the church.”
Later that month, Archbishop Viganò sent a letter to his friend Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American leader of the anti-Francis resistance, regretting that he could not attend the cardinal’s birthday party at a Tuscan seminary.
The reason, Princess Gloria explained, was that he was in hiding. “He had a good excuse,” she said.
Still, it was a shame because it was a great party. Cardinal Burke — as close to her, she said, as a “family priest” — ate birthday cake in the shape of a red cardinal’s hat, held champagne in one glass and blessed seminarians with the other, and watched fireworks light up the sky in his honor.
“The good people know how to party,” she said with a laugh, adding that Cardinal Burke deserved it, “because he’s been so persecuted.”
Several of Princess Gloria’s close friends have had a rough time under Pope Francis. Last year, the pope fired Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the German cardinal and critic who was the church’s doctrinal watchdog. At her Rome palace, she introduced the cardinal to Mr. Bannon, who subsequently invited the German to his Washington headquarters, better known as the Breitbart Embassy.
Mr. Bannon, who has become close to Cardinal Burke, himself sees the pope as a destructive force in the church.The princess, who enjoyed life in the fast lane in the 1980s, now speeds around the grounds of her palace in a golf cart.CreditKsenia Kuleshova for The New York Times
He envisions a Gladiator School for the theological and media training of right-wing Catholics hostile to Francis. And he has sought to persuade the princess to invest in it at a monastery in the town of Trisulti, nearly two hours outside Rome, that is operated by Dignitatis Humanae Institute, an anti-abortion group run by his friend Benjamin Harnwell. Cardinal Burke is the president of its advisory board.
In a recent interview, Mr. Bannon said that he sensed a tipping point for a church besieged by crisis, and that his plan was to use Princess Gloria’s castle in Regensburg for a summer school while other prominent Catholic donors would fund the Trisulti project.
Asked whether Princess Gloria was among those prominent donors, he raised a knowing eyebrow and said, “I cannot disclose any of the donors.”
He acknowledged in a subsequent interview that he and Mr. Harnwell were “looking at a place” at the foot of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City as a base for his political movement to elect populist politiciansacross Europe. “But it may also be the local beachhead of the Gladiator School,” he said.
Princess Gloria said she welcomed Mr. Bannon’s contributions to the orthodox movement and found him to be an excellent communicator, political strategist and “Hollywood guy.”Prince Gloria had to move fast after her husband’s death to save the family fortune and the palace.CreditKsenia Kuleshova for The New York Times
But she made it clear that she wasn’t cutting any checks.
“We all want great things, but who is going to pay for it?” Princess Gloria, wearing a string of mothball sized pearls, asked rhetorically.
She ridiculed the possibility of investing $100 million to turn the monastery, where she was horrified to encounter a colony of bats, into a school.
“Sometimes men are dreamers and we women are more practical,” she said. “That’s why I said, ‘Great idea, start small.’”
(Mr. Bannon said Friday he hoped to launch a small “prototype” course in the spring. He credited Princess Gloria as “a key player in Rome” and added he had not asked her to donate “given her already enormous support for the traditionalist Catholic project in Rome.”)
But before Mr. Bannon helped the cause, Princess Gloria suggested, he first needed to get his own spiritual house in order.
“I’m there to help, but I’m very strict and I say: ‘O.K., let’s go to church first. Change your life,’” she said. Asked specifically whether she meant she wanted Mr. Bannon to regularly attend church before he tried to fix it, she smiled. “I want to see all of my friends be faithful Catholics first. And then we can start.”
Princess Gloria speaks from experience.
Despite being raised a Catholic who spent summers with her grand aunt, a Benedictine nun, in the Black Forest, as a young woman she was less than serious about religion. At 19, the young aristocrat met the 11th Prince of Thurn und Taxis, the 53-year-old Johannes, before a Supertramp concert in Munich.
In 1980, she married the eccentric and bisexual nobleman, whose family made a fortune as the postal service for the Holy Roman Empire. She then became the It Imperial Girl of the ’80s, hanging out in the clubs with Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol (he “went to church every day,” she says) and really anyone else you can think of.
In 1990, her husband died, leaving her as a young widow and mother of three with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. She got herself a business education, took the ancestral palace public, auctioned off the silver, jewels, wine and some of the art, and saved the family’s fortune.
She credits the turnaround to “the grace of God” that convinced her “that I have to give something back.” She became more devout and befriended clergy, including Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope Benedict. But she was far from cloistered.
She remained a New York high-society staple who this year celebrated Oktoberfest with the Clintons and was one of the roughly dozen women to attend Mrs. Clinton’s pre-2016 Election Day birthday party. (“A great woman,” the princess said, declining to share details. “It’s too early, in 10 years.”)
And Princess Gloria still likes to go fast.
In a golf cart (though not “the Rolls Royce of golf carts,” which she keeps in Rome), she zipped around the lush gardens, the medieval rectory where she feeds the poor, the stately courtyards and the recently refurbished wings of her castle.
She said that if a local university were game to foot the bill, her place would make far better classrooms for a Gladiator School than a cold monastery outside Rome.
“You see these, there is plenty of space for a school here,” she said. “And it’s heated!”