What is a saint? We are tempted to reply at once: “a very holy person.” Ah, but what is holiness? That is a more complex issue. We can’t point to a foolproof lifestyle to define what holiness is supposed to look like. Some canonized saints of the Church were kings and queens in palaces; others begged on the streets of their cities. Some were wellborn and educated, while as many were peasants, unsuccessful students, or simpleminded.
Some saints ranked among the popes, bishops, priests, and religious; others were farmers, doorkeepers, parents, even children. Some prayed and wrote in solemn cloisters; others wandered the countryside preaching. Some performed miracles, and many others are remembered for great wisdom or compassion. More than a few were martyred by methods artists have rendered in magnificent horror to impress such tremendous love and sacrifice upon the religious imagination. Others died of old age in their beds, with loved ones gathered around them.
Those of us who grew up with images of saints encircling our spiritual sensibilities are impressed above all by a certain mythic quality endowing these figures. They seem to exist without the temporal anchor that weighs heavily on the rest of us. In their soulful union with God, saints appear to float above history and its gritty concerns. We may be hard pressed to locate most of these sacred personalities on the globe, or to pin them down to a particular generation. We know them, rather, from their writings or what others have said about them. For the most part, the average saint remains locked in a timeless vacuum of plaster, stained glass, holy card, and legend. He or she, frankly, is not of this world, unlike the rest of us.
A wrench gets thrown into the mythmaking process once the element of proximity is added to the mix. The hometown celebrity can never quite escape the history of having been the ponytailed girl in algebra class or the young man who mowed lawns. Locality and familiarity make the saints of the United States most striking for those of us anchored in the soil of this country and its uniquely experimental history. The shiny surreal saints we grew up with—faraway figures from places like Assisi, Avila, Padua, or Hippo—seem to have inhabited the celestial communion forever. We have largely lost them behind a haze of hagiography, which means “idealizing or idolizing biography.” Our homegrown saints are different. They share a story we have heard from secular history books. The U.S. saints step (and sometimes stumble) out of the pages of that history, traveling territory we know by heart as citizens of these same neighborhoods.
In their remarkable proximity to us, the saints of this country are reminders that all saints really do start on the ground: in some city or village, among a particular people, bearing the values and ideas of their generations. From their precise perch in time, there is information they don’t have, or perspectives they can’t imagine, that will seem flatly apparent in future centuries. Wrapped in threadbare mortality, each has flaws that become part of the lumber of their sanctification. The saints of our land drop anchor in the common cultural waters that are still in the process of shaping us. This makes their stories especially relevant as we seek a way of holiness for ourselves.
Making intercession through the saints is a time-honored tradition among Catholics. We might well utilize the special graces of these women and men who achieved sanctity by sweat and tears—and sometimes blood—on these shores. But the goal of this book isn’t to present more holy lives to admire, nor to add to our chain of heavenly advocates. We can be sure no saint purposefully aimed to be canonized, or sought to be the object of veneration and prayers! These American lives are uniquely offered for our contemplation—to imitate their motivations if not always their methods—so that we too might be numbered among the holy ones in our own time.
It is important to define our term. What do we mean by an American saint? The history of the United States officially begins in 1776, but the colonial era predates that year by three centuries. This means some “U.S.” saints labored and died here before the story of our nation properly began. In the seventeenth century, three of the eight Jesuit martyrs of North America—Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and Jean de Lalande— died as French citizens in what is now U.S. territory. Mohawk tribeswoman Kateri Tekakwitha, sharing the time frame of the Jesuits, was not a citizen of the U.S.
Beatified Franciscan Junípero Serra marched up the West Coast founding missions before the establishment of the new nation. Known as California’s founding father, Serra was doing it all for the glory of God and Spain. Even Elizabeth Ann Seton, born in New York, was a subject of the British Empire and only became a U.S. citizen when the ground under her feet changed hands as a result of the Revolutionary War.
Other holy figures who are identified with their accomplishments in our nation were not born in the U.S., although many did gain citizenship later: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was Italian-born, Bishop John Neumann was from Bohemia, Mothers Philippine Duchesne and Theodore Guérin were both French, Father Damien de Veuster was from Belgium, and Mother Marianne Cope and beatified Redemptorist Francis Xavier Seelos were both German.
In addition, it must be remembered that what constituted the United States was in flux throughout these centuries. If the Jesuit martyrs and Tekakwitha lived before “The Star-Spangled Banner” was ever conceived, Serra died in a California that would not be incorporated into the U.S. story for some time to come. Father Damien ministered at Molokai on the so-called Sandwich Islands that did not yet belong to the U.S. as our fiftieth state.
In these early decades of the twenty-first century, the only American-born U.S. citizen to be Canonized: to date is Mother Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia. It would be a strangely picky piety that would draw the line at Drexel’s feet and proclaim her the only “real” U.S. saint.
Presented in the following chapters are the stories of intriguing lives that merited canonization or beatification from within the scope of American territory. We hope these stories will open the door to a discussion of distinctly American traits that add something to the story of Catholicism that is not prominent in old-world saints or at earlier times.
Also within the scope of this effort is the desire to tell these stories within the context of our unique cultural history. These were, after all, men and women who walked the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; who worked in New Orleans, Denver, and along California’s coast. They penetrated the heartland of Indiana and Missouri with missions and churches, schools and hospitals. They preached in the Southwest and brought hope to island territories that would later become part of our national story.
The implications of a common geography are remarkable in a country so young. These American saints were deeply affected by the currents that shaped the world we U.S. citizens inhabit today. Since 1492, the formidable movements of empires—Spain, France, and England— indelibly impressed upon the cultures of Florida, California, and the Southwest, the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, and the first thirteen colonies of the Eastern seaboard a character and culture, architecture, and attitude still imprinted on these areas. The ways in which these vast areas changed hands left their legacies—some more bitter than others. Our future saints lived in the midst of these conflicts and bore the burdens of working in such difficult times. When wars were fought—Revolutionary or Civil, Spanish-American or world-encompassing—our saints were as personally impacted by the outcomes as any of us would have been. And when government, Church, or other powers acted from the dark motives of greed and personal ambition, or out of ignorance, disordered zeal, or prejudice, these Catholic men and women struggled within the framework of such authorities and times to seek a brighter and better course.
Modern readers are tempted to judge the actors on history’s stage in the glaring light of contemporary understanding, often forgetting the participants’ original context. If we view every saint in the Church’s canon by present-day standards, many come up wanting in some measure. At the same time, some saints who were viewed quite badly within their own generations develop improved profiles in the rearview mirror.
In matters of race and gender, slavery and privilege, clergy and laity, interfaith and ecumenical relations, labor and management, the story of our country contains bleak and shameful chapters that are hard to own. We want to look the other way, as we would in the presence of an indelicacy. The lives of the saints do not permit this, and these lovers of truth would not ask this of us, even if such inspection reflected poorly on them. They engaged hard questions within their social context, and might not flinch if we ask similar questions of them from the privileged perspective of a later century. If we can learn from their errors as much as from their fervor, their usefulness as examples in faith is doubled. If we can forgive past generations for the limits of their understanding, maybe future generations will forgive us our equally time-bound smugness.
Few of us can guess now what certitudes will be available to the future that are unavailable at the moment. Each generation marvels at how past ones put up with systems and notions later banished as cruel and ludicrous. History books are notoriously short on mercy and absolution. We must look to God, and to each other, for that.
Alice Camille is a writer, religious educator, and parish retreat leader who received a Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. She has authored nine books, numerous articles and regular columns, writes the monthly commentary “Exploring the Sunday Readings” and has helped develop catechetical materials for schools and parishes.
Paul Boudreau is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, and is pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Portland, Connecticut. He is the author of Between Sundays: Daily Gospel Reflections and Prayers, and has written many articles on various aspects of parish and pastoral ministry.