For the Love of Our American Saints

For the Love of Our American Saints

At a recent Christmastime party, I partook in that rather common feature of such celebrations—the perennial White Elephant exchange. 

The occasion of this particular to-do was the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, which took place on December 16th, 1773. Since we were celebrating an event of such importance in American history, the White Elephant had a special requirement—before fetching (or stealing) your gift, you had to say one thing you were grateful for about the United States.

The answers ranged from humorous to inspiring, weighted towards the latter end of the scale. The one actual British person there (talk about a good sport!) mentioned that he was grateful for the many good people he’d met in the USA.

I’m sure we all thought of a slew of good answers later on that we mentally filed away for next year’s party, and among those that occurred to me after the fact was one similar to our British friend’s answer: I am grateful for the amount of faith in the United States, as well as her impressive army of saints and blesseds.

The rear nave lunette of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which depicts saints and famous Catholics from our country’s history
Photo cropped from the original by Almonroth/CC BY-SA 3.0

While it can be easy to focus on the negative aspects of Catholicism in the USA, be it the lack of church attendance, a lot of ugly 60s-70s-era churches, the non-existence of medieval cathedrals, or the strong influence of Protestantism, one visit to nearly anywhere else in the English-speaking world or northern Europe will probably cure you of those peeves. 

The UK (as well as those colonies that didn’t dump tea in the harbor: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and such post-Christian establishments as Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia are wastelands of faith such as the untraveled American has never really seen. You need only read back to my various articles on Catholicism in England and Ireland to understand what dire straits they are in.

Despite its flaws, the United States boasts many thriving dioceses, parishes, and Catholic communities, as well as a number of (truly) Catholic educational establishments (think University of Dallas or Belmont Abbey College, not Gonzaga or Georgetown). And if anything, church architecture is simply getting more traditional and more beautiful. Here in Charlotte, we have an overflowing seminary, a healthy population of religious sisters, and an entire selection of booming parishes with more parishioners than the priests can keep up with.

But this sort of faith doesn’t spring up out of a hole in the ground. It is the fruit of centuries of faith, sanctity, and sacrifice on the part of generations of American Catholics—priests, missionaries, bishops, teachers, religious founders, mothers, fathers, and families who strove to plant the flag of both freedom and faith in this fertile ground.

Many of our fearless forbears are not only American heroes, but Catholic ones too—America boasts 11 canonized saints so far, with many more blesseds, venerables, and Servants of God following close behind on the path to sainthood.

We celebrate two of our great American saints this week—let’s meet them!

January 4th: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth was born in New York City in 1774, the first saint born in what is now the United States of America. The daughter of a well-to-do Episcopalian family, she entered a happy marriage with businessman William Seton in 1794 and they had five children. But misfortune struck from two sides when William contracted tuberculosis and the fortunes of the family business began to decline. The Setons traveled to Italy in 1803 when William’s doctor recommended a warmer climate, but after a damp and cold quarantine, William tragically died there.

Elizabeth was deeply affected by the Catholic Faith of her Italian friends, particularly their belief in the Real Presence. She returned to New York after her husband’s death and converted to Catholicism, despite the objections of her family and friends. 

A 1797 portrait of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Spirited, unstoppable, and fearless, Elizabeth did not let the tragedies in her life slow her down. Called to a life of service, she began the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, dedicated to the care and education of children, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. It was the first community of religious women in the USA, and her work was one of the starting points for the Catholic education system in this country. 

Elizabeth’s community had spread to many states and cities by the time of her death of tuberculosis at age 46. She is buried at the basilica dedicated to her in Emmitsburg, in the heart of the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland.

The tomb of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton at her shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland
Photo credit: Farragutful/CC BY-SA 4.0

January 5th: St. John Neumann 

St. John Neumann is the first and, so far, the only male American citizen to bear the title of saint (there’s a lot of upcoming beati so he won’t be alone for long). Born in what is now the Czech Republic, John dreamed of being a missionary and traveled to America to work among the immigrants there. He was ordained in New York in 1836, one of only a handful of priests covering a vast swath of territory in New York and New Jersey.

St. John Neumann

He worked among the German and Irish immigrants in Niagara Falls, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, joining the Redemptorist Order in 1842. One of the churches where he served as pastor was St. Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore—a gorgeous neo-Gothic building that is now a national shrine and thriving parish under the care of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. The shrine preserves his room and many relics from his life. 

Fr. Neumann was consecrated the fourth bishop of Philadelphia in 1852 at St. Alphonsus. He founded many churches, schools, hospitals, and orphanages throughout his relatively brief life, which was ended by a heart attack when he was only 48. He was canonized in 1977 and rests at the national shrine dedicated to him in Philadelphia.

The Home of the Brave

So the next time you are unexpectedly called upon to announce something you love about the United States of America, let me supply you with a ready answer: all her heroic saints! The stories of the American saints are thrilling sagas filled with danger, adversity, courage, daring, struggle, and victory—everything you want in an American tale. 

We’ll explore the gripping stories of more of our American saints as their feast days arrive throughout the liturgical year—but strap in, because we’re in for a whole series of adventures. 

We’ll sail to the leper colonies of Hawai’i with Father Damien of Molokai and Mother Marianne Cope; we’ll visit the Italian immigrants in the bustling streets of New York City with St. Frances Xavier Cabrini; we’ll tread the dangerous paths of the Mohawk Valley with St. Kateri Tekakwitha and St. Isaac Jogues. We’ll ship out to the battlefields of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam with some fearless military chaplains; we’ll cross the deserts of Alta California with St. Junípero Serra and go where no white man has gone before with Fr. Jacques Marquette and the first explorers of the Mississippi River Valley.

Are you ready? +