Last October the Roman Catholic Church elevated to sainthood two women of North America: Mother Marianne Cope, the German-American nun who spent her life providing solace to the lepers of Molokai, and Kateri Tekakwitha, the seventeenth-century convert known to devotees as the “Lily of the Mohawks.” As one of eighty thousand pilgrims who gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the celebration, I was able to see how canonization affirms the gospel truth, “He who humbles himself shall be exalted”—or in this case, as with the majority of American saints, she who humbles herself....

The process of getting there, however, can be tortuous—as in the case of Tekakwitha, whose elevation culminates an effort launched over a century ago. It began at Baltimore’s Third Plenary Council in 1884, when U.S. bishops drafted a petition asking Pope Leo XIII to open Tekakwitha’s cause for canonization, the first step in that direction on behalf of any person from the United States. Over the next century, Tekakwitha’s cause would gather, lose, and regain momentum. Because saints become popular in particular contexts, studying a cause for canonization often reveals more about the people promoting the saint than about the candidate herself. Tekakwitha’s cause offers an especially illuminating glimpse into American Catholic history. Her path to sainthood tells us a great deal about how U.S. Catholics have understood themselves, both as members of the church and as citizens of the nation, and how those understandings have shifted over time.

Catholics in the 1880s adopted Tekakwitha as a prospective patron because her life corresponded to their ideal vision of American Catholicism—and they were eager to promote that vision. U.S. bishops hoped that Tekakwitha’s life of virtue would inspire the Holy See to recognize that holiness had indeed been incarnated on American soil. In addition, they asked that the causes of Isaac Jogues and René Goupil, two Jesuits captured by the Iroquois in the 1640s and martyred near Tekakwitha’s subsequent birthplace, also be initiated. Tekakwitha’s hagiographers had long attributed her conversion to the martyrs’ grisly sacrifice. The “first fruit of their blood,” she was presented as a validation not simply of their deaths, but of the entire Catholic missionary enterprise in North America. The bishops wrote eloquently about the spiritual benefits that would accrue should the Vatican agree to introduce the causes, arguing that a saint with whom American Catholics shared a common geography would inspire them to ever more fervent levels of devotion.

In fact, the canon of saints already included Rose of Lima, canonized in 1671 and designated the patron of the Americas “from Cape Horn to Alaska.” But Catholics in North America paid Rose scant attention. In the words of the prominent nineteenth-century church historian John Gilmary Shea, they longed for saints who had “lived and labored, and sanctified themselves in our land, amid circumstances familiar.” By 1870, fully seventeen men and women from Central and South America had been elevated to the ranks of sainthood—yet not a single person from either Canada or the United States was even being considered for the honor. Rose of Lima became a flash point in an attempt to redress this imbalance, with U.S. Catholics expressing the need for a Rose of their own. Tekakwitha’s devotees often invoked her sobriquet, “Lily of the Mohawks,” to highlight the contrast between a saint-deprived culture to the north and a saint-saturated one to the south. Surely Tekakwitha, the “fairest flower of the American forest,” had equaled the “lovely Rose of Peru” in holiness. Should she not match her in heavenly status?

U.S. Catholics attributed their lack of a patron to a dearth not of holiness but of influence. They argued that the “modern” process of canonization, implemented in the seventeenth century, disadvantaged those Catholics living on the church’s periphery, far from its center of wealth and power. “Without monarchs or wealthy communities to undertake the long and often expensive investigations demanded at Rome,” one American Catholic grumbled, it was little wonder that no one north of the Rio Grande had ever even been proposed for canonization. One American priest, Rev. Edward McSweeny, suggested that the Vatican appoint a special group of cardinals to glorify the “hidden saints” of countries whose people were too poor to sponsor a cause.

There was no such simple remedy for the second obstacle U.S. Catholics saw thwarting them in their search for a native saint: anti-Catholicism in their own country. In seeking to elevate one of their own to the altars, North American Catholics would have to contend not only with a daunting and costly process but also with a Protestant supremacy that held them in contempt. Many outspoken anti-Catholics reserved special scorn for sainthood and viewed the prospect of an “American saint” as a travesty. In 1841, the politician and Presbyterian minister Robert Breckinridge had “beseech[ed] God” that “no American papist may ever be corrupt, debased, and infamous enough during his life, to be esteemed by Rome worthy of being a saint in her calendar after his death.”

And indeed, the 1884 petition on behalf of Tekakwitha set off warning bells in some Protestant circles. Recognizing that the United States was now a step closer to a canonized saint, the editors of the Methodist Review warned that if Catholic immigration continued apace, American Protestants would soon have to tolerate not only the canonization of “an inconspicuous Indian maiden” but also an abundance of U.S. saints drawn from among “the present superstitious masses of our country—[Catholics] of Irish or Italian extraction.” Such vitriol fueled the anti-Catholicism that surfaced in the 1880s, when a dramatic rise in Catholic emigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, amid a context of rapid urbanization and industrialization, generated widespread nativist anxiety. Aware of the manifest disdain with which many of their fellow citizens held Catholicism in general and its saints in particular, some U.S. Catholics despaired of ever securing a patron to call their own. The fact that canonization “smacks too much of Rome,” one observed, made it impossible for U.S. Catholics even to venerate the “old saints” properly, let alone advocate the canonization of new ones.

By the late nineteenth century, however, a number of Catholics began to argue precisely the opposite—that promoting a local saint might actually diminish anti-Catholicism. Could one of the most provocative markers of Catholic difference truly boost assimilation? Archbishop John Ireland thought so. The leader of a group of “Americanist” bishops eager to weave Catholicism more seamlessly into the American fabric, Ireland encouraged U.S. Catholics to find “a saint...whose name at once commands respect and admiration” from American Protestants. John Gilmary Shea agreed, insisting that the process of canonization would highlight a candidate’s contribution to American history even as it emphasized his or her sanctity. These arguments point to a dual mission in U.S. Catholics’ quest for their first patron saint—to convince Vatican officials of U.S. holiness, but also to display Catholics’ Americanness to a skeptical Protestant public. In this respect Tekakwitha functioned especially effectively, since her life story established the important presence of Catholics in North America from the earliest days of its history—a message that people who had been dismissed as recent and unwelcome visitors were desperate to send.

Yet even though Tekakwitha’s credentials made her a clear favorite in the quest for the first U.S. saint, her canonization ended up taking more than another century. That she was not a member of a religious community surely accounts in part for this delay, since congregations provide both the funding and the institutional memory necessary to sustain a cause over decades or even centuries. But something more fundamental was at play. While devotees tend to view holiness as timeless and eternal, in fact—viewed from the distance of history—it is rather more fluid and contingent. The culture in which the faithful exist influences the saints they embrace, and when that culture changes, favorite saints change along with it. By 1930 a great deal had changed for U.S. Catholics since their bishops had sent the petition on Tekakwitha’s behalf almost half a century earlier.

Perhaps the most significant change was demographic. Due to restrictive immigration legislation enacted in the 1920s, the American Church in the ’30s was absorbing far fewer new immigrants than it had in decades. Most American Catholic ethnic groups, moreover, were well into their second, third, or even fourth generation. Barriers to assimilation were lower than ever before. Time, in other words, had provided the distance from the “superstitious masses” that advocates had once relied on Tekakwitha and other prospective saints to supply. And American Catholic hagiography reflected this shift. While Catholics of the late nineteenth century had defined the missionary enterprise as both the sine qua non of holiness and their own singular contribution to North America, their counterparts in the 1930s thought differently. As one U.S. Catholic opined, “Even if every Red Man had been converted and remained faithful, the effect would have been meager in the face of the millions of Americans who came from Europe.”

To understand why Tekakwitha was overshadowed as a prospective patron, it helps to examine the cause of the woman who rocketed past her, Mother Frances Cabrini. Cabrini was a latecomer in the quest for the first U.S. saint; when she arrived in New York City in 1889, the causes of Tekakwitha and a half-dozen others were well underway. Yet Cabrini would overtake all other candidates; she was beatified in 1938, a mere twenty-one years after her death. Her canonization was speeded in part by the strong support her cause received from bishops in Italy, where she was born, and in Chicago, where she died. But episcopal influence alone cannot account for her extraordinary popularity among U.S. Catholics in the ’30s. They embraced her for the same reasons their counterparts had embraced Tekakwitha a half-century before: her life mirrored the story they wanted to tell about themselves as Americans.

By the 1930s, U.S. Catholics had defined their past as an immigrant story, and although canonically Cabrini was a missionary—and her writings demonstrate that she thought of herself as one—her devotees routinely described her as an immigrant. They latched on to Cabrini’s 1909 naturalization, claiming it as a sign of her attachment to the United States and of her understanding of the American mentality, while arguing that it made her a more logical candidate as a patron saint than either Tekakwitha or the French Jesuits. Above all, they presented her as a person to whom modern, urban Catholics could relate. In 1942, Cardinal Samuel Stritch praised Cabrini for having confronted “the same conditions and the same difficulties which surround us in our own lives.” Another U.S. Catholic marveled that Cabrini had lived “right in the middle of the twentieth century with its streetcars and automobiles,” adding that “she saw these trolley tracks and these buildings…and now she’s in heaven.” The saint of the skyscrapers had eclipsed the Lily of the Mohawks as the perfect embodiment of American Catholicism, and was canonized by Pius XII in 1946—the first U.S. citizen to achieve sainthood.

U.S. Catholics had no sooner secured their “citizen saint” than they zeroed in on obtaining an American-born one. Tekakwitha would certainly have qualified, but here again the hagiography reveals how a woman once defined as the quintessential American had become not quite American enough. “Kateri Tekakwitha—she is not an American!” complained one priest while making a case for his own favorite candidate, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the New York–born convert to Catholicism who founded the first women’s religious congregation in the nation. Seton was duly canonized in 1975—after the Vatican waived one of the required miracles for her cause, reportedly in a gesture of respect for North American bishops—and her devotees characterized her canonization as the ecclesiastical equivalent of the election of John F. Kennedy.

As for Kateri Tekakwitha, she might never have been canonized had it not been for significant developments both in the Catholic Church and in American culture. One was the 1979 election of John Paul II, who streamlined the saint-making process, in part to give Catholics from nations without wealth or influence a better chance to secure saints of their own—in effect following the advice Rev. Edward McSweeny had proffered a century before. As a result, John Paul II canonized more people than all of his predecessors combined, a total of 482 saints. He also beatified 1,341 people, including Kateri Tekakwitha in 1980.

By then the Lily of the Mohawks symbolized something quite different from the Tekakwitha whose name had appeared on the Baltimore petition a century before. No longer an effective national symbol, she had reemerged as an ethnic one. Since the 1970s, Tekakwitha’s most enthusiastic devotees have been Native-American Catholics, both in Canada and in the United States. It is telling that while all U.S. church leaders had supported the 1884 petition that initiated her cause, only one issued a public statement when it finally succeeded: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the lone Native American in the hierarchy. The canonization celebrations in Rome last fall, meanwhile, clearly reflected the significance of the moment for indigenous Americans, and not only with regard to Tekakwitha; even the events honoring Marianne Cope, a woman born in Germany and raised in Syracuse, featured native Hawaiians dancing the hula.

These tangible signs of inculturation are reasons for celebration. Still, a contrast between the age in which Tekakwitha’s cause began and the age in which it ended also suggests something to lament. In 1884, canonization offered the American church—divided then, as now, by ethnic and ideological conflict—a way to rally behind a common goal. Today, canonization reveals just how tribal U.S. Catholicism has become. The appropriation of Dorothy Day as a prolife saint is the most publicized example. The cause of the canon lawyer John Hardon, SJ, attracts support from Catholics who wish for more rigid adherence to church teaching. The causes of August Tolton and Henriette Delille appeal exclusively to African-American Catholics; Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, to Irish Americans. The list goes on.

The new millennium discloses a paradoxical moment for American sainthood, a kind of embarrassment of riches. Thanks to the changes implemented by John Paul II—and to the wealth and influence of the American Church—there are now more than fifty open causes for canonization originating in the United States. Yet none of them seem to attract devotees beyond their immediate circle or interest group. Surely this fact reveals more about the state of our church than it does about these holy men and women. Do we no longer yearn for a canonized saint who lived among us but could rise above our divisions?

Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of History, and serves as the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

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