The Lily of the Mohawks and the Boom in American Sainthood

by Kathy Cummings

When a friend of Flannery O'Connor's complained of sexism in the Catholic Church in the 1950s, the novelist dismissed the accusation, pointing out that "the Church would just as soon canonize a woman as a man."  A keen observer of Catholicism, O'Connor was uncharacteristically off the mark in this instance, as women make up only about one-fourth of the Church's canonized saints. This makes yesterday's announcement all the more remarkable: in authenticating a second miracle for Kateri Tekakwitha and for Mother Marianne Cope, Pope Benedict has essentially added two more female U.S. saints to the Catholic canon (a papal bull of canonization will almost certainly be forthcoming, most likely within a year).  At present there are nine canonized saints who lived in the United States or territory that later became part of the United States; five of them are women. The imminent addition of Tekakwitha and Cope tilts the balance of power heavily in women's favor, a phenomenon not often witnessed in Catholic circles.

            As Linford Fisher discussed in this space Monday, Tekakwitha has long been considered a patron saint of Native Americans and will be the first of their number canonized by the Catholic Church. She will also be the first American saint who was not a member of a religious community.  In this respect American saints do correspond with  universal patterns. Men and women religious are overrepresented in the canon of the saints for good reason; religious congregations have the personnel, the funding and the institutional memory to sustain a cause for canonization through the decades or even centuries it takes for a cause to succeed.

            U.S. Catholics began lobbying for a saint of their own in the 1880s.  Half a century later, the Catholic Church canonized the North American martyrs, eight Jesuit missionaries who were killed in New France in the seventeenth century. Two of those had died in territory that later became part of upstate New York, and thus they technically counted as U.S. saints. But most American Catholics held off from celebrating until 1946, when Frances Cabrini became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized. The first native-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, was canonized in 1975, followed two years later by the the canonization of John Neumann, a Bohemian-born Redemptorist missionary and bishop of Philadelphia. Since then pace of canonizations has increased dramatically, with the canonization of Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne (1988) Mother Katharine Drexel (2000), Mother Theodore Guerin (2006) and Father Damien de Veuster (2009), who like Marianne Cope, served a leper community in Molokai.

            We can expect that Tekakwitha and Cope represent the beginning of an even more dramatic uptick in the total number of American saints. There are over fifty American causes at various stages in the process, and many of them made significant progress during the pontificate of John Paul II.  He canonized more people than all of his predecessors combined, in part by streamlining the complicated process. John Paul II was in particular committed to canonizing people from among national and ethnic groups that were without patron saints. This explains, in part, his decision to waive the required miracle for Kateri Tekakwitha, which paved the way for her 1980 beatification. John Paul II also made a concerted effort to canonize more lay people.  And while he is not often regarded as a hero to Catholic feminists, it is worth pointing out that roughly one-third of the 482 saints he canonized were women, lending, belatedly and perhaps fleetingly, a certain credence to Flannery O'Connor's observation.