Monday, December 26, 2011

Elizabeth, Francesca and Katharine: Three American Saints

In a nation of 300 million people, a quarter of them Catholic, only four United States citizens have been canonized. Three of the four are women: Saint Elizabeth Seton, canonized in 1975; Saint Francesca Cabrini, canonized in 1946; and Saint Katharine Drexel, canonized in 2000. Elizabeth and Katharine were natives of the United States; Saint Francesca Cabrini was born in Italy and became a naturalized citizen in 1909.

These three saintly women had much in common. First, all three lost their mothers when they were young. Saint Katharine’s mother died only five weeks after Katharine’s birth. Saint Francesca lost both her mother and father in the same year, when Francesca was only 20. Saint Elizabeth Seton’s mother died in childbirth when Elizabeth was less than three years old.
Second, all three saints founded religious orders: Mother Seton founded the American Sisters of Charity, the nation’s first native women’s religious order. Mother Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Third, all three American saints were educators. Saint Katharine’s order was dedicated to serving African Americans and Native Americans, which was done largely through education. Saint Katharine founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first and only Catholic college for African Americans. In addition, in dispensing her inherited wealth, Katharine provided financial support for dozens of schools for African Americans and all the Catholic missions to the Indians that were scattered throughout the American West.

All three lived at a time when nativism and anti-Catholic bigotry were rampant in the United States, and all three saw these ugly pheonomena first hand. Sisters from Mother Katharine’s order were harassed in Beaumont, Texas by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.. Mother Francesca founded a mission in New Orleans in 1892 to serve an Italian Catholic community that was beleaguered by racism and nativism. Only a year before Mother Francesca’s Sisters arrived in the city, eleven Italian men had been taken from a New Orleans jail and hanged by a New Orleans lynch mob.

As for Mother Elizabeth Seton, her Protestant family and friends subjected her to cruel ostracism and contempt after she converted to Catholicism as a young widow in New York City in 1805. Her biography described the first months after her conversion as “one of the great trials of Christian history.”

Although Elizabeth, Francesca, ad Katharine had much in common, each made a distinctive contribution to Catholic life and culture in the United States. As an Italian immigrant to the United States, Mother Cabrini was a perfect representation of Catholic piety among the European immigrants who streamed into the United Stated in the late 19th and early 20th century. A woman of intense energy, Saint Francesca founded orphanages, hospitals, and schools all across the United States—building an infrastructure of compassion in a Protestant nation intensely devoted to capitalism and rugged individualism.

Saint Katharine Drexel, who inherited an immense fortune before entering religious life, truly passed through the eye of the needle, dispensing her great wealth for the benefit of American Indians and African Americans, while living a life of poverty in her order’s Mother House in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. A person who visits her museum and shrine today can see the patched shoes that she wore and the pencil stubs with which she wrote, saving pennies so that more money would be available to fund Catholic missions.

Further Readings
Dirvin, Joseph L. Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity. New York: Basilica of the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton, 1993.

Duffy, Sister Consuela Maria. Katharine Drexel: A Biography. Bensalem, PA: Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, 1966.

Maynard, Theodore. Too Small a World: The Life of Mother Cabrini. New York: Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, 1945.

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