6 American Female Saints: Essential Facts
Resilience, resourcefulness, and wisdom are some of the key virtues distinguishing America’s female saints. Such qualities were essential as these women opened new paths through frontier land. While some worked in education or healthcare, others, like St. Kateri, simply lived a holy life of prayer. Yet all improved the American way of life. They met great obstacles such as poverty, misunderstanding, and hardship with noble and courageous hearts. The legacies of these six women are still experienced today.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)
St. Kateri is the first Native American canonized by the Catholic Church. She was born of a Mohawk tribe near present-day Auriesville, New York. When she was four years old, an epidemic of smallpox carried away her parents and younger brother. Kateri survived, albeit with a scarred face and poor eyesight as her name, Tekakwitha, indicates: “she who bumps into things.” Even so, she became adept with her fingers as she learned the traditional Indian crafts of beadwork, basket weaving, and clothes making.
From an early age, Tekakwitha knew marriage was not for her. This created tensions with her aunts and she briefly fled the longhouse to hide in a nearby field. Realizing the futility of it, she returned only to find herself punished with heavy workloads, threats, and mockery. After some time, the aunts gave up their schemes in view of Tekakwitha’s resolve.
Tekakwitha received baptism when she was nineteen years old, and thereby fulfilled a desire she had since childhood. Her baptismal name, Kateri, derives from St. Catherine (of Siena). Because her baptism created additional stress with some tribal members, a priest named Fr. Lamberville suggested that she live at the Jesuit mission near Montreal. Her harrowing escape to this establishment involved considerable dangers but she arrived safely in 1677.
Mission du Sault Saint Louis
The Jesuit mission settlement at Kahnawake was Kateri’s home until her death three years later. Without the constraints of her home village, she grew strong interiorly. “I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary,” she confided to a Jesuit, “I have chosen Him for husband, and He alone will take me for wife.”
Unfortunately, her body weakened because of a proclivity for penances such as fasting. When the Jesuit fathers heard of her excesses, they advised moderation. Nonetheless, the difficult life had undermined her health. She died on Wednesday of Holy Week, April 17, 1680, 24 years of age. Within minutes of her death, all of her smallpox scars disappeared and her skin became luminescent. In the following week, she appeared to some individuals from the mission. From the moment of her burial until the present day, she has earned the reputation as a miracle-worker.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821)
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was likewise born in New York, though in quite different social circumstances. She was the daughter of a wealthy and socially prominent doctor. She lost her mother at a young age. After her father’s second marriage failed, Elizabeth went through a period of loneliness.
She turned to journaling at the age of fifteen as a way to express her feelings. Therein, she reveals a developing appreciation for poetry, music and the natural world. She learned to play the piano very well and became fluent in French. She liked reading the Bible and at times felt “enthusiastic love for God and admiration of his works.”
At age nineteen, Elizabeth married a wealthy merchant named William Magee Seton. Together they had five children. Nonetheless, William’s uncertain health tempered Elizabeth’s joy in life; he showed symptoms of tuberculosis. The doctors advised that he travel to Italy to recuperate.
Unfortunately, concern over yellow fever caused the Italian authorities to quarantine the ship. This proved too much for William’s health and he died on December 27, 1803. Antonio Filicchi, William’s Italian business partner, invited Elizabeth and her daughter to move in with his family.
The affection of Antonio and his wife, Amabilia, was as soothing sunshine for the poor widow. Through their influence, Elizabeth eventually entered the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805. Although this caused friction within her social milieu, Elizabeth trusted that God would lead her through the difficulties.
She met Rev. Louis Dubourg, a Sulpician from France, who suggested that she start a teaching congregation. She opened St. Joseph’s FreeSchool in the countryside of Emmitsburg, MD, and St. Joseph’s Academy, which was a tuition-based school and boarding house. Young women started to join her congregation, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Though facing much poverty and hardship, Elizabeth wisely guided her community to better times. Elizabeth died in 1821, aged 46. Her original congregation branched into six groups and now has 5000 members worldwide. Elizabeth is the first native-born American saint.
Saint Theodora Guérin (1798 - 1856)
St. Theodora’s story is one of success despite life-long struggles. She was born Anne-Thérèse Guérin on October 2, 1798, during the upheaval of the French Revolution. Her father’s murder by bandits prevented her from immediately realizing her childhood dream of becoming a nun. She had rather to assist her mother and sister until her twenty-fifth year.
In 1823, she joined the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir, where she received the name, Sr. Saint Théodore. She endured a serious illness during her novitiate, which required her to eat a very bland diet for the remainder of her life. Her health remained precarious throughout life. Even so, she became a successful teacher of children and won a medal from the Academy of Angers.
In 1840, the bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, sought for teaching sisters to help in his diocese. Sr. Theodora and five sisters emigrated to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, where they taught children and cared for the sick poor. The sisters formed a new congregation with Sr. Theodora as the superior.
They faced many hardships in the rural parts of Indiana, including poverty, fires, crop failures, and religious prejudice. Nonetheless, Mother Theodora steered the young congregation through it all, ultimately winning acclaim for her leadership abilities.
Notably, she founded Saint Mary's Academy, which grew into St Mary of the Woods College, the oldest Catholic women's liberal arts college in the United States. In addition to this, she founded eleven other schools in Indiana and Illinois. Her congregation is still active with 400 sisters, 300 of whom work out of the motherhouse at St. Mary’s in the Woods.
St. Marianne Cope (1838 - 1918)
Barbara Cope was born in Heppenheim, Germany and settled with her family in Utica, New York, one year after her birth. After completing the eighth grade, she worked in a factory for nine years to help support her family. She fulfilled her long desired goal of becoming a nun in 1862. She joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse and received the name Marianne. Because of her intelligence and personal skills, her superiors gave her important positions, such as the chief administrator of a hospital. Eventually, she became the Provincial Superior of the congregation.
Because of her community’s involvement with health care, a missionary from Hawaii asked if they could help tend lepers on the islands. Six sisters including Mother Marianne arrived in Hawaii in November of 1883. Faced with appalling conditions, they quickly organized the hospital and raised it to very high standards.
In 1888, Mother Marianne journeyed with two sisters to the island of Molokai where the majority of lepers lived. Mother Marianne sought to improve the leper’s sense of personal dignity. To this end, she introduced sports, music, and beauty, particularly in the manner of clothing and the natural surroundings. She also saw to their education. Robert Louis Stevenson visited Molokai and wrote a poem in honor of Mother Marianne after observing the Sister’s work. Mother Marianne died of natural causes on August 9, 1918.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)
Though she died an American citizen, Frances was born on Italian soil. When she was seven years old, she heard a missionary speak of China. At dinner that evening, she announced to her family, “I shall be a missionary.” In her adolescence, she studied to be a teacher. She applied to a teaching order of nuns, who rejected her because of delicate health.
After her rejection, Francesca taught at an orphanage and became its headmistress. Other young women joined her and she organized them into a community. She took vows and added the name Xavier, after the patron saint of missionaries, Francis Xavier. Henceforth, all knew her as Mother Cabrini. She called her group, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Their principal work was teaching as well as caring for the sick, the dying, and orphans. In five years, they established seven homes, a free school, and a nursery.
The United States
Her work came to the attention of Pope Leo XIII. She asked his blessing to be a missionary in China and he responded, “Not to the East, but to the West." He said that countless immigrants in America were suffering for lack of instruction and care. Mother Cabrini emigrated to the U.S. in 1889. Radical poverty and closed doors marked her first years.
The Sister’s first efforts were to teach catechism to Italian immigrants and establish an orphanage. Against tremendous odds, she managed to open sixty-seven institutions before her death in 1917. Wealthy persons seemed irresistibly charmed by her and expended large sums to help her create hospitals, schools, and orphanages. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1909. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1946, making her first naturalized U.S. citizen to be canonized. Her congregation exists today on six continents and fifteen countries.
St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955)
St. Katharine was born in Philadelphia, PA, of very wealthy and pious parents. Her father, Francis Drexel, owned an international banking empire. He taught his three daughters the importance of helping needy persons. This led Katharine to take an interest in the plight of both Native and Afro-Americans as a young adult. Her father died in 1885, having divided his estate of $15.5 million between his daughters and a tenth to charities. Katherine’s share would be worth 80 million dollars in modern currency.
Though Katharine wanted to be a contemplative nun from a young age, a friend of the family, Bishop James O’Connor dissuaded her with the thought that she could do more good as a philanthropist. When her desires persisted, the bishop relented but asked that she might start a new congregation, specific to the causes that she endorsed.
Katharine entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh to receive basic formation as a nun. After this, she started her congregation on her family’s former estate along with thirteen women. She was then thirty-two years old. They called themselves the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, with an emphasis on assisting the Native and African Americans in the west and southwest United States.
As may be expected, not all were sympathetic to the cause of helping these minorities, and violent persecutions were not lacking. Besides racism, Katharine faced brutal protests at the foundations of several of her establishments. For instance, after she purchased a site in Nashville intended to educate African American children, there were lawsuits and public demonstrations. Her friendship with a Native American chief, Red Cloud, quelled a violent Indian riot over U.S. government reductions of reservation property.
Among her notable establishments, Xavier University in New Orleans stands out. It is the first Catholic college founded for African Americans. In sum, Katherine established 50 schools for African Americans, 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans, and 49 convents for her nuns. She died on March 3, 1955, aged 96.
Models of Courage
Although few in number, America’s female saints are prime examples of resilience in the face of hardship. Toughness alone was not the secret of their success, however, but strength tempered with wisdom and charity. They came from very different backgrounds and had varying challenges, yet each helped to improve the American society. Their legacies remain to this day.
Kateri Tekakwitha, by F.X. Weiser, S.J., The Noteworthy Company, 1971
Additional facts on St. Kateri
Elizabeth Bayley Seton, 1774-1821, by Annabelle M. Melville, 1951, Charles Scribner’s Sons
Immigrant Saint, The Life of Mother Cabrini, Pietro di Donato, McGraw-Hill, 1960
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, March, revised by Teresa Rodrigues, O.S.B., The Liturgical Press, 1999, pp. 20-22
Modern Saints, Their Lives and Faces, Vol.2, by Ann Ball, Tan Books and Publishers, INC, 1983
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