Equal Opportunity Sainthood

Written by Judy Barrett

Is the Church’s canonization process a “good ol’ boy network”? That was the opinion expressed by someone in a letter to a Bay Area newspaper a few days after the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. The letter writer, who also groused that the Church has seemingly forgotten about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, is apparently uninformed: Mother Teresa has beenBlessed Teresa of Calcutta since 2003. A second miracle is required for her canonization.

It was a glorious celebration for the whole Church when two beloved popes were canonized by Pope Francis, with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in attendance—truly an historic event! But lest anyone harbor the notion that women are overlooked in the Church, perhaps this is also a good time to shine the spotlight on just a few of the many, many women the Church has elevated to sainthood in its long history.

The first Native American to be canonized, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, was orphaned in childhood and baptized as a young woman. Her baptism was a heroic act of courage on her part because she risked estrangement from her own people. Kateri found a welcoming home in a Christian village of Native Americans in what is now upstate New York, where she tended the sick and elderly until her death at the tender age of 24 in 1680.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, an Episcopalian and the mother of five children, was introduced to the Catholic faith by a devout family in Italy. Inspired by their example, she joined the Church after returning to the U.S. when her husband died. Elizabeth was instrumental in founding the first congregation for women religious in the U.S. She embraced the rule of the Daughters of Charity and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1809.  Mother Seton was a wife, mother, widow, convert, educator, founder, and religious.  

Born into great wealth in 1858, St. Katherine Drexel left her privileged life as a debutant and heiress in Philadelphia to found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order devoted to the plight of poor Native Americans and African Americans. By the time of her death in 1955 at age 96 Katherine had overseen the establishment of Xavier University in New Orleans, a network of Catholic schools for black children spanning 13 states and some fifty missions and schools for Native Americans in 16 states.

St. Katherine met with another “underachiever” who was later canonized: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, born in Italy and a naturalized U.S. citizen, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.   Mother Cabrini came to the Americas to minister to immigrants from Europe. In 35 years of hard work and tens of thousands of miles traveled, she established nearly 70 institutions, including hospitals, schools, orphanages and convents in the U.S. and Central and South America. Wouldn’t you love to have been the proverbial fly on the wall when these two women put their heads together in conversation!

Among the Doctors of the Church—saints elevated to that title because of their outstanding writings and teachings on doctrinal matters—are four women: Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux (pictured above.)

From Lydia, the “dealer in purple goods” who became St. Paul’s first convert in Philippi, to 20th century women on the path to sainthood such as Servants of God Dorothy Day and Catherine de Heuck Doherty (both lay women), the Church has always held women in high regard, entrusting them with great responsibility and honoring lives of virtue, courage and holiness. And, of course, we especially esteem Mary, the mother of Jesus, most blessed among women.

Not exactly a “good ol’ boy network,” is it?

For more information see the USCCB's American Saints, Blesseds and Venerables page.

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