Celebrate American Saints

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The history of the Catholic Church in the United States is blessed with examples of heroic and holy women and men who gave their energies, their commitment and even their lives for the Catholic faith in this country. Many have been honored with justified fame and respect, and a few have also been raised to the altars of the Church with the greatest of honors – the title of saint.

It can be said that the Catholic Church in America has been nourished by the holiness of saints and the blood of martyrs. Pope John Paul II acknowledged this legacy of faith when he wrote:

The Saints are the true expression and the finest fruits of America’s Christian identity. In them, the encounter with the living Christ is so deep and demanding… that it becomes a fire which consumes them completely and impels them to build his kingdom… Their example of boundless dedication to the cause of the Gospel must not only be saved from oblivion, but must become better and more widely known among the faithful of the continent.  (Ecclesia in America, no. 15.)

The earliest saints of what became the United States were actually martyrs for the faith: the Jesuit North American Martyrs. The Martyrs are:
St. Jean de Brébeuf (1649), 
St. Noël Chabanel (1649), 
St. Antoine Daniel (1648), 
St. Charles Garnier (1649), 
St.René Goupil (1642), 
St. Isaac Jogues (1646), 
St. Jean de Lalande (1646) and
St. Gabriel Lalemant (1649). Each died proclaiming the Gospel among Indians in Canada and modern New York. Their feast day is October 19.


Among the fruits of the martyrdom of the Jesuits was Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-80), the “Lily of the Mohawks” who was born at Ossernenon (modern Auriesville), N.Y., in the same village where St. Isaac Jogues was killed. Drawn to the Catholic faith, she was baptized at Easter in 1676, and gave her short life to prayer, penitential practices and care of the sick and aged in the Christian Indian village of Caughnawaga near Montreal where her relics are now enshrined. Her feast day is July 14.


In the first decades of the new young country, meanwhile, Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) converted to the Church in 1805 and later started the Sisters of Charity in the U.S. She is the first American-born saint and one of the most beloved of all American saints. Her feast day is January 4.




Rose Philippine Duchesne (1769-1852) was a native of France and a nun, educator and missionary. She established the first convent of the Society of the Sacred Heart in the U.S., at St. Charles, Missouri, founded schools for girls and did missionary work among Indians. She was called “The Woman who Prays” by the Native Americans. Her feast day is November 18.


Another pioneering nun was Theodore Guérin, (1798-1856), a French-born member of the Sisters of Providence. She founded St. Mary-of the Woods in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1830 and was later described by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore as a “religious athlete.”  Her feast day is Oct. 3.



Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann (1811-60) was a native of Bohemia and was the holy bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 until his death. Neumann is also honored as the first bishop in the country to prescribe the Forty Hours devotion in his diocese. His feast day is January 5.


The future state of Hawaii was blessed by two saints, Damien de Veuster (d. 1889) and Marianne Cope (1838-1918). A priest from Belgium, Damien spent twenty years on the island of Molokai caring for the lepers and ultimately died from the same disease. His feast day is May 14.



Mother Marianne was a German-born immigrant who entered the Sisters of St. Francis and led a group of them to Hawaii where she ran hospitals and then went to Molokai to care for lepers, including St. Damien. Her feast day is January 23.


Another immigrant saint was Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), an Italian nun who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1877 and overcame great hardships to provide care for Italian immigrants who were then pouring into the cities of America. She is the first American citizen to be canonized a saint. Her feast day is November 13.


Finally, Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) was a Philadelphia-born heiress who devoted her wealth to founding schools and missions for Indians and African-Americans and started the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People in 1891. Her feast day is March 3.


And there are more American saints in the works. In the coming months, we will take a look at the American Blesseds who are on their way to canonization.

Dr. Matthew Bunson

About Dr. Matthew Bunson

Matthew Bunson serves as General Editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and Editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s The Catholic Answer Magazine. He is also the author or co-author of more than forty books, including the upcoming Encyclopedia of American Catholic History, is on the faculty of the Catholic Distance University in Virginia, where he teaches Church History, and is a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.salvationhistory.com) He also hosts Faithworks on Redeemer Radio. You can purchase his books online at: http://bit.ly/T2WcH6