A Saint of Our Own

How a Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American

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Kathleen Sprows Cummings
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     2019.
     336 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469649474.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A Saint of Our Own was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American (Catholic) Historical Association in New York City on January 5, 2020, where it was received very positively. Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a Catholic scholar of American studies of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame (245), traces not so much the history of the first American-born Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, SC (1774–1821, canonized 1975), but rather the sociopolitical and sociohistorical ramifications of the saint-making or, as she calls it, “saint-seeking” process. From this complex history emerges an account of how and why hagiography and historiography remain closely intertwined.

Cummings divides her account into six chapters, which span the time from saint-seeking in the 1880s, when petitions for a first American saint took shape, to 2015, the year Pope Francis named the twelfth American saint in the first ceremony of this kind held on American soil. The book delineates the exacting process by which Seton became recognized as a saint. The author’s aim is to understand what drove US Catholics in their arduous quest, full of twists and turns over more than a century, to win an American saint. The absence of American names in the canon of the saints left many of the faithful not only spiritually unmoored, but also “periodically subject to the condescension of their transatlantic counterparts” (2).

While canonization in essence is about holiness, it is never merely about holiness, but rather about a sense of home and belonging. For American Catholics, a homegrown saint would serve as a mediator not only between heaven and earth, but also between Catholicism and American culture. Throughout much of US history, the making of a saint was also about the ways in which the members of a minority religious group defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans. Their diverse causes for canonization—including Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American Saint informally known as Lily of the Mohawks, ca. 1565–1580, canonized in 1980) and Elizabeth Ann Seton—represented evolving national values and the efforts of Catholics to make themselves feel at home. Cummings’s vision of American sanctity shows just how much was at stake for Catholics in venerating men and women perched at the nexus of holiness and American history—until they finally felt little need to prove that they belonged.

Cummings offers her narrative of canonization as a window into American society. Both Seton’s life and the long and difficult process that led to her canonization mark crucial periods in American Catholicism: she lived during the consolidation of American Catholicism, and her canonization occurred in the aftermath of Vatican II. Her narrative appeals to the two-step process, which requires medical professionals to confirm miracles and the theological judgment to determine whether the miracles can be attributed to the intercession of the (future) saint (42; 137; 201–12). Cummings closes her analysis with an outlook on Pope Francis’s stances regarding future canonizations and saint-seeking in the United States (241). Since the US, unlike France (with Louis and Genevieve) and Ireland (with Patrick and Bridget), has no patron saint, the work of “U.S. saint-seekers” remains strangely unfinished (241).

It is worth noting that some important aspects are given little attention in Cummings’s account. For example, in her brief reference to sexual abuse in the Catholic church (233, 240), she does not draw connections between this dark chapter and the veneration of saints, nor does she reflect upon the fact that seven out of the thirteen US saints are women (the thirteenth is Mother Theresa, an honorary US citizen). Although she relates the history of American sainthood to the history of the Protestant churches (especially through Protestant reactions to Catholic “saint-seeking,” 27–83), she does not address how this process relates to the rise and development of evangelicalism, the branch of American Christianity in which Protestantism and Catholicism coalesce. On the whole, the significance of the Protestant–Catholic divide for “saint-seeking” remains in the background of her account.

The strange mixture of partisan celebration and scientific rigor testifies to the fact that sainthood continues to be an especially troublesome and contested area of (Christian) theology and history. Cummings’s study is an important contribution to this field and may be seen as a step toward less partisan, possibly non-Catholic points of view. Her work demonstrates the importance of comparative studies of sainthood, a point that Barbara Zimbalist emphasizes in her article “Comparative Hagiology and/as Manuscript Studies: Method and Materiality,” (Religions 10 [2019]: 1–8).

Despite this critique, the well-written study explores a neglected area of research, and does so with a rich array of examples and details. Overall, readers will profit most if they bear in mind the somewhat biased perspective and apologetic intent that motivates her narrative. That said, her work offers valuable insight into fields as varied as Native American, First Nations, and periodical history. The book contains a timeline of events (mostly beatifications and canonizations) spanning 1884 to 2015 (243–44), lists of illustrations and abbreviations, extensive endnotes (249–89), and a bibliography that includes archival, online, and periodical sources (291–320). I hope many people read this interesting book and thereby deepen their general knowledge of Catholicism, Christianity in America, and sainthood. For a more neutral perspective, this reading should be supplemented, however, with studies that look at Catholic and American history from the outside.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is visiting lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
November 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is Associate Professor of American Studies and History and William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

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