Author Interview: A conversation with Kathleen Sprows Cummings, author of A Saint of Our Own

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the author of A Saint of Our Own:  How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American, just published by UNC Press.

A Saint of Our Own by Kathleen Sprows CummingsWhat drove U.S. 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 had left many of the faithful feeling spiritually unmoored. But while canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, it is never only about holiness, reveals Kathleen Sprows Cummings in this panoramic, passionate chronicle of American sanctity. Catholics had another reason for petitioning the Vatican to acknowledge an American holy hero. A home-grown saint would serve as a mediator between heaven and earth, yes, but also between Catholicism and American culture. Cummings’s vision of American sanctity shows just how much Catholics had at stake in cultivating devotion to men and women perched at the nexus of holiness and American history—until they finally felt little need to prove that they belonged.

A Saint of Our Own is available now in both print and ebook editions.

Cummings recently sat down with UNC Press publicist Alison Shay to discuss the book.


Q: What has motivated U.S. Catholics’ search for a saint of their own?

A: The primary reason U.S. Catholics began to seek a saint of their own in the 1880s was spiritual. Through canonization, the church affirms that the saint, having practiced certain virtues to a heroic degree, passed immediately upon death into the company of God and all the saints, where he or she is an advocate for and inspiration to the faithful on earth. In asking the Holy See to certify that a man or woman who had once lived in the United States now dwelled in God’s eternal presence, U.S. Catholics hoped to gain a saint with whom they could claim a special connection.

But if U.S. Catholics believed securing a saint of their own would draw them a little closer to heaven, they also hoped it would increase their standing in the eyes of the universal church. In naming a U.S. saint, the Holy See would be acknowledging that Catholic holiness could indeed thrive in a religiously diverse culture such as America—and that the church in the United States had acquired the resources and influence required to sponsor causes for canonization.

Finally, U.S. Catholics believed that their non-Catholic fellow citizens would also be impressed by the stories of U.S. candidates for canonization, men and women who had also been significant figures in American history. In emphasizing the ways that holy heroes had helped build the nation, U.S. Catholics hoped to persuade an often-skeptical Protestant public that Catholics could be loyal American citizens.

Q: What do you mean when you say that this quest helped Catholics become American? How did prospective saints help integrate Catholics into American life?

A: Canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, but it is never only about holiness. In the United States, it was often about the ways in which Catholics defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans. Saint-seekers nominated candidates for canonization based not only on the virtues they were said to have practiced, but also on the national values they were understood to have epitomized. While the Catholic criteria held constant, American ideals fluctuated dramatically between the 1880s and 2015—a factor that helps to explain both why the search for a U.S. patron saint is so revealing, and why it ended in a way that would have surprised those who had launched it in the first place.

For nearly a century, U.S. Catholics’ search for a patron saint had sustained them as they struggled to gain a voice in their church and a comfortable place in their nation. By the 1970s, there was no question that U.S. Catholics exercised a powerful influence at the Holy See and throughout American government, culture, and society. By then it would be divisions among U.S. Catholics, rather than the differences between them and their fellow citizens, that would be the driving force in canonization. Unlike those of the past, today’s saint-seekers rarely project their American stories on their favorite saints. Instead they are more inclined to use saints’ stories to express where they position themselves as Catholics, especially on divisive issues involving gender and sexuality.

Non-Catholics are fascinated by saints for the same reasons Catholics venerate them: their closeness to the Divine. There is something very compelling, even for non-believers, about the stories of the men and women who staked their lives—and in the case of martyrs, even lost their lives—on the premise that it was possible to live in God’s eternal presence.

Q: What are some of the elements or strategies that tend to make saint-seeking succeed?

A: Above all, prospective saints need a good story that resonates beyond their immediate circle of supporters. Ideally, elements of this story should tap into a larger need or want in the culture. The causes most likely to succeed are also shepherded by people who have a firm grasp of the exceptionally convoluted canonization process. This was something most of the first U.S. saint-seekers lacked, and their experience delayed the causes of candidates such as Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann.

Q: It sounds like canonization is quite complicated. Can you give me an example or two of the sorts of intricacies that may have complicated the process for supporters seeking canonization for some of these individuals?

A: The first U.S.-based petitioners (the group of people who sponsored causes for canonization) repeatedly made mistakes. When Elizabeth Ann Seton’s promoters sent the first batch of material to Rome in support of her cause, they forgot to include her collected writings—a key element of the evaluation process at the Holy See. The Philadelphia Catholics who took the first testimony in support of John Neumann’s cause asked witnesses the wrong types of questions, which generated vague answers that did not impress the examiners at the Sacred Congregation of Rites, the Vatican body charged with overseeing causes for canonization. In the cases of both Seton and Neumann, the promoters also tended to overemphasize their “American” credentials. U.S. Catholics may have been very interested in explaining how patriotic Seton or Neumann had been, or how many institutions either of them had built in the United States, but Roman reviewers often found this beside the point.

Q; Are there gender dimensions to the canonization process? How does the process differ when either the prospective saints or the petitioners (or both) are female?

A: Until 1983, Catholic women could only serve as petitioners of causes through a male proxy. In some cases, this worked out fine, but in many cases it did not. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s was one of them. Between 1939 and 1959, her cause was directed by a Vincentian priest who seemed to be far more interested in his own glorification than he was in Seton’s. His antics frustrated Seton’s spiritual daughters for years, and ultimately they worked together to assert their rights as the arbiters of Seton’s afterlife—and in the process, authors of their own lives in a church that refused to deal with them directly.

Another important gender dimension is the reality that models of women’s holiness in the church remain quite narrow. Female saints are usually identified by their relationship to their husbands or children, or in the case of single or vowed religious women, by the lack thereof. Female candidates for canonization must be shoehorned into limited categories—mother, wife, nun, virgin—that simply do not reflect the diversity of women’s experience and the breadth of their contribution to church and society.

Q: Can you tell me about one prospective saint who really stands out to you?

A: Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, is definitely one of the most interesting prospective U.S. saints, in part for the reasons I mentioned above. Day is often touted as a “pro-life saint” by virtue of the fact she had an abortion before her conversion to Catholicism. In announcing the opening of her cause for canonization, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York suggested Day could become the patron of women who have had abortions and regretted them. This is a remarkably short-sighted way to interpret Day’s holiness and the significance of her story for the larger church. This is not to suggest she did not regret her abortion—though in fact she never said or wrote that she did—but instead to observe it is a poor rendering of the radical vision of holiness that Day lived in her lifetime and continues to inspire today.

Another “Dorothy” also comes to mind: Dorothy Stang, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur from Ohio who was murdered in Brazil in 2005 for her advocacy on behalf of the poor and the Amazon rain forest. Stang is revered as a martyr and a saint-like figure among those who knew her. However, she is unlikely to become a canonized saint because of what I see as the most pronounced shift in U.S. saint-seeking in recent decades: an aversion to formal canonization among sisters who reevaluated their ministries and relationships to the hierarchy in the aftermath of Vatican II. Most American women’s congregations are simply not willing to divert time and resources from other mission priorities in order to pursue a cause for canonization; repeated engagement with ecclesiastical authorities at local and Vatican levels, as canonization entails, makes the prospect even less attractive given the fraught relationships Catholic sisters often have with bishops at home and in Rome. I understand these decisions completely, but I do worry that Stang and other holy women like her will be lost to history. Canonization is tedious and expensive, but it does imprint saints on the landscape in lasting ways.

Q: Many non-Catholics are fascinated by saints. What do you think motivates this popularity?

A: Non-Catholics are fascinated by saints for the same reasons Catholics venerate them: their closeness to the Divine. There is something very compelling, even for non-believers, about the stories of the men and women who staked their lives—and in the case of martyrs, even lost their lives—on the premise that it was possible to live in God’s eternal presence.

The prolonged and convoluted process through which the Catholic church affirms sanctity adds another enticing element. Stories of miracles are particularly fascinating, though I have to say that the Vatican bureaucracy has the capacity to make any subject boring! There I would be in the Vatican Secret Archives, reading accounts of spectacular cures attributed to the saint in question, and I would be slogging through pages and pages of hospital charts and physicians’ notes and queries. That is one of the reasons I was determined to capture in my book the sense of mystery and excitement that is part of any saint’s life and afterlife.

Q: Well, was there anything exciting about researching in the Vatican Secret Archives?

A: Absolutely! In some respects visiting the Vatican Secret Archives is just about the most exciting thing you can do as a researcher. After you pass through the gate to enter Vatican City, you present your passport and Vatican Archives Identification card to the Swiss Guard and say “Vado il archivio” (I go to the Archives) in your most authoritative voice and best Italian accent. Once you arrive at the building, you sign in with the secretary and receive a key to a locker, where you place all your belongings except your computer and a pencil or two.

Once you finally arrive in the research room, however, the experience starts to resemble a visit to other archival repositories. There are rules and procedures to follow for requesting documents. One interesting rule is that researchers are limited to three document requests per day. In my case, I was requesting documents that contained all the written testimony related to a cause for canonization. As these often run to over one thousand pages, the three-document limit never presented a problem!

Q: What are the transnational dimensions of the story of American sanctity?

A: Because canonization entails multiple back-and-forth exchanges between the Holy See and the country from which causes are proposed, this history of canonization in America must toggle between the United States and the Holy See. Moreover, because most U.S. causes were conducted on behalf of candidates who belonged to religious congregations based in Italy or France, a third national entity was often involved. Examining U.S. Catholics’ search for a saint of their own helps us interpret their history in local, national, and transnational registers.

Q: What can this story tell us about lived religion?

A: The unsung heroes in this book are the people who loved the prospective saints, believed in their holiness, and sent their prayers their direction. It is true that many of the U.S. Catholics who invoked Frances Cabrini or Elizabeth Ann Seton or any of the other U.S.-based candidates for canonization cared far less about the national implications of their saintly success than they did about the miracles that saintly devotion might effect in their own lives. But it is also true that in Catholic circles, sanctity is never just personal; a saint’s devotees seek validation, first on the local level and finally by the Vatican, of his or her holiness. It is one of the things I Ioved about researching and writing this book. A study of canonization integrates ecclesiastical and lived religious history and merges the perspectives of institutional elites and ordinary people.


A nationally recognized expert on Pope Francis and Catholicism, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, author of New Women of the Old Faith, 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.  Follow her on Twitter.