Saints

On Thursday, November 5th, the third and final Ramonat Seminar for the fall semester brought to campus Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Associate Professor of American Studies and William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. Prof. Cummings shared with us “The Rise of the Nation-Saint, 1931-1946,” the second chapter from her current book project, Citizen Saints: Catholics and Canonization in America. In exploring the rush among American Catholics to have one of their own canonized, Prof. Cummings’ paper brought us into the twentieth century, while linking back to some important figures from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that we had already met. It seems fitting that this talk happened on November 5: The Feast of All Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus.

Saints have a long history in Catholic history, but their embrace in the United States has more recent roots. As historian James O’Toole argues in The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America, Catholics in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century America did not pay much heed to saints. It was only with the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, beginning with the Irish and the German, but later expanding to include southern and eastern Europeans, that saints took a central role in Catholic devotional practice.

The Jesuits at St. Ignatius College collected the biographies of saints and the blessed for their new college library. The History division of the c.1878 catalogue identifies four shelves under the “Special Biographies” chapter of the Ecclesiastical History section. The first was for lives of the Popes and the second for Bishops. Of greater interest to our class this week were the third, “Of Religious,” and fourth, “Of Holy Women.” There are 110 volumes related to male religious, representing approximately 45 different men. Most of them were Jesuits with a few exceptions. Under the “Holy Women” bookshelf are approximately 44 volumes that tell the story of upwards of thirty women. The women religious section includes some early figures (Mary Magdalene, St. Zita, St. Theresa, and Margaret Mary Alacoque). But the majority were born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and ended up founding their own orders, or participating in these new orders. The vast majority of these books were recent imprints, published between 1839 and 1877.

The Scholars were given lists of the books on the “Of Religious” and “Holy Women” shelves and were asked to pick one individual represented therein. In addition to researching that saint’s life, they were asked to think about why such an individual might be represented on the shelves of a fledgling Catholic college on the west side of Chicago. They came up with some pretty fantastic ideas:

  • Prolific author and founder of the Redemptorist Order, St Alphonso Liguori, likely appealed to Chicago’s German and Italian communities, for different reasons, Andrew argues.
  • St Zita, the patron saint of maids and servants (and also of lost keys), is little known today, but captured the attention of Shannon and Dan. Both found in her a rich way into understanding the mental and spiritual world of late nineteenth-century immigrant Catholics in Chicago, many of whom shared her station.
  • Maya links the creation of asylums for prostitutes in mid-nineteenth century Chicago by women religious as a possible reason for the presence of the life of Marie Thérèse Charlotte de Lamourous in the St. Ignatius College library.
  • St. Philomena, a young virgin martyr, might have held appeal to Chicago Catholics in the aftermath of a devastating Civil War and decades of nativist agitation, argues Olivia in her post.
  • Jesuits also collected the lives of their own, like St. Peter Favre, who Brendan uses to reflect on why it can take such a long time to achieve canonization.
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