About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

by Mark Brumley

Mortimer Adler once told the story of a Great Books seminar about Dante’s Paradiso in which Robert Hutchins described the saints in heaven as entranced by beatific vision. "Is that all they do all day long is just look at God?" a leader from the business world asked. "Yes," answered Hutchins, "that’s what they do." "I regard that as un-American," objected the business leader.

If that businessman were correct, then "American saint" would be a contradiction in terms. For saints–American or otherwise–are those who "see God face-to-face" in the beatific vision. If there’s a contradiction between that and "being Americans," then "being Americans" must have taken a back seat in the saints’ case. Then too the objection could be taken as a faint echo of the old anti-Catholic bromide that the Church of Rome, including its cult of the saints, is fundamentally and inherently contrary to the American way of life. "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," on this view, extends to would-be "American" Catholic saints as much as to the not-so-saintly would-be "American" Catholics.

But "it ain’t so." Being a Catholic isn’t un-American, so being fully Catholic–being a saint–isn’t either. America is what her people make of her. American saints have both drawn from and added to the stock of American life. They have benefited from the noble American vision of fundamental human equality and opportunity for all, even as they have worked tirelessly to make that vision a reality in the lives of ordinary people and their institutions. In short, they were Real Americans.

There is–or should be–a give-and-take between lived Christianity and the culture in which it is lived. This is what theologians call inculturation, a greatly misunderstood term in the post-conciliar era, to be sure. Inculturation is a fancy way of saying that the Gospel both expresses itself through authentic human culture and draws unto itself elements of that culture so that the Church may carry on the mission of the Christ in history. Genuine inculturation avoids "selling out" to the culture (or the world) on the one hand and isolating one’s expression of Christianity from everything around it on the other. American saints are models of authentic inculturation, immersed in the American world, yet not of it.

The Saintly Contribution

An outstanding example of the authentic interplay between a saintly living of the Catholic faith and American culture is St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), sometimes called the "millionaire nun." Born into the family of a prominent Philadelphia banker, Francis Drexel, Katharine Drexel didn’t have to search for the American dream: she had only to inherit it. Yet unlike many wealthy Protestants, Katharine Drexel was not satisfied with philanthropy, as generous an expression of charity that that might have been. On a visit to Pope Leo XIII in 1883, she asked how Indians and "colored people" could be helped. "Why don’t you become a missionary?" was the Pope’s answer. In other words, not "Why don’t you give money to the missions?" (which she had already done), but "Why don’t you give yourself?"

Katharine Drexel did. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh and a few years later founded her own order. Some $20 million of her father’s estate was used to establish missions to provide for the education of Indians and blacks in whose service St. Katharine established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She also founded some 49 convents and 62 schools. In 1915, she founded a co-educational high school in New Orleans for blacks. Ten years later, it became Xavier University, the only historically black Catholic college in the United States.

The Woman Who Always Prays

Then there is St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who left her mark on America and the Church in America a few years before Katharine Drexel was born. Like Drexel, Duchesne was born into wealth and political influence. Unlike her Philadelphia-born sister in religion, Philippine Duchesne was an immigrant, as were most early Catholic leaders in America. Put bluntly, she and her sisters were convent, orphanage, and school-founding missionary machines.

Her story began in Grenoble, France, in 1769. An inquisitive child, she was intrigued by tales of the Indians told by Jesuit missionaries who visited her home. She also had an early passion for the poor, which would flower into vibrant love for those in need. Her mother was devout, but her father was something of a "freethinker," which accounts for why he wanted his pious daughter to marry and even selected a prospective husband to whom to betroth her. He staunchly opposed her decision to join the Visitation Order in 1788, but join she nevertheless did, refusing to leave the convent upon a visit. With the onslaught of the Revolution, the issue was moot; she couldn’t make her profession and had to return home.

She continued to live a religious life despite the outlawing of religious orders in France. She joined a movement of women religious called the Ladies of Mercy, who ministered to poor, sick and dying people. After the Revolution, she tried to reclaim the Visitation convent, but wound up turning it over to St. Madeleine Sophia Barat, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Philippine joined the order.

In stepped Bishop William Du Bourg of New Orleans, who needed nuns for his vast Louisiana diocese. Philippine Duchesne arrived in the United States in 1818 and was sent, with four of her nuns, to St. Charles, Missouri, just northwest of St. Louis. Immediately, she and the other sisters got down to business. They opened a school, built a convent in nearby Florissant, an orphanage, parish school, an Indian school, a boarding academy and, to keep a steady flow of young blood, a novitiate for the order. But she wasn’t content to let only St. Charles and Florissant reap the fruits of the sisters’ labors. For good measure, she also founded a convent, orphanage and parish school in St. Louis.

Often the story of the American founding is told in terms of frontiersmen and rags-to-riches industrialists, whose drive to succeed supposedly built the nation from the ground up. Yet, in her own way, Philippine Duchesne was similarly driven. Not for material success or empire-building; her passion was Jesus Christ and those for whom he died. The only empire she knew was the Kingdom of God, the seed of which she and other missionaries planted on the frontier of the burgeoning United States. Hers was a riches-to-rags story; her "industry," storing up treasure in heaven.

At age 72, Philippine Duchesne opened a school for the Potowatamu Indians in Sugar Creek, Kansas. She could hardly speak English when she thrust herself in a situation to learn a completely different tongue. She never did, but the impact of her saintly example penetrated the language barrier. The Indians she served called her "the woman who always prays." She moved back to St. Charles a year later due to the frailty of age. She died ten years later, in 1852, and today her body is enshrined in a marble tomb in there.

Catholics Without a Clue

To turn autobiographical for a moment, Philippine Duchesne reminds me of how so many Catholics are, to use the slang expression, clueless when it comes to the impact of the Catholic Church on what are often taken as things quintessentially American. Growing up in South St. Louis, Missouri, I often heard the name Duchesne–there was (and still is) a Catholic girls’ prep school named Villa Duchesne. As a young man, I knew nothing about the great woman after whom it was named. She might just as well have been George Washington’s French aunt, for all I knew. Perhaps I can be excused because I grew up as a non-Catholic. But what of Catholics? Many of my Catholic friends knew as little as I did about what we owed to so many Catholic missionaries, clergymen and saints.

A case in point. My wife Debbie, who is decidedly not a clueless Catholic, attended Bishop Du Bourg High School in St. Louis. We met at a prayer group formed by graduates and students of the high school. On one occasion, friends who had become Evangelical Protestants showed up to attack the emblems of their Catholic upbringing, including the school’s namesake, Bishop Du Bourg. My future wife gave the erstwhile Catholics what-for: "If it weren’t for great Catholic leaders such as Bishop Du Bourg, you wouldn’t even be here right now!" She was right, of course, but few present saw the point. They were living proof of Christopher Dawson’s observation that Christians ignorant of history are like amnesiacs. (Update that: they’re like spiritual Alzheimer’s disease sufferers; they’ve completely lost touch with their religious surroundings.)

Even so, in South St. Louis, you can’t avoid at least hearing of the monuments marking the profound Catholic contribution to America. Those Catholic names were everywhere. Marquette, Du Bourg, Rosati, Kenrick, Glennon-the city itself was named after a Catholic saint, Louis IX. (But don’t tell the ACLU; they’ll want to change it.) In fact, the city is so shaped by its Catholic history that it’s still common for realtors in South St. Louis, including non-Catholic ones, to identify neighborhoods by the Catholic parish in which they’re located.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Catholicism is, well, ubiquitous there, even though many Catholics don’t notice it. Maybe it’s the fish-in-the-water phenomenon. In any case, few Catholics and almost no non-Catholics realize the influence the Catholic Church has had in shaping their experience of America. And the American saints had been the engines of that influence.

Part 2 of "Can Catholics Be 'Real Americans'?"


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius