Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
The Church has many reasons to celebrate, but this week, there are seven new ones: on October 21, Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven men and women saints at a ceremony in Rome attended by more than 80,000 people from across the world. What struck me about this particular group of men and women is how diverse they are: although some of them are from the same time period or the same geographic region, each life story is a unique, beautiful example of how God’s grace can make even the most seemingly ordinary person an extraordinary witness to the Good News of Christ. Here are brief(ish) biographies of each of our seven new heroes and heroines in the faith. May the examples of these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, inspire us all to seek and follow the unique path of holiness that God has designed for each of us.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, known affectionately as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in 1656 in what is now upstate New York. Her mother, an Algonquin, was a Christian; her father, an Iroquois, was not. Both parents and her brother died of smallpox when Kateri was only four; she herself suffered facial scarring and impaired vision from the disease, which generally weakened her health for the rest of her life. Kateri’s uncle, a member of the Mohawk tribe, took her in after her parents died. As a child, she encountered the teachings of Jesuit missionaries and decided to become a Christian when she was eighteen years old. Baptized at the age of twenty, Kateri subsequently suffered persecution from her tribe, who ostracized her so intently that she left for a Jesuit mission located south of present-day Montreal, where she lived among other Christian converts until her death at the age of 24. Known for her purity, Kateri vowed a life of virginity and penance. She is the first Native American to be canonized a saint, and the patroness of ecologists and environmentalists, as well as those who have lost their parents and those ridiculed for their piety. Her feast day is July 14.
St. Marianne Cope was born in Germany in 1838; her family emigrated to upstate New York in 1839 and became American citizens in the 1850s. Upon completing 8th grade, she went to work at a factory to support her eight younger siblings and her invalid father. She continued to work until her siblings were old enough to care for themselves, and entered the Sisters of St. Francis in 1862, a year after her father died. After professing her vows in 1863, Sr. Marianne taught and served as principal for several schools in New York. A gifted administrator, Sr. Marianne assisted in the establishment of two hospitals noted for providing medical care regardless of race or religion. By 1883, she had become mother general of her congregation. That year, Mother Marianne received a request from Hawaii for someone who could administrate the hospitals and educate people there who were afflicted with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Mother Marianne accepted the challenge before her and moved to Hawaii with six of her fellow sisters. In 1884, she met Fr. Damien (also a saint), and when he was diagnosed with Hansen’s in 1886, Mother Marianne ensured that he received compassionate treatment. Following his death in 1889, she was chosen to be Fr. Damien’s successor as the administrator of Boy’s Home, a facility at Kalawao that provided care for patients with Hansen’s. She remained in Hawaii for the rest of her life, establishing and expanding facilities for the care of the sick and the outcast. She died in 1918, and is the patroness of outcasts, those afflicted with leprosy, as well as those with HIV/AIDS. Her feast day is January 23.
St. Pedro Calungsod was born around 1654; his exact birthplace is unknown, and few historical details of his childhood exist. What is known, however, is that he encountered Jesuit missionaries and was baptized Christian. Calungsod excelled as a catechist and altar server, and around the age of 14, he accompanied the Jesuits to the Ladrones Islands in order to assist their mission of evangelization. The missionaries converted many of the local natives to Christianity, but they began to encounter hostility when rumors began circulating that the missionaries were responsible for the illnesses and deaths of several infants in the villages. In 1672, Calungsod and his companion, Diego Luis de San Vitores (now beatified), arrived at the village of Tumon, Guam. They learned that the wife of the chief had given birth to a daughter, and they went to baptize her, but encountered fierce opposition from the chief himself. The chief left the village to recruit help in killing the missionaries, and during his absence, Calungsod and San Vitores baptized the baby girl with the consent of her mother, also a Christian. When the chief returned, he was enraged. He attacked and killed both Calungsod and San Vitores with spears. Calungsod was only 17 years old. He is now invoked as the patron of Filipino youth, catechists, and altar servers, and his feast day is April 2.
St. Jacques Berthieu was born in 1838 in France to devout Christian parents. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1864, and after spending nine years as a diocesan priest, he obtained permission from his bishop to enter the Jesuit order in 1873. Two years later, his request to become a missionary was granted, and he arrived at Madagascar in December of 1875. For the remaining 21 years of his life he traveled around Madagascar and the surrounding islands, serving as a missionary to various territories in the midst of two consecutive wars, suffering exile and difficult living conditions. By 1895 a peace treaty had been signed; however, a local rebellion spread to various parts of Madagascar, in which the rebels claimed that the recent devastation of the war had really been caused because they had abandoned ancestor worship for the ways of the foreigners. Berthieu refused to abandon his flock to preserve his own life, and by 1896, the rebellion had made its way to his mission. He was captured by the rebels, who demanded that he renounce his faith upon pain of death. Berthieu refused, and was shot and killed by the rebel forces. He is the first martyr of Madagascar to be canonized a saint, and his feast day is June 8.
St. Giovanni Battista Piamarta was born to a poor family in Brescia, Italy, in 1841. His mother died when he was but nine years old, and his adolescence was made difficult by the presence of various gangs in the town. He sought refuge in the Church by entering the diocesan seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1865. Fr. Piamarta’s ministry was marked by a special concern for young people who struggled to live good lives amidst the harsh living and working conditions of Brescia. He founded several organizations to assist the youth spiritually and professionally, offering religious catechesis as well as training in various technical skills. In 1900, Fr. Piamarta established the Congregation of the Holy Family of Nazareth in order to assist him in his apostolate. Today, the Congregation is found in Europe, Africa, and South America, where its members minister to the poor and the unemployed. Fr. Piamarta died in 1913 after spending his life in service of the underprivileged. He is the patron of those seeking employment, and his feast is April 26.
St. Carmen Sallés y Barangueras was born in 1848 in Barcelona, Spain. She was the second of ten children, and her parents were devout Catholics. In 1858, the same year in which St. Bernadette Subirous received her miraculous visions of the Blessed Mother, Carmen and her family went on pilgrimage to Montserrat, where Carmen received her First Communion. During that journey, the ten-year-old Carmen, whose devotion to Our Lady had been strengthened by the events at Lourdes, vowed to devote her life to Jesus through Mary, and became convinced that God was calling her to religious life. Upon returning to Spain, Carmen asked her parents to release her from a betrothal to a young Spaniard. They granted permission, and she entered the order of the Adores Sisters, whose mission was to serve young women who were former prostitutes or criminals by providing shelter and education. Sr. Carmen worked with such women for 22 years, helping them rediscover their dignity by treating them with love and compassion. In 1892, Sr. Carmen founded the order of Congregation of the Conceptionist Missionary Sisters of Teaching. Throughout her life she was an advocate for women, defending their dignity and insisting upon their equal treatment with that of men. She died in Madrid in 1911. Her feast is July 25.
St. Anna Schäffer was born in 1882 in Bavaria. From an early age she exhibited a devout piety, and felt called to life as a missionary sister. She set about trying to earn the dowry necessary to pursue her religious vocation; however, in February 1901, while working as a laundress, she slipped into a boiling vat of lye, which significantly scalded both of her legs to above the knee. Treatment proved ineffective, and in May 1902, she was released from the hospital, forced to spend the rest of her life as a bed-ridden invalid, while her injuries continued to cause her daily pain. After struggling against her condition, she resigned herself to accept her sufferings with joy, offering them in imitation of Christ’s sufferings on the Cross. She wrote letters to all who sought spiritual advice or consolation in suffering. In 1910, she experienced what she called “dreams,” visions of St. Francis and of the Lord. Later that year, she received the stigmata, although she prayed that the visible wounds be hidden so that she might suffer in secret. In 1923, her legs became completely paralyzed and her spinal cord stiffened due to rectal cancer; nevertheless, she continued to write and to pray. In 1925, she fell from her bed, injuring her brain, which resulted in the loss of her voice. For the last five weeks of her life she suffered silently, continuing her practice of intense prayer and devotion to the Eucharist. She died in 1925, and the anniversary of her passing, October 5, is now her feast day.
In his seminal work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.” In the stories of these seven men and women – laypersons, clergy, religious, missionaries, invalids, youth, elderly – we see our own stories. More importantly, we see the story of Christ reflected and refracted as light through a prism, shining with a brilliance that is unique to them and yet universal to all of us, for we are all called to holiness. We are all called to embody the Gospel with the same single-hearted fidelity shown by these men and women in the daily joys and struggles of their lives. May they be our companions on the journey of faith, spurring us on to faithful witness, so that we might one day join their company, “Saints among the Saints in the halls of heaven.”
All you holy men and women, pray for us.