As an amateur student of the saints, especially American candidates for sainthood, I like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of who is in the running. While doing the research for this week’s In Focus (see Pages 9-12), I came across an article published on Nov. 29, 1941, in The Pittsburgh Press; the headline read, “Sainthood Candidates Total 111: American Martyrs Given to the Vatican.” The man who carried the documents for this cause to Rome was Bishop John Mark Gannon of Erie, Pa. He was the natural choice, as the American hierarchy had named him chairman of the Commission for the Canonization of the Martyrs of the United States.
The Martyrs of China, of Vietnam, of Korea, and the Cristero Martyrs — all of these I’ve heard of and studied. But the Martyrs of the United States was a new one. The list of candidates includes 76 Franciscans, 15 Jesuits, seven Dominicans, four diocesan priests, one Sulpician and eight Indians.
On the list is the protomartyr of the United States, Franciscan Father Juan de Padilla (1500-1542). He came to America as one of the chaplains on Francisco Vazquez de Coronado’s failed expedition to find the Seven Cities of Gold. When the expedition returned to Mexico, Father Padilla remained behind to work among the Wichita tribe. After he had been with them for some time, he announced plans to preach to a tribe that was the Wichita’s traditional enemy. Angered by what they considered to be a betrayal, the Wichita killed him.
A little closer to our own time is the case of Father James Edwin Coyle (1873-1921), an Irish immigrant who served at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Birmingham, Ala. In 1921, Father Coyle instructed and received into the Church Ruth Stephenson, daughter of a local Southern Methodist Episcopal minister, E.R. Stephenson. (Stephenson was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan). Father Coyle presided at her marriage to Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican. News of his daughter’s conversion and her marriage to a man he regarded as black enraged Ruth’s father. He took a gun and went to the cathedral rectory. As Father Coyle stepped out onto the porch, Stephenson shot him through the head.
Particularly interesting to me, because I have just begun researching a new book on the North American Martyrs and their Indian converts who also suffered martyrdom, is the case of three Iroquois who converted to Catholicism — Stephen Tegananokoa, Frances Gannonhatenha and Marguerite Garongouas. Each of them was captured by their tribe, horribly torture, then burned at the stake.
A little more research revealed that from time to time in the last decade there has been interest in Birmingham in presenting Father Coyle’s cause to Rome, but the case appears to have stalled. As for the other 100 martyrs, there is no evidence that I can find that their causes have advanced. But don’t despair — remember that the cause of soon-to-be St. Kateri Tekakwitha began shortly after her death in 1680.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).