|Venerable Felix Varela
Catholics of a certain age (and that includes me) will remember when the list of American saints was limited to three Jesuit martyrs and Mother Frances Cabrini. Between 1946, the year of Mother Cabrini’s canonization, and 1975, the year of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton’s canonization, no American was declared a saint.
Today it is a different story. The list of American saints and blessed has grown in the last two decades, and that list will grow longer Oct. 21, when Mother Marianne Cope of Molokai and the Native American Kateri Tekakwitha are among the seven new saints canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.
The number of American candidates who have been put forward for sainthood numbers about 90. In fact, it is becoming a full-time job to try to keep up with the developments in all the causes. What follows here is a survey of some of the candidates whose causes appear to be advancing.
Venerable Felix Varela (1788-1853)
On March 28, 2012, during his homily in Havana’s Revolution Plaza, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of one of Cuba’s most beloved figures, Father Felix Varela. A scholar-priest who taught philosophy and science at Cuba’s San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, Father Varela was also a champion of the Cuban independence movement. “Father Varela offers us a path to a true social transformation,” the pope said, “to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation, for this transformation depends on man’s spiritual life, in as much as ‘there is no authentic fatherland without virtue.’”
Ten days later, on Easter Sunday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced that the pontiff had declared Father Varela “venerable.” The next step would be beatification and finally canonization.
Felix Varela was born in Havana but spent his childhood in St. Augustine, Fla. In 1811, at age 23, he was ordained a priest; that same year he joined the seminary faculty at San Carlos and San Ambrosio in Havana. In 1821 he was elected as Cuba’s delegate to the Cortes, Spain’s parliament. There he called upon his fellow legislators to abolish slavery in the Spanish colonies and grant independence to Cuba. Father Varela’s unpopular political opinions got him in trouble with the Spanish government: He was charged with treason and sentenced to death.
He escaped to the United States, where he settled in New York City. During the 1840s the Catholic Church in New York was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of Irish fleeing the Potato Famine. Father Varela — now vicar general of the Archdiocese of New York — opened new parishes for the newcomers.
At the Church of the Transfiguration (now in New York’s Chinatown), he served a huge congregation of desperately poor Irish. Since they could contribute almost nothing to the support of the parish, Father Varela covered the shortfall by drawing upon his own income and soliciting contributions from friends in Cuba.
In addition to running his parish, opening a parochial school, and administering an archdiocese that covered the entire state of New York and the northern half of New Jersey, Father Varela taught himself Gaelic so he could communicate with Irish parishioners who were not fluent in English.
Early in the 1850s, Father Varela retired to St. Augustine, Fla., where he died in 1853. In 1911 his body was exhumed and taken to Cuba, where it was laid to rest in the Aula Magna — or great hall — of the University of Havana.
Venerable Henriette Delille (1812-1862)
The cause of New Orleans native Henriette Delille took a major step forward in March 2012, when Pope Benedict formally recognized her heroic virtue and declared her “venerable.” Sister Eva Regina Martin, superior of the congregation Delille founded, the Sisters of the Holy Family, told a reporter that the sisters “are dancing for joy.” Upon hearing the news, the nuns assembled in their chapel and sang the Te Deum, praising God for this great gift.
Delille’s great-great-grandmother, Nanette, had been kidnapped by slave traders in Africa and sold in Louisiana. Upon the death of her master, she was given her freedom. Nanette found work and eventually saved enough money to buy the freedom of her daughter and two of her grandchildren.
Henriette’s father was a Frenchman; her mother was of mixed African, French and Spanish ancestry. The couple lived in a common law marriage. Henriette’s mother trained her in music, dancing, and all the social graces so that some day Henriette might attract a wealthy white man, too. Henriette rejected the future her mother planned for her. It may have provided comfort and security, but it would not be a Catholic marriage. Instead, Henriette used her fine education to teach at a Catholic school.
In 1836 Henriette, along with eight other women, started a religious congregation dedicated to teaching poor black and Creole children. They expanded their work to the care of the elderly. Education and care of the elderly are still the two primary apostolates of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
In September 2005, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, the sisters evacuated all the residents of the Lafon Nursing Home in the eastern part of the city. Katrina virtually destroyed the facility, and it appeared that 160 years of service to the elderly had come to end. But the Sisters of the Holy Family opened the restored Lafon Nursing Home in 2010.
Servant of God Emil Kapaun (1916-1951)
While the Congregation for Saints’ Causes studies the documentary evidence regarding a possible healing attributed to the intercession of Father Emil Kapaun, the Korean War chaplain is in the running for a secular honor. For his heroism on the battlefield and especially in a North Korean prison camp, Father Kapaun has been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. In April 2012, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita, Kan., met with a member of President Barack Obama’s White House staff to advance Father Kapaun’s case — a case that already has the support of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If Father Kapaun is canonized, and if he receives the award, he will be the first saint of the Roman Catholic Church to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Emil Kapaun’s mother and father emigrated to America from what is now the Czech Republic. They bought a farm near Pilsen, Kan., and that is where Emil was born and raised. Emil discerned a call to the priesthood and was ordained in 1940. He offered his first Mass in his home parish, Pilsen’s Church of St. John Nepomucene. In 1944 he joined the Army as a chaplain.
In July 1950 he was ordered to Korea. There, he won the admiration of his men for his down-to-earth manner and his incredible courage: time and again he risked his life to bring wounded and dying men off the battlefield. On All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 1951, Father Kapaun was among the 1,000 American soldiers captured by North Korean forces. They were marched nearly 90 miles to a POW camp where there was no medicine for the sick and the wounded, no heat in the prisoners’ cabins and not enough food. After dark, Father Kapaun would slip out of his cabin to steal food and medical supplies from the guards’ storehouse. Before he went out on these missions, he prayed to St. Dismas, the good thief who was crucified with Jesus.
By Easter 1951, Father Kapaun was suffering from chronic dysentery and pneumonia. Camp guards carried him to the prison hospital and left him there to die.
A miracle has been attributed to Father Kapaun’s intercession. In 2008, Chase Kear, a teenage athlete from Colwich, Kan., was at pole vault practice when he made a jump and missed the mat. Kear landed on his skull, cracking it from ear to ear and causing massive brain damage. The doctors doubted that he would live. Kear’s parents called for a priest to administer the last rites, then they rallied family and friends to invoke the intercession of Father Kapaun. Seven weeks later, Chase Kear walked out of the hospital, fully recovered.
If Kear’s recovery is deemed miraculous, Father Emil Kapaun will be declared “Blessed,” one step short of sainthood.
Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897)
On Feb. 24, 2011, during midday prayer in St. James Chapel in downtown Chicago, Cardinal Francis George stood before a congregation of bishops, priests, religious and laity and formally opened the cause that many people pray will lead to the canonization of Father Augustus Tolton. With this step, the cardinal and the faithful of the Archdiocese of Chicago have petitioned the Holy See to grant Father Tolton the title “Servant of God.” Cardinal George and several individuals who will play a leading role in promoting Father Tolton’s cause took an oath to fulfill their obligations conscientiously; then the cardinal signed a decree ordering an examination of the candidate’s life and writings.
Augustus Tolton was born a slave in Missouri. His enslaved parents were Catholics, as was the family that owned them. During the Civil War, Tolton and his mother, brother and sister escaped across the Mississippi River to Illinois. They settled in Quincy, where there was a small black Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s. As a young man Tolton wanted to become a priest, but at that time no American seminary would accept a black candidate. He traveled to Rome, where the seminaries were color blind — the Church in Rome was accustomed to seminarians from the mission countries of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Augustus Tolton was ordained a diocesan priest in 1886, and returned to the United States, where he was assigned to St. Joseph’s, his home parish in Quincy.
Father Tolton developed a reputation as a gifted preacher, which attracted the attention of some white Catholics; they attended his Masses and contributed to the support of his church. Petty as it may seem, this earned Father Tolton the animosity of the pastor of one of the white parishes in Quincy. He complained to the bishop about “that n***** priest” who was siphoning away funds and congregants that belonged rightfully to the white parishes. The bishop agreed, and ordered Father Tolton to restrict his ministry to black Catholics.
Stung by the bigotry of his superior and a brother priest, Father Tolton asked the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome to reassign him to Chicago. There he found that the city’s black Catholics worshipped in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. Tolton moved them into a storefront that he converted into a chapel. In 1894, thanks to the sacrifices of black Chicagoans and the generosity of white benefactors, Father Tolton’s new church, dedicated to St. Monica, was consecrated. It became the mother church of the black Catholic community in Chicago.
Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
On Sept. 16, 2010, Bonnie Engstrom gave birth to a baby boy. The child was stillborn, but Bonnie and her husband Travis began to pray to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Sixty-one minutes after the child was delivered, doctors detected a heartbeat. The child, baptized James Fulton, is alive and healthy today.
During a Mass celebrated on Dec. 11, 2011, after a detailed investigation of the events, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Ill., sealed several boxes of documents for shipment to the Vatican. The ceremony took place in Peoria’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, where Sheen had served as an altar boy. The case of James Fulton Engstrom is the second inexplicable healing that has been forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If both cases are determined to be miraculous, Archbishop Sheen could be canonized shortly.
Many saints were charismatic, but Sheen had star power. He was handsome, witty, intelligent and blessed with a beautiful speaking voice (not to mention a genius for theatrics). From the 1930s through the 1950s Sheen was the Catholic Church in America’s top celebrity. Whenever he was scheduled to preach at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a capacity crowd of 6,000 crammed the pews and aisles. On Good Friday the vast cathedral could not accommodate all the thousands who came, hoping to hear Sheen’s three-hour-long sermon; the overflow stood outside listening to the oration over loudspeakers. Between 1930 and 1952, Sheen was the main attraction of the radio program, “The Catholic Hour”; during his 22-year run, listener requests for printed copies of Sheen’s talks ran to the millions. He also wrote more than 120 books and pamphlets, many of which made the best-seller list, and a fair number of which are still in print today, including his autobiography, “Treasure in Clay,” and the “Wartime Prayer Book,” a little volume he put together during World War II and which has been reissued recently for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In any medium Sheen was great, but on television he was brilliant. His program, “Life Is Worth Living,” had no music, there was no comedy, there were no leggy starlets, there was only Sheen dressed in full bishop’s robes — black cassock with purple piping, purple cape, purple skullcap, a heavy gold cross around his neck — moving around the set and talking to the audience at home. Sheen was a natural in front of the cameras and viewers loved him. His energy, his wit, his fresh take on ordinary problems, his down-to-earth yet inspiring way of discussing religious questions made him an overnight sensation, with 5.5 million households tuning in every week to watch Bishop Sheen. In 1952, the Emmy Award committee nominated Sheen in its Most Outstanding Television Personality category. He had stiff competition: Sheen’s fellow nominees were Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante and Edward R. Murrow. But at the end of the evening, the Emmy went home with the bishop.
Bishop Sheen used the media as he used his intellect and charisma — to win souls. His audiences may have considered him a celebrity, but Sheen always thought of himself as a missionary. On every program, in every sermon, in every after-dinner speech, Sheen tried to draw non-Catholics to the faith, bring lapsed Catholics back to the Church, and strengthen the faith of practicing Catholics. There had never been such a high-profile missionary, and rarely one who was so phenomenally successful. Sheen once estimated that “The Catholic Hour” alone brought in 50 converts a week (that’s an astonishing 57,200 converts during Sheen’s 22 years on radio).
One man who was won over by Sheen’s radio talks was Col. Horace E. Mann, the campaign manager of Herbert Hoover’s successful bid for the presidency in 1928. Mann was an unlikely convert; politicians in the know suspected that during the presidential race, it was Mann who had scuttled Catholic Al Smith’s chances of getting into the White House by stirring up anti-Catholic feeling among voters in the South. Whatever Mann’s prejudices may have been, Sheen broke through them.
Among Sheen’s other high-profile converts were Henry Ford II, son the automobile tycoon; Fritz Kreisler, the violin virtuoso; and Clare Booth Luce, the congresswoman, author and wife of Time magazine’s publisher Henry Luce. But when Heywood Broun, a hard-bitten socialist journalist notorious for his anti-clerical rants, and Louis Budenz, managing editor of the Communist organ, the Daily Worker, entered the Church, Sheen’s reputation as the convert-maker extraordinaire soared.
The cause for Archbishop Sheen could not have come at a better time. He reminds the Catholic faithful that in an age that is materialistic, secular, even pagan, their religion offers a coherent, soul-saving alternative.
But he is also a model for the clergy, a priest and bishop of deep personal holiness and unshakable fidelity to the faith.
Servant of God Walter Ciszek (1904-1984)
For six years, officials at the Congregation for Saints’ Causes have been reviewing boxes of documents on the life and writings of Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek. A summary of the officials’ finding has been submitted to a panel of nine theologians who will determine if Father Ciszek lived a life of heroic virtue. If so, they will recommend that Pope Benedict grant Father Ciszek the title “Venerable.”
Father Ciszek’s supporters have no doubt that he is a saint — and not just an ordinary saint, but a living martyr.
Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pa. His parents were immigrants from Poland. He grew up to be a tough kid who got into so many fights that his father believed Walter belonged in reform school.
When it was time to go to high school, Walter surprised his family and friends by enrolling in a minor seminary instead. He was still a tough kid: While his classmates were still asleep, Walter went on five-mile runs. One Lent he restricted himself to bread and water — just to see if he could do it. Then, at age 24, he left the diocesan seminary and traveled to the Bronx to join the Jesuits. While Ciszek was studying in the novitiate, Pope Pius XI called upon the Jesuits to operate a clandestine mission to Eastern-rite Catholics in the Soviet Union, who were suffering a persecution so severe it threatened to extinguish the faith in Russia. Ciszek volunteered for the Russian mission and was accepted.
He traveled to Poland first. From there, disguised as an ordinary laborer, he slipped into Russia, where he worked on a lumber crew in the Urals. Somehow, Soviet agents discovered that Walter Ciszek was a Catholic priest from the United States (perhaps someone from the lumber crew had followed him into the woods when he slipped away to say Mass).
The Soviets incarcerated Father Ciszek in the Lubyanka Prison. For six months he was interrogated, beaten, starved, tortured and injected with mind-altering drugs, until he signed a “confession” that he was a Vatican spy. Father Ciszek was kept at the Lubyanka for four years, then he was shipped to Siberia, to a camp ten degrees north of the Arctic Circle. Among his fellow prisoners were Polish Catholics, so Father Ciszek began a secret ministry, surreptitiously saying Mass and hearing confessions. He served a twelve-year sentence in the gulag. Upon his release, he was restricted to living in Siberia. There, from 1955 until 1963, he formed several mission parishes for Russian, Polish and German Catholics who had been exiled to Siberia.
On Columbus day, Oct. 12, 1963, KGB agents appeared at Father Ciszek’s apartment and ordered him to pack — they were taking him to Moscow. In the Russian capital he was introduced to an official from the U.S. consulate: Father Ciszek was going home, he had been exchanged for a Soviet spy captured in the United States.
In America, Father Ciszek settled into the quiet life of a university lecturer, first at Fordham University, then at the University of Scranton (both Jesuit colleges). He also helped found a Ruthenian rite Carmelite monastery, where he served as the nuns’ spiritual director. It was the Carmelites’ superior, Mother Marija, who initiated the process that may lead to his canonization.
Servant of God Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory, O.Carm. (1893-1984)
Bridget Teresa McCrory was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, but grew up in Scotland. She joined the Little Sister of the Poor, serving her novitiate in France, then traveling to the United States, where she was assigned to the Little Sisters’ home in the Bronx, New York. Although she admired the work of the Little Sisters — they sheltered the elderly poor — Sister Angeline felt there was more that could be done for the elderly at every level of society, including health care.
With the encouragement of Cardinal Patrick Hayes, archbishop of New York, Sister Angeline formed a new religious community, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. Today the sisters operate 18 residences and nursing homes in the United States and one in Ireland.
In 2009, a New Jersey couple learned that their unborn child had a severe genetic disorder. Family and friends prayed to Mother Angeline, and when the child was born — a little girl — doctors were surprised to find that she was healthy. The case is being studied by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of several books, including “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).