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by Mark Brumley
Mortimer Adler once told the story of a Great Books seminar about Dantes
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, "thats 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 saintsAmerican or otherwiseare
those who "see God face-to-face" in the beatific vision. If
theres 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 aint so." Being a Catholic isnt un-American,
so being fully Catholicbeing a saintisnt 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
There isor should bea 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 ones 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 didnt
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 dont you become a missionary?"
was the Popes answer. In other words, not "Why dont you
give money to the missions?" (which she had already done), but "Why
dont 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 fathers
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 couldnt make her profession and had to return
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
wasnt 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 Duchesnethere 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 Washingtons 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 schools namesake,
Bishop Du Bourg. My future wife gave the erstwhile Catholics what-for:
"If it werent for great Catholic leaders such as Bishop Du
Bourg, you wouldnt even be here right now!" She was right,
of course, but few present saw the point. They were living proof of Christopher
Dawsons observation that Christians ignorant of history are like
amnesiacs. (Update that: theyre like spiritual Alzheimers
disease sufferers; theyve completely lost touch with their religious
Even so, in South St. Louis, you cant 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
dont tell the ACLU; theyll want to change it.) In fact, the
city is so shaped by its Catholic history that its still common
for realtors in South St. Louis, including non-Catholic ones, to identify
neighborhoods by the Catholic parish in which theyre located.
The situation is similar elsewhere in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Catholicism is, well, ubiquitous there, even though many Catholics dont
notice it. Maybe its 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'?"
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