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American Saints: Gender and the Re-Imaging of U.S. Catholicism in the Early Twentieth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018

Abstract

In Roman Catholic theology, saints are intermediaries between heaven and earth. In American Catholic practice, saints could also serve as intermediaries between two cultures—the minority religious community and the larger Protestant one. This article focuses on two female saints who became popular among American Catholics in the early twentieth century in part because American Catholics believed that devotion to them would help to undermine negative images of Catholicism in American culture. Presenting St. Bridget of Ireland as an antidote to popular stereotypes of Bridget the Irish serving girl, Irish-American Catholics argued that the former's beauty and wisdom provided a more authentic rendering of Catholic womanhood than the ignorance and coarseness of the latter. Seton's devotees, meanwhile, highlighted her status as a descendant of the American Protestant elite, offering her as model of Catholicism that was socially, racially, and culturally distant from that presented by recent Catholic immigrants. Taken together, the revival of Bridget and the quest to canonize Seton show how U.S. Catholics looked to the saints not only as models of holiness but also as agents of Americanization. It may seem counterintuitive that Catholics would choose to mediate their Americanness through saintly devotion, the very religious practice that appeared most alien to Protestant observers. There is, however, no question that hagiography took on a decidedly American dimension in the early twentieth century as U.S. Catholics repackaged European saints for a U.S. audience and petitioned for the canonization of one of their own.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2012

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References

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