Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5c569c448b-ph4cd Total loading time: 0.289 Render date: 2022-07-04T13:37:32.562Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

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


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.

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

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. For more on the cult of St. Gianna and its connection to the pro-life movement, see Higgins, Michael W., Stalking the Holy: The Pursuit of Saint Making (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2006), 6872, as well as Google Scholar.

2. Fessenden, Tracy, “Wordly Madonna,” in Catholics in the Movies, ed. McDannell, Colleen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 251–76Google Scholar.

3. Quoted in Glendon, Mary Ann, “The Pope's New Feminism,” Crisis 15, no. 3 (March 1997): 28 Google Scholar.

4. For an excellent recent study of the cult of St. Bridget in Ireland, see Bitel, Lisa M., Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. O’Mahoney, Katharine O’Keeffe, Famous Irishwomen (Lawrence, Mass: Lawrence Publishing, 1907), 45 Google Scholar.

6. James Redfield, , “New Physiognomy, or Signs of Character,” New York, 1866, in Knobel, Dale T., Paddy and the Republic (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986), following 156 Google Scholar.

7. See, for example, “The Suffragettes Again,” New World, March 16, 1912. For a more extended discussion of anti-Catholicism within the suffrage movement, see Cummings, Kathleen Sprows, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), esp. chap. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8. Deland, Margaret, “The Change in the Feminine Ideal,” Atlantic Monthly 105 (March 1910): 299 Google Scholar.

9. Lynch-Brennan, Margaret, “Ubiquitous Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840–1930,” in Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, ed. Lee, Joe and Casey, Marion (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 333 Google Scholar.

10. “Bridget Has Been Told to ‘Draw’ the Goose,” Life Magazine, October 22, 1885.

11. “The Irish Declaration of Independence we are all familiar with,” May 9, 1883,

12. For more on images of Bridget (or “Biddy”) as a household tyrant, metaphor for Irish dominance of urban politics, and a representative of violent Irish nationalism, see Murphy, Maureen, “Bridget and Biddy: Images of the Irish Servant Girl in Puck Cartoons, 1880–1890,” in New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora, ed. Fanning, Charles (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), 152–75Google Scholar.

13. “Bridget … Our Self-Made Cooks—From Paupers to Potentates … they Are Evicted in the Old Country, but in America they do all the evicting themselves,” Puck, January 30, 1881,–129.html.

14. Irish women's attachment to their American parishes is, indeed, well documented. Annie O’Donnell, an Irish immigrant who worked as a domestic servant in Pittsburgh between 1901 and 1904, loved attending church not only because it reminded her of her native Galway but also because it represented her “only consolation” in a life of toil. Annie O’Donnell to Jim Phelan, June 24, 1902, reprinted in Your Fondest Annie: Letters from Annie O’Donnell to James P. Phelan, 1901–1904, ed. Murphy, Maureen (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005), 73 Google Scholar.

15. Parton, James, “Our Roman Catholic Brethren,” Atlantic Monthly 21 (April 1968): 446, 568Google Scholar.

16. Taylor, T., “Not at Home,” Ladies Repository 30 (1870): 306 Google Scholar.

17. See “Broom, Loom, and Schoolroom: Work and Wages in the Lives of Irish Women,” chap. 4 in Hasia Diner, Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

18. Meagher, Timothy J., Inventing Irish America: Gender, Class, and Ethnic Identity in a New England City, 1880–1928 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 69 Google Scholar.

19. Ellis Island interview, quoted in Lynch-Brennan, “Ubiquitous Bridget,” 333.

20. Obituary, Chicago Sun-Times, April 8, 1998.

21. Kibler, M. Alison, “Pigs, Green Whiskers, and Drunken Widows: Irish Nationalists and the ‘Practical Censorship’ of McFadden's Row of Flats in 1902 and 1903,” Journal of American Studies 42, no. 3 (2008): 489514 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22. Reprinted in the New World, March 14, 1896, 6 (originally published in the Irish World, March 1891).

23. O’Mahoney, Katharine O’Keeffe, ed., Quarterly Selections: Readings, Recitations, Declamations, and Dialogues for Catholic Schools and Literary Societies (New York: Catholic Publication Society, 1887), 7 Google Scholar.

24. O’Mahoney, Famous Irishwomen, 45.

25. Ibid, 30.

26. Ibid, 46, 8.

27. Knowles, J. A., O.S.A., St. Brigid: Patroness of Ireland (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 18–19Google Scholar.

28. Barton, Timothy, “Celtic Revived: The Artistry of Thomas O'shaughnessy,” in At the Crossroads: Old St. Patrick's and the Chicago Irish, ed. Skerrett, Ellen (Chicago: Wild Onion Books, 1997), 85101 Google Scholar.

29. St. Bridget Windows in Old Saint Patrick's Church, Chicago. Photos by Joan A. Radtke.

30. Ellen Skerrett, “Creating Sacred Space and Reclaiming Irish Music and Art in Chicago,” Hibernian Lecture, University of Notre Dame, November 18, 2005, copy obtained courtesy of author.

31. Barton, “Celtic Revived,” 91.

32. The year before Rose McGuire entered the Sisters of Loretto, there were 90,000 Catholic sisters in the United States, up from 1,100 in 1840. For more information on the “greening” of women's religious congregations, see Hoy, Suellen, “The Journey Out: Recruitment and Emigration of Irish Religious Women to the United States,” Journal of Women's History 6 (Winter-Spring 1995): 6498 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith, 66, 96, 206.

33. Fitzgerald, Maureen, Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York's Welfare System, 1830–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 3 Google Scholar.

34. Annals, Archives of the Daughters of Charity, Emmitsburg, Maryland, August 3, 1882.

35. John Glimary Shea, “Holy Personages of Canada and the United States whose Canonization Is Begun,” Ave Maria 30 (1890): 100.

36. For a recent and interesting history of the process, see Higgins, Michael, Stalking the Holy: The Pursuit of Saint-Making (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2006)Google Scholar.

37. Holweck, F. G., “An American Martyrology,” Catholic Historical Review 6 (1920–21): 495 Google Scholar.

38. McSweeny, Edward, “Hidden Saints,” Catholic World 51 (July 1890): 535 Google Scholar.

39. “American Saints,” Ave Maria 9 (1873): 176; “The Venerable Mother Mary of the Incarnation,” Catholic World 27 (1878): 608.

40. H., F.G., “S. Rosa de Lima, Virgo,” American Ecclesiastical Review 16 (January 1897): 9192 Google Scholar; H., F.G., “S. Rosa a S. Maria,” American Ecclesiastical Review 16 (March 1897): 335 Google Scholar; review of Walworth, The Life and Times of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, in American Ecclesiastical Review 5 (1891): 318.

41. “Kateri Tekakwitha,” Catholic World 53 (1891): 776. For more information on Tekakwitha, see Allan Greer's biography, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

42. “Letter petitioning for the Introduction of the Cause of the Servants of God, Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil, of the Society of Jesus, also of the Virgin Katharine Tekakwitha,” addressed to the Sovereign Pontiff, Leo XIII, by the Bishops of the United States of America, assembled in the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, December 6, 1884, Archives of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, Positiones.

43. Clarke, R. H., “Beatification Asked for American Servants of God,” Catholic World 40 (1885): 809 Google Scholar.

44. “Kateri Tekakwitha,” 776; review of Walworth, 318.

45. “Domestic Religious Intelligence,” Methodist Review, 5th ser., 1 (May 1885): 449–50.

46. Jane Addams to Sarah Alice Addams Haldeman, February 12, 1888, reprinted in The Selected Papers of Jane Addams, vol. 2, Venturing into Usefulness, 1881–88, ed. Mary Lyn McCree Bryan, Barbara Bair, and Maree de Angury (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 570; “Is Rome Idolatrous?” Princeton Review 26 (1854): 264–65; Severance, Allen Dudley, “Beatification and Canonization with Special Reference to Historic Proof and the Proof of Miracles,” Papers of the American Society of Church History 3 (1912): 62 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47. Breckinridge, Robert, Papism in the XIX Century (Baltimore: David Owen, 1841), 60 Google Scholar.

48. Shea, “Holy Personages,” 179.

49. Barrett, Ellen, “A Word about the Old Saints,” Catholic World 59 (1894): 269–70Google Scholar.

50. Ireland, John, “Jeanne d’Arc: The Patron Saint of Patriotism,” in The Church and Modern Society: Lectures and Addresses, by John Ireland (St. Paul, Minn.: Pioneer Press, 1904), 58, 60, 64Google Scholar.

51. John Ireland to Rev. R. A. Litz, August 4, 1892, “Letters: Cause of Beatification,” Neumann Collection, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Brooklyn, New York (RABP).

52. “Domestic Religious Intelligence,” 450.

53. Greer, Allan, “Natives and Nationalism: The Americanization of Kateri Tekakwitha,” Catholic Historical Review 90, no. 2 (2004): 262 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54. Greer, Mohawk Saint, 193–94.

55. See, for example, Sister MaryHoare, Regis, Virgin Soil (Boston: Christopher Publishing, 1941), ix Google Scholar.

56. Reville, John C. S.J., The First American Sister of Charity (New York: America Press, 1921), 37 Google Scholar.

57. Murray, John O’Kane, Lives of Catholic Heroes and Heroines of America (New York: J. Sheehy, 1879), 713–14Google Scholar.

58. Conway, Katherine E., “Individual Catholic Women,” in Catholic Builders of the Nation, 5 vols., ed. Benson, William Shepherd and others (Boston: Continental Press, 1923), 5:386Google Scholar.

59. Parton, “Our Roman Catholic Brethren,” 447.

60. Taylor, T., “Sisters of Charity,” Ladies Repository (1869): 55 Google Scholar.

61. Conway, “Individual Catholic Women,” 386. The Roosevelt connection was also touted by Seton's congregation. See “President Roosevelt and Mother Seton,” Mother Seton Guild Bulletin, no. 15, Archives of the Daughters of Charity, Emmitsburg, Maryland. The Bulletin reprinted a letter from Roosevelt to Sister M. Fides Glass, of Seton Hill College in Greensburg, Pa., January 11, 1945. FDR explained that Seton's “nephew Monsignor James Roosevelt Bayley, Archbishop of Baltimore, was my father's first cousin.” Seton's father's second wife, Charlotte Barclay, was the daughter of Helen Roosevelt Barclay. Son of Richard and Charlotte was Guy Carelton Barclay who married Grace Roosevelt—they were the parents of James.

62. Elliott, Walter, “St. Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of Charity,” Catholic World 701 (1899): 28 Google Scholar.

63. Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith, chap. 1.

64. Feeney, Leonard S.J., An American Woman: The Story of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (New York: America Press, 1938), 17 Google Scholar.

65. Clemens, M. E., “On the Hill of the Martyrs,” America, October 17, 1925 Google Scholar; Lyon, Michael S.J., “Saints of the United States,” St. Anthony Messenger 35 (1927): 188 Google Scholar.

66. Rev.Souvay, Charles, “Word of Superiors,” The Echo of the Motherhouse, January 1935, Archives of the Daughters of Charity, Emmitsburg Google Scholar; Feeney, An American Woman, 2.

67. Barthel, Joan, “A Saint for All Reasons,” New York Times Magazine, September 14, 1975 Google Scholar.

68. According to the Social Security website, which tracks the popularity of baby names, “Bridget” was the 331st most popular name for females in the United States in 1958. It would steadily rise in popularity each year until 1982, when it ranked 147th.

69. Expressing his pride in Tekakwitha as a model of “inculturation,” Chaput welcomed her canonization as an affirmation of the connection between native Catholics and the universal church. Sheila Dabu Nonato, “It's a Miracle! Catholic Mystic to Become Canada's First Aboriginal Saint,” Vancouver Sun, December 19, 2011.

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

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

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

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

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

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

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *