Spirit of 79: The Number of Americans Proposed for Sainthood

The number of Americans proposed for sainthood has risen to 79.

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With the recent opening of the beatification cause of Rhoda Wise, the convert, mystic and stigmatist who befriended Mother Angelica when the latter was still young Rita Rizzo, the number of Americans proposed for sainthood has risen to 79.

This includes seven beati (i.e., “Blesseds”) and 20 declared “Venerable.” The number of beati would be eight, except for the ongoing legal battle between the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, and the Archdiocese of New York over the disposition of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s remains.

And the list does not include two figures popularly called “Servant of God” — Bishop Mathias Loras (1792-1858), first ordinary of the Diocese of Dubuque, Iowa, and Sister Mary Annella Zervas (1900-1926), a Benedictine religious from Minnesota — as neither has had their cause formally introduced.

Nor does it include Venerable Sébastien Râle (1657-1724), the French priest martyred in Maine, because, despite his title and like the previous two individuals, his cause has never had any formal recognition.

The proposed saints include laymen, priests and religious and one very large group of 86 martyrs of “La Florida,” men and women — mostly American Indians, but also some friars and priests — who lost their lives for Christ in the Sunshine State between 1549 and 1706.

By and large, the American causes are a great example of why making saints is so difficult.

First, there is the cost. A cause usually needs to hire a representative for the saint-making effort in Rome, typically someone who has made this his profession. Then there is the need to delegate someone to handle the affair stateside. Even if this person is a volunteer, there are costs associated with gathering the information, interviewing relevant individuals, collating the information, getting it bound into volumes, and so on.

To review the miracle for the cause takes a board of six to seven members. According to CruxNow.com, “the going rate in sainthood causes is roughly $560 for each of the two medical personnel asked to perform a preliminary review and about $4,200 in total for the seven members of the medical consulting committee.” All told, the entire effort can cost between $50,000 and $250,000, with the latter figure being held as the benchmark for the average cause, although some can occasionally reach $500,000.

Without significant public interest and the attendant donations or a wealthy backer, therefore, one can see how cost might be a hurdle to getting someone declared  “Blessed,” much less “St.”

Take, for example, Servant of God Mother Maria Maddalena Bentivoglio, a Poor Clare superior in Evansville, Indiana. She was beloved by Blessed Pope Pius IX.

As a girl, she entered the Poor Clares in 1864, just shy of her 30th birthday. Sent by Pius to establish the Poor Clares in the United States when she was 40, Mother Maria created several foundations, the last in Evansville. It was tough going.

The convent had no furniture, and they subsisted on bread and water. Mother died in 1905. Exhumed in 1907 and 25 years later, her remains were found to be incorrupt.

Her beatification cause’s vice postulator was transferred several years ago, and a replacement for him has not been found, in part due to lack of funding. As such, the effort is on hold.

Some causes suffer not so much from a lack of funds, but a poverty of interest. This is the case with Servant of God Father Felix de Andreis (1778-1820), who helped establish the Church in St. Louis. According to the Vincentians, the cause for Father Felix “has not seen any appreciable movement since around 1920. The single volume of the cause … is from 1918.” Indeed, one Vincentian priest said the cause is, “frankly speaking, moribund, if not dead.”

The same can be said for any number of other American cases, such as the martyr Father Leo Heinrichs, Father Magín Catalá (whose cause preceded his hero, St. Junípero Serra) and the Martyrs of Virginia.

Other causes, however, are marching along, including that of Venerable Henriette Delille, the mixed-race freed woman of the pre-Civil War era who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans. According to her cause, an alleged miracle is before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. There is also another potential miracle out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the cause is investigating it. If either miracle is found legitimate, she will become  “Blessed.” The beatification process for Venerable Nelson Baker, founder of a “city of charity” near Buffalo, New York, is in the same situation, waiting on the doctors in Rome to rule on its submitted miracle.

Those causes that have already reached the beatification stage are anticipating the miracle that will qualify for canonization (one miracle is needed to become “Blessed” and another to be a universally recognized saint). As with so much in life, the waiting is fraught with stops and starts. For example, the cause of the 19th-century missionary Redemptorist priest Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos thought it had a miracle, a woman who seemed to have been cured from cancer. However, the cancer returned within 10 years, and she died.

Most sainthood efforts are simply marking time and doing the best they can to make progress.

Take the Franciscan martyrs of Georgia. The diocesan phase of the investigation is completed, and the Franciscans in Rome have almost finished the positio, a written history about the five friars who lost their lives for Christ in 1597.

Similarly, other causes are focused on collecting information, sending out prayer cards, soliciting testimony of favors received through prayers to the Servant of God in question — and praying.

In the meantime, whether they ever become canonized saints, the stories of priests such as Father de Andreis, Samuel Mazzuchelli, Félix Varela, Stephen Eckert and Demetrius Gallitzin; sisters such as Cornelia Connelly, Hendrika Ijsseldijk, Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, Maria Theresa Dudzik and Mary Teresa Tallon; and laymen and women such as Dorothy Day, Gwen Coniker, Paul Murphy, Pierre Toussaint and Carlos Santiago will give those who seek out their witness plenty of fodder for growing in holiness and becoming saints themselves.

Brian O’Neel writes from

Coatesville, Pennsylvania.