Margaret McGuiness, Ph.D., says that researchers should study how the gender of American women saints affected their ministries.
Photo by Gina Vergel

Historians of American Catholicism and women’s studies would do well to research the lives of four American Catholic female saints—but not just for their sanctity, a scholar said on Feb. 3 at Fordham.

“Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Theodore Guerin, Frances Cabrini and Katherine Drexel were saints all—but women, too,” said Margaret McGuiness, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Religion at LaSalle University.

McGuiness spoke at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus at an event sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her lecture, “Saints, not Angels: American Catholic Female Saints,” touched on the women’s lives and ministries.

“Their stories begin in Seton’s era, when the church was struggling to survive in a new country, and end with Drexel, whose death in 1955 came during the early years of the civil rights movement,” she said.

Seton entered the Catholic Church after her husband died of tuberculosis in the early 1800s. She opened a school for girls in Baltimore and later moved to Emmitsburg, Md., where she established Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, also for Catholic girls. The academy eventually developed into Saint Joseph College.

“Catholics were looked at with skepticism at this time,” McGuiness said. “She would have had to negotiate her way, as a convert, into a religion that was trying to find its way in a very strange place.”

Research into Seton might shed new light on how the young American church managed to minister to single mothers, she added. Seton was herself a mother of five.

Mother Theodore Guerin entered the Sisters of Saint Providence in 1823 and was sent to the Indiana frontier to work among poor Catholic immigrants. By the time she died, there were 12 schools established in the area.

“It is not hard to imagine the difficulty involved in practicing a religion for which there was no formal institutional setting,” McGuiness said. “What did the support provided by Guerin do to solidify the relationship of these frontiersmen and women to the church? A critical biography may help us get to this issue.”

Frances Cabrini is known as the first American citizen-saint. Born in Italy, her goal was to become a missionary to foreign lands. She ended up working with Italian immigrants through St. Joachim’s Church on New York City’s Lower East Side.

“Cabrini had her difficulties with the hierarchy. In her case, the bishop in question was New York’s Michael Corrigan,” she said. “Cabrini respected Corrigan, but believed he did not understand the problems faced by Italian immigrants.”

“In addition to meeting with Corrigan, Cabrini negotiated with bishops throughout the United States,” McGuiness said. “An analysis of this aspect of her work would help us gain insight into the managerial workings of the American hierarchy.”

Katherine Drexel came from a wealthy family and chose to use her inheritance to help Native Americans and African Americans. When she died in 1955, 501 sisters were ministering in 61 institutions—48 elementary schools, 12 high schools and one college, Xavier in New Orleans.

“Critical work on Drexel and her community will offer insight into one of the elephants in the room of American Catholic history and America in general—race,” McGuiness said. “How did they rise above prejudices that may have been instilled in them as children to perform work others would not?”


Gina Vergel is Senior Director of Communications. She oversees the digital news coverage, public relations, and social media for the university. Before joining Fordham in 2007, Gina worked as a reporter for the Home News Tribune, and The Ridgewood News, where she won Society of Professional Journalist (New Jersey chapter) awards for breaking news and feature writing, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 579-9957.