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Our new American saints, Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope, inspire us to express our love for God by loving others—and becoming saints ourselves.

Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope: Two New American Saints
By: Carol Ann Morrow

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One is called the mother of outcasts. The other was an outcast. One was disfigured and disabled by the plague of smallpox. The other ministered to those disfigured and disabled by the plague of Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy). Both are recognized by the Catholic Church around the world as saints (October 21, 2012).

Who are they? Why are they saints? Why do we need them as saints in this country and this century? How are we called to honor and imitate them—and become saints ourselves?


Kateri Tekakwitha’s life is a short story, one that takes place in upstate New York and Canada.
The history of Native Americans is colored by myth and misunderstanding, sometimes romanticized and sometimes brutalized. To honor Kateri Tekakwitha as a saint, it’s best to place her in context and to appreciate the cultures and traditions she straddled.

Tekakwitha’s Algonquin mother was baptized Catholic but was captured by the Mohawk Turtle clan, who were unfamiliar with the Catholic faith. Tekakwitha’s father was a respected Mohawk chief. When she was four, smallpox caused the death of many in her village, including her parents and brother. The disease weakened her health, especially her eyesight, and scarred her face. Her uncle Iowerano adopted her.

When Tekakwitha was 14, the Jesuits opened a mission among the Mohawks. These missionaries learned to speak the native tongue and linked Catholic teaching to indigenous belief and practice in their catechesis. Her uncle mistrusted those who had brought smallpox to his people. Seeing that the baptized seemed to value their faith more than their native traditions, he feared for the future of his clan.

Tekakwitha had quietly absorbed the teaching of the missionaries despite her uncle’s concerns. Father Jacques de Lamberville was very cautious when this high-ranking young woman requested Baptism. He knew the clan leaders wanted her to marry, bear children, and perpetuate tribal tradition, so he insisted she move at a slow pace. She was baptized on Easter Sunday 1676, taking the name Catherine in honor of St. Catherine of Siena. Kateri is the Iroquois equivalent of Catherine.

Life of Quiet Holiness

Following Baptism, Kateri was ostracized, threatened, and maligned. Father Lamberville feared for her safety, though Kateri dismissed her troubles as small compared to those of Jesus. Still, she wanted to be among other believers and agreed to escape by canoe with the help of an Oneida chief. She traveled 200 miles to a Christian enclave near Montreal, carrying a letter of introduction from her Jesuit teacher which read, “I send you a treasure. Guard it well.”

At Sault Saint-Louis Mission, Kateri received her first Communion in 1677. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany (the New York diocese includes the geographical sites of Kateri’s early life) identified three qualities that define Kateri’s quiet holiness:
  • Acceptance of the Cross. The youthful Tekakwitha is said to have placed twig crosses in the woods as reminders of the crucifixion. That devotion was made tangible in the risks she took to be baptized, leave her clan, teach the young, and serve the sick and elderly.
  • Courage of Conviction. Kateri wanted to enter a religious community. Her spiritual director judged the life too foreign to her life experience. So, at 23, she made a vow of virginity, risking a life of poverty without the support of a husband and family.
  • Dedication to Prayer. Kateri was a woman of prayer, attending daily Mass and vespers and becoming a “keeper of the faith,” a position typically reserved to the mission’s men. The Jesuits recognized her extraordinary and constant sense of God’s presence, which caused others to want to be near her.
Though she had been scarred and debilitated by smallpox, when Kateri died at age 24, witnesses testified that she radiated a clear complexion and great loveliness. Runners spread the news with the simple message, “The saint is dead.” The Lily of the Mohawks is now recognized as the first Native American saint in the United States. Her feast day is July 14.

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Barbara Cope’s story is a long one, filled with external achievements and recognition. It is the way in which she moved through the decades, however, that reveals her holiness.

The woman we now call St. Marianne was born in Germany, moved with her family to New York as a baby, and died peacefully in Hawaii at age 80. Midway through her life of strong leadership and generous industry, she said, “What little good we can do in this world to help and comfort the suffering, we wish to do it quietly . . . unnoticed and unknown.” Now her life will be known, inspiring others to do good as well. This is why the Church lifts up the saints of every age.

At 24, the age at which Kateri Tekakwitha’s life was complete, Barbara Cope entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse (see As the oldest daughter, Barbara had remained at home during her father’s long illness to provide financial support for her family. In 1862, she followed a calling she had long delayed.

Known as Sister Marianne, she became a teacher, principal, and officer in her religious congregation. A strong leader, she founded two New York hospitals with a mandate to serve without exceptions. She once said, “The charity of the good knows no creed and is confined to no one place.” An innovator, Sister Marianne emphasized cleanliness before good hygiene was routine. She welcomed students from Syracuse Medical College as interns at St. Joseph Hospital and, working beside both teachers and students, learned skills she later used—and improved upon—in service of the sick.

When Sister Marianne was 39, she was elected leader (known as Mother) of the sisters. She soon honored a life-changing request for sisters to serve in the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii) with particular responsibility for patients with Hansen’s disease. Many congregations had already declined this request, but 35 Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse generously volunteered. In 1883, Mother Marianne arrived with six sisters in Honolulu Harbor. She may not have meant to stay, but she remained there for 35 years and forged the way for others to follow.

Bringing Color and Smiles

The Sisters of St. Francis founded Malulani Hospital on Maui, assumed administration of a hospital on Oahu, and began Kapiolani Home for the daughters of patients with leprosy. Mother Marianne was able to assure the dying Father Damien de Veuster (canonized in 2009) that his work among the lepers would be embraced and continued as well.

A New York journalist captured the vivid testimony of Sister Magdalene, who cared for Mother Marianne in her last days: “She revolutionized life on Molokai, brought cleanliness, pride, and fun to the colony. People on Molokai laugh now. . . . It was Mother Marianne who bought the girls hair ribbons and pretty things to wear, dresses and scarves. . . . When Mother Marianne went to the island, people there had no thought for the graces of life. ‘We are lepers,’ they told her. ‘What does it matter?’ Well, she changed all that. Doctors have said that her psychology was 50 years ahead of her time.”

When the visionary founder, courageous missionary, and compassionate caregiver died, the news account in Syracuse read, “When the roll of the saints is called, Mother Marianne will be there.” We celebrate her feast day on January 23.

Inspired by God’s Love

These two new saints are remarkable in their differences. This underscores one reason to lift up new candidates for public sainthood in every age. The followers of Jesus can be young—or not. They can be quiet mystics or public leaders. They can be born into the faith of Jesus Christ—or discover its message later in life. They can live in the forest or flourish in large institutions of public service.

What did both of these saints hold dear? What do they have in common with the believers who form the communion of saints, known and unknown? These women were moved by the love of God to love others. This love shaped their days with purpose. This love called them to frequent prayer and daily service. This love called them to leave behind what was familiar when they saw the need. That same love led them to think of any pain or problem as nothing compared to what St. Paul describes as “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). These two women kept their eyes on the prize.


In 1983, Pope John Paul II streamlined the official process called canonization, which means to be included in the canon (official list) of women and men acknowledged by the whole Church as faithful followers of the Gospel. How does one get on that list?

1. Time Passes. Five years must pass to test the enduring inspiration of the person’s life. (Mother Teresa was a recent exception to this guideline, with a wait of only two years.)

2. Evidence Is Explored. The bishop of the candidate’s diocese names the person a Servant of God and forms a committee to prepare a report on his or her holiness to be reviewed by the Vatican.

3. Rome Considers. If the report is deemed accurate by the Vatican, the person can be called by the title Venerable, which, in this case, doesn’t mean old but worthy of veneration or honor.

4. Miracle #1 = Blessed.For Venerable to become Blessed requires a miracle through the intercession of that person. When a miracle is proven, beatification means that the person may be honored in a certain area—though not in the universal Church. (Pope John Paul beatified Kateri Tekakwitha in 1980 without proof of such a miracle, though many were reported by the Jesuits immediately after her death.)

5. Miracle #2 = Sainthood. Canonization, the final step, calls for a second miracle, occurring after beatification and attributed to the intercession of the prospective saint. If that miracle is acknowledged by the Church, the person is declared as a saint for the whole Church.

Miracles through the intercession of the saints reveal God at work. The Church believes that God wants saints to be recognized as channels of healing mercy.
  • Through the intercession of Kateri Tekakwitha, young Jake Finkbonner was saved from a potentially fatal infection of flesh-eating strep A (necrotizing fasciitis). Read his amazing story at Jake’s face remains scarred from the ravages of infection and futile surgeries, just as Kateri’s face was scarred from smallpox.
  • Through the intercession of Mother Marianne Cope, Sharon Smith, whose doctors had given up hope for her recovery, was cured of acute pancreatitis at a hospital founded by Mother Marianne. Read the story at

Carol Ann Morrow, an award-winning Catholic journalist, is founding editor of Youth Update, served as assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, and is an Associate of the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana.Seán

NEXT: Nine Reasons for Going to Mass: Thanksgiving Every Sunday by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, OFM Cap

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