More Americans To Join The Ranks Of Saints

Sunday, Pope Benedict canonizes seven Catholics. Among them are two Americans, putting the total number of Americans among the thousands of officially recognized saints at 12. Host Guy Raz talks about the newly recognized saints with the Rev. James Martin, contributing editor at Catholic magazine America and author of the book My Life With the Saints.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Tomorrow, Pope Benedict canonizes seven Catholic saints in Rome. Out of the thousands of people recognized as saints through history, just 10 are American. But tomorrow, that number rises to 12 when two extraordinary women are canonized. One is known for her work tending to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and the other known as Lily of the Mohawks is the first Native American saint.

So what does it take to get there? Here's Father James Martin, a contributing editor for the Jesuit magazine America.

REVEREND JAMES MARTIN: I always tell people that God creates the saints. It's just the church who recognizes the saint. And basically, after a person's death, a local devotion or kind of an interest in the saint will grow up. The local bishop will determine whether or not the person is worthy of the process of canonization. And then there's a long process of collecting papers and interviewing people who knew the person and then waiting for the miracles.

One miracle for the edification, which is a kind of proof, as it were, that the person is in heaven and then two miracles for canonization. So it can be a very long process or it can be a very short, as in the case, let's say, blessed John Paul or Mother Teresa.

RAZ: Pope Benedict will canonize seven new saints in Rome. There are two Americans among these seven. Let's begin with the first one. She was a Native American. Tell us about her.

MARTIN: Sure. Well, her name is Kateri Tekakwitha. Some people know her as Kateri or Kateri. And she was born in upstate New York in 1656. She suffered smallpox at a very young age, was left an orphan at age 4. And then she met Jesuit missionaries and was baptized at age 20. I think it was a very heroic act. Her mother was Catholic, but at the time, you know, it would have earned her, not surprisingly, the enmity of the people with whom she lived and grew up, her Mohawk community.

She eventually moved to a Jesuit mission near Montreal where they had set up a settlement to protect the Mohawk from the Iroquois, and she led this very pious life. She died at age 24.

RAZ: What was the miracles that allowed the pope to make that decision?

MARTIN: Well, interestingly, I find it very touching. A lot of the miracles, in a sense, relate to the saint. One of them that I know about Kateri is a boy who had been suffering from one of these flesh-eating bacteria. And, you know, she had smallpox and apparently was very disfigured. And so this boy was miraculously cured when, I think, a chip of her bone was placed on him. I think overnight or within a few days, he was cured. So oftentimes, the saints' miracles have something to do with their lives on earth.

RAZ: Let's talk about the other one, the other American who's been canonized, Marianne Cope. She also had a pretty incredible life. Can you tell us about her?

MARTIN: Sure. She's born in 1838 in Germany. Two years later, the family moves to Utica, New York. She enters the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse. Interestingly, before she went to Hawaii, which is the work she's mostly known for, working with people with Hansen's disease, she was a hospital administrator and a very successful one in Syracuse. And some of the foundations that she started are still operating in Syracuse. She goes to Hawaii in 1883 to care for people with Hansen's disease.

RAZ: Also known as leprosy.

MARTIN: Correct. And she took over from Father Damian, who is now St. Damian of Malachi, working with people with Hansen's disease, and, you know, at great peril to herself. Father Damian had died from Hansen's disease, and she and her sisters willingly took over this work. And she never contracted the disease. She died in 1918 after working there for 30 years. So, another very heroic woman, you know, quite different than Kateri but heroic all the same.

RAZ: That's Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest and a contributing editor at America. It's a Catholic magazine. He's also the author of "My Life with the Saints." Father James Martin, thank you so much.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

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