Before we forget the recent flap concerning the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” and the LA Dodgers, I have to give a shout out to the thousands of nuns throughout history whom have served God with faith, dedication, and sacrificial love. In my new book, HOW THE SAINTS SHAPED HISTORY, I discuss many of them – European and American – who have leavened our history.

Let me begin on a personal note: my affection and admiration for Sr. M. Georgia, CSC, my high school English teacher. She died last November at age 99, after 81 years as a Sister of the Holy Cross. What a remarkable woman of faith, a faith that transcended her business-like demeanor. Maybe that is what inspired me: a kind, caring woman who embraced the truth but who was not sentimental. It gave her faith an authenticity that strengthened mine. She was intelligent and well-educated, as so many of the Holy Cross nuns were. It was Sr. Georgia who made Shakespeare come alive for me and who introduced me to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. When post-Vatican II turmoil raged around her, she persevered and served as a teacher, writer, and jail minister. Small in stature, Sr. Georgia was all the best in a nun, and a huge contrast to those whom the Dodger organization honored last month.

Among the sainted nuns I discuss in my book, I want to mention here two who served heroically in America: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Frances Cabrini. They are justifiably well-known representatives of the countless self-sacrificing nuns who ministered in this country.

“Mother Seton” (1774-1821) was born into New York City’s Episcopalian high society. In 1794, she married William Seton, a businessman. They welcomed the birth of five children, and in 1803, she watched him die of tuberculosis in Italy. Grieving and attracted to the Catholicism of her Italian hosts, she returned home. In time, she mustered the courage to become Catholic in a city and among friends and relatives who were mostly anti-Catholic.

She moved to Maryland, kids in tow, to reinvent herself. It was there where she spent the rest of her days, immediately exhibiting both a strong faith and leadership skills that impressed the local Catholic clergy, including America’s only bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore. Over the ensuing years, they developed a mutual admiration and respect, a testament to the gravitas that Elizabeth brought to the still small Catholic community. Elizabeth settled in the small town of Emmitsburg and in time, with her magnetism and spiritual energy, she gathered a number of women around her who became the first American order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. There they opened a school for girls which, despite obstacles, grew and continued on for the duration of her life and beyond. It was the first  of many schools her order founded in the 19th century. In this, St. Elizabeth was a pioneer and created momentum toward the founding of the Catholic parochial school system in the decades after her death, particularly via the guiding hand of St. John Neumann, bishop of Philadelphia.

Through obstacles and heartaches – including the death of two daughters and other close associates – and her own health problems, Elizabeth managed to maintain a serene faith and confidence in God’s providential care and to express love and concern for her family, her nuns, and her ever-growing number of friends in the area. She so impressed those around her that she was a constant go-to person for advice and action amidst the growth of the fledging Catholic Church in the area and by her death, many already considered her a saint. She was canonized in 1975, the first American-born saint of the Catholic Church.

St. Frances Cabrini (1850-1917) was one of the greatest missionaries in Church history. She served in countless cities on three continents, sailing the Atlantic over 20 times, and accomplishing what no one could seem to accomplish. She reminds me of St. Paul, but with a gentle touch. Frances was Italian and did not come to America until she was nearly 40. In her days in Italy, she survived the death of her parents, embraced her Catholic faith, served in orphanages, and gathered women around her who became the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

She pined to be a missionary to Asia, much like her contemporary, St. Therese of Lisieux. As with Therese, that was not to be. Frances had an audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1987, who redirected her to New York, to work among the dirt-poor Italian immigrants. (Interestingly, Frances was one of three saints who met Pope Leo in 1887 and had their ministries confirmed or redirected. The other two were St. Katharine Drexel and St. Therese of Lisieux.)

Frances displayed a remarkable ability to overcome obstacles and get things done. Her expected welcome in New York fell through and she was told to go back to Italy. On the brink of homelessness in a foreign city and not a speaker of English (can you imagine?) Frances declined to return home, fought through the challenge, and got herself settled. She and the several nuns who came with her threw themselves into ministry among the immigrants, and became much beloved. She founded hospitals and schools, sought ways to alleviate poverty, and above all, sought to minister to the spiritual needs of mostly Italian immigrants whose Catholic faith teetered amidst the grind of daily living. All the while, her sisters grew in number, primarily  by the magnetism of her faith, personality, and mission.

Frances felt a call to move onward, though she never forgot New York. The ground she covered in her 28 years of service is astounding. She travelled to foster similar ministries in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Nicaragua, Paris, and a number of other cities back in Europe. Everywhere she went, she met challenges: bureaucracy, funding, chronic health problems. She met them with a calm serenity of faith, even as those around her were stressing and losing courage. She reminds me of Jesus in the boat during the storm, sleeping while the apostles were terrified. Wherever she went, she got things done. It is no accident that shrines, churches, schools, and memorials honor her in numerous cities throughout the country. Naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1909, Frances was the first US citizen to be canonized.

I could go on: Mother Teresa, St. Katharine Drexel, numerous nuns in Europe among the many. We who are Catholics and who experienced the care of these nuns first-hand, owe them a debt of gratitude. Let us keep their memory alive, that it might transcend the counterfeits who got their “honor” in LA last month.

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