The Ramonat Seminar #6: Saints in America

“Saint Philomena, pray for me!”

Kathleen Sprows Cummings of Norte Dame University came to speak to us about her new book concerning saints, and the race to find the first American born to be canonized (which of course is Elizabeth Ann Seton mentioned in a previous blog post).

Utilizing this list of female saints, I came across one that interested me a lot. Maybe it was due to her young age, or just because she had so much attributed to her, but I chose to do this blog on St. Philomena pictured above, a young virgin martyr, whose remains were discovered in 1802 in the Catacombs of Priscilla. Philomena is said to have refused the advances of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and had been brutalized various times before being beheaded in 304 A.D/C.E. She’s the patron saint of infants, babies, and youth. Beside her bones within her tomb was a small vial containing some of her blood. An inscription inside read “Peace be with thee, Philomena”, along with drawings of 2 anchors, 3 arrows and a palm. She has a church here in Chicago as well.


Now, with that out-of-the-way, I come to the question of her being embraced in the present age, through paintings like above, in literature, in prayer, to Catholics, especially the lay folk. Well, more specifically in the 19th century here in Chicago, Illinois. I was able to track down an online version of P. O’Shea book on her to try to see. While it is a translation of earlier versions in Italian, it does seem to be pushing for Philomena to be adopted within America more widely. Due to her sainthood being based on her miraculous interventions alone, I found it odd that the book didn’t focus more on that as much, rather on her as a person, her life story, and how it can be replicated/meditated on for the readers in their day and age.Interestingly enough, pages 84-104 are dedicated to making the reader understand why she is worthy to model ones life off of, and to pray to.

We were asked to consider why are saints embraced by some communities and not others this week by our professor, and I think a lot of it has to do with the role they play in the individual/communal lives of the Church members, based on temporal values. The devotional activity of a community can help one understand other facets of their lives, I believe. While Philomena seems to have had (and still has) explosive popularity with the clergy and the hierarchy of the church, especially in Italy, I could not find a lot outside of that. This by no means means that Philomena was not held up by Catholics in Chicago (after all, she does have a church named after her here), but doesn’t reflect the fervor by which everyday Catholics adopted say Seton or John Neumann some time later.

And, that takes me back to the temporal nature of some values. Americans, especially American Catholics, might have seen Philomena as a good example at the end of the Civil War (when this book was published) of one who suffers but comes through strong. At such a young age, she defied the powers that be and stayed true to her values and faith. In a union that was on the verge of crumbling, and in a time where Catholics might be feeling the pressures of the “twin despotic powers of Slavery and Popery” in full force (now with slavery de facto/jure abolished), Philomena would be seen as someone, especially to the high-ranking officials in the church, to model an unconditional, true faith.

Conversely, Seton and Neumann rode a new wave, one full of new immigrants and recently risen second-wave immigrant children who wanted a saint that reflected their modern values and American way. While Philomena stands out to me today for the simple fact that she was so young and so brave, I believe for 19th century Catholics, it would depend on their place in society, connection with their European past, and especially their connection with America as they saw it to embrace (and or reject) certain saints.



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