In October, Pope Francis canonized five “Blessed” men and women of the Church, including Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Anglican convert “widely recognized as one of the greatest theologians of the 19th century.” Along with Cardinal Newman, four women were made saints, including three religious women and one laywoman.
When I first heard the news on the car radio, the name “Cardinal Newman” sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. I was also curious about who the women were – and why I hadn’t heard their names reported also! My passing interest grew into a promise to learn: 1. Where have I heard of John Henry Newman? and 2. Who were the four women canonized with him?
The first question was easiest to answer. In addition to his famous conversion and subsequent tenure as the vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church at Oxford University, John Henry Newman was a prolific writer. Newman’s essays and sermons even influenced the White Rose student group in Munich, which included Sophie and Hans Scholl, who were tried and executed after speaking out against the Nazi regime.
These clues helped – but when I stumbled upon Cardinal Newman’s Wikipedia page, the answer hit home. If you have ever visited a secular college campus in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom with a Catholic Student Center – the odds are good that the center will be called a “Newman Center,” “Newman Club,” or “Newman House.” Newman Centers “get their name and their role from the cardinal who died in 1890 and emphasized that Catholic students who attend public universities must be given a place to gather to support and encourage one another in their faith.”
This “Newman Connection” helped me understand why this saint is beloved in many English-speaking parts of the world – especially among students, young adults, and those of other Christian denominations. One mystery solved – four to go!
At first, I was totally unfamiliar with the four newest women saints. My lack of familiarity may owe partially to the fact that these women are from four very different, non-English speaking parts of the world: Brazil, India, Italy, and Switzerland. The three religious women were Blessed Dulce Lopes Pontes, Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, and Blessed Josephine Vannini. The laywoman canonized was Blessed Marguerite Bays.
In the Holy Mass homily, Pope Francis said “[These three religious women]… show us that the consecrated life is a journey of love at the existential peripheries of the world. Saint Marguerite Bays, on the other hand, was a seamstress; she speaks to us of the power of simple prayer, enduring patience and silent self-giving.”
St. Marguerite Bays was a lay member of the Secular Franciscan Order in 19th Century Switzerland. Early in her life she dedicated herself to helping others, especially her parish, her family, and unemployed Swiss peasant farmers who were adversely affected by the mechanization of the of agricultural industry. Fittingly, one of the miracles attributed to Marguerite involved the case of a two-year-old who fell under the moving wheels of a tractor. “Her grandfather witnessed the accident unfolding and prayed to Marguerite... and the girl got up unharmed.” Marguerite experienced a miraculous healing in her own life from bowel cancer and lived to age 63. St. John Paul II beatified her in 1995.
St. Giuseppina Vannini is the first Roman woman to be canonized in over 400 years. Raised an orphan in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, she went on to found the Daughters of St. Camillus, after being rejected from the Daughters of Charity for poor health. She faced rejection and bureaucratic roadblocks to establishing her order, which now has 800 sisters working in 22 countries. Giuseppina was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1994.
St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan also founded a religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Family, with the mission of caring for poor families in India. A mystic, she was born Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan (“Theria” for Teresa of Avila). Pope John Paul II named Mariam as Venerable in 1999.
St. Dulce Lopes Pontes is well known in the Western Hemisphere, often referred to as “Brazil’s Mother Theresa,” due to her birth into an upper-middle class family and her subsequent devotion to the poor. She founded the first Catholic workers’ organization in the state of Bahia, and she also “launched several initiatives including a health clinic for impoverished workers, a school for working families, a hospital, an orphanage and numerous care centers for the elderly and disabled.” At the time of her death in 1992, Sister Dulce had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Pope Francis’ Holy Mass homily, he discussed the journey of faith as the way of those who cry out, walk and give thanks. This is a dynamic challenge, taken up by all five of our new saints – many who paired their rich mystic experiences with bold, resourceful action to affect change. St. Dulce Lopes Pontes, St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, St. Josephine Vannini, St. Marguerite Bays, and St. John Henry Newman certainly inspire me to do likewise.