University of Notre Dame

Sanctity & Society

Course Number: AMST 13184
Instructor: Kathleen Sprows Cummings

The heroes and heroines of any particular society reveal a great deal about the values, identities, and priorities of its members. This course views American society through the lens of canonization, the process by which the Roman Catholic Church recognizes people who have lived lives of “heroic virtue.” Presently there are eleven American Catholics officially recognized as saints, and dozens of others at various points on the road to canonization. All of these saints became popular in certain contexts. In this course we will not only explore these people as historical figures, but also examine who promoted them, when, and why, focusing on what the canonization of each has revealed about the shifting relationship between Catholicism and American culture in distinct historical periods. Ranging from Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk convert, to Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan firefighter killed at Ground Zero, our cast of characters includes saints and sinners, martyrs and missionaries, patriot priests and unruly women. We will view these American saints through a number of lenses, including immigration, race, gender, sexuality, commercialization, and nationalism. A scholarly study of canonization lends itself to the examination of a tantalizing array of sources. We will interpret a range of primary and secondary texts as well as explore sources in film, fiction, art, architecture, and material culture. We will incorporate a number of “Learning Beyond the Classroom” activities, include visits to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Snite Museum of Art, and the University Archives.

We will begin by discussing sanctity and society more generally, and then narrow our lens to the American context. Although American candidates for sainthood will be the primary focus of the course and form the basis for our historical research projects, there will be ample opportunity to discuss existing and prospective saints from other countries as gateways to broader themes in American history (St. Bridget, for example, provides a vehicle to discuss anti-Irish prejudice, while Pius XII’s canonization offers a timely touchstone to discuss papal authority and Jewish-Christian relations). We will also consider several “unofficial” American saints, people whose causes have not been recognized by Rome but who have nonetheless attracted significant devotees in the United States.