7 American Catholics You Don’t Know About But Should


In his address to Congress, Pope Francis highlighted four Americans who represented great American ideals: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Day and Merton were both Catholics who lived the Gospel message in a radical way. This got me thinking: there are a lot of American Catholics in our nation’s history who were incredibly influential, both on our nation and our church. Many are familiar with the likes of Fulton Sheen, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and John F. Kennedy, but what about some of the lesser known Catholics who have shaped our country?

1. St. Katharine Drexel


Katharine Drexel was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1858. As a young woman she grew particularly concerned with the plight of Native and African Americans. When her father died he left his entire estate to Katherine and her two sisters: $15 million dollars, roughly $400 million today. She used her share of the fortune to found schools and hospitals specifically devoted to serving Native and African Americans in cities like Santa Fe and New Orleans, among others. In 1889, Katharine professed first vows as a Sister of Mercy in Pittsburgh and later went on to found her own congregation: the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. In 1915 she opened Xavier University in New Orleans, the first black Catholic college.

2. Charles Carroll

1846.2.1-Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737 - 1832), Oil on Canvas Michael Laty (1826 - 1848), ca. 1846 Copy From Original Owned By The Maryland Historical Society. No Reproduction Without Permission

Alright history buffs, this one is for you! Charles Carroll was a wealthy planter from the Maryland colony. Jesuit educated, he was an outspoken supporter of the Revolution and critic of the British empire (apparently, the Jesuits rubbed off on him), though as a Catholic, he was barred from political office in Maryland. As his opposition to the empire grew, he was eventually voted the Maryland representative to the first Continental Congress and was the ONLY Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

3. Fr. William Corby


Fr. Corby was an American Holy Cross priest and Union Army chaplain in the Civil War, with the Irish Brigade. He is most famous for giving general absolution to the Brigade on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a scene now made famous by the film, Gettysburg. His was the first statue of a non-general erected at the battle’s memorial. Corby went on to be the president of the University of Notre Dame for 9 years.

4. Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton


Augustus Tolton was a born a slave in Mississippi in 1854. His parents, both Catholics, escaped to Illinois, a free state, when Augustine and his siblings were still very young. His father joined the Union Army, but died before the end of the war and his mother raised the children while working in a cigar factory. Augustus befriended an Irish priest who took him under his wing and encouraged him to discern the priesthood. Unfortunately, no America seminaries at the time would permit him to begin his formation, so he went to Rome and studied at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, where he became fluent in Italian, Latin, and Greek and was ordained in 1886. He soon returned to the United States and led the first “national” Black parish on the South Side of Chicago.

5. Bl. Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich


Sister Miriam was a religious Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth, born in New Jersey in 1901. As a youth she longed to enter religious life and finally did, in 1925, after suffering the loss of both her parents. Sister Miriam wrote extensively on the spiritual life for her first two years in the congregation, but was taken ill in 1927 and ultimately died of appendicitis in 1928. Because of her example of holiness and devotion to Christ and His Church, the cause for her canonization was opened in 1945 by her congregation.

6. Fr. Emil Kapaun


Fr. Emil was a Catholic chaplain for the United States Army during World War II and the Korean War. Born in Kansas, he entered seminary in 1932 and was later educated at the Catholic University of America. During the Korean War he and several other members of his regiment were taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers after the Battle of Unsan. Fr. Kapaun was known for helping his fellow comrades by caring for the wounded, mediating disputes, giving away his own food, saying Mass (in secret), hearing confessions, leading prayer (in secret) and raising morale among the prisoners. He was noted among his fellow POWs as one who would sneak coffee and tea from the Chinese soldiers in order to help boost morale among the prisoners. On May 23, 1951 he died of a blood clot in his leg, as well as dysentery and pneumonia. He was posthumously award the Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor.

7. Venerable Henriette DeLille


Henriette DeLille was born to a wealthy New Orleans family of both French and Creole descent. She was raised in a relatively secular, aristocratic environment, but rejected her family’s bourgeois values and embraced Catholicism and the message of the Gospel whole heartedly. Henriette developed a great concern for other women of color who did not experience the economic and educational benefits that she enjoyed. In 1836, after inheriting her parent’s estate, she used the majority of the fortune to fund the founding of the Sisters of the Presentation, (later the Sisters of the Holy Family) much at the behest of the rest of her family. Her order cared for the men, women, and children of color throughout New Orleans, educating them, and providing healthcare.


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