Only ten Americans have ever been canonized, or recognized by the church as saints.
That number expanded to twelve today.
Today, the pope canonized seven people, making them officially saints. The two Americans inducted were Mother Marianne Cope and Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri is especially significant because he becomes the first Native American saint.
Let's start with Kateri. She was born in 1656 and was a member of the Lummi tribe that lived in what is now upstate New York. Her father was a pagan Iroquois, her mother an Algonquin Christian. Her family, mom, dad, and brother, died of smallpox when she was four. She survived, but was scarred and her eyesight was impaired. She was sent to live with her Mohawk uncle. She was baptized Catholic by Jesuit missionaries and was known as "Lily Of The Mohawks." She was baptized on Easter Sunday when she was 20 (Jesuits don't baptize converts until they were on their deathbed or they are damn sure they will be committed, so that was really unusual). However, the Mohawks didn't much care for her. They accused her of sorcery and promiscuity (chew on the irony of THAT for a while). It was "recommended" she move to a Jesuit mission called Kahnawake, located on the St. Lawrence River just south of Montreal, and she hightailed it there in 1677.
There, she and other Native American converts started learning more about their faith. They found out about nuns, and started their own informal order. In doing so, Kateri inadvertently started a movement for Native American rights. Claude Chauchetiere was a Jesuit priest who, typical of Jesuit thought at the time, thought Native Americans were a bunch of savages. Meeting with Kateri, he was impressed with her and started addressing his racism, eventually changing his mind. He also almost immediately pegged Kateri as a saint. Kateri also started movements within her community so Native Americans could practice Christian rites (Jesuits did not allow Native Americans to become officials in the church at the time).
Now for Mother Marianne Cope. She was an early advocate of patients' rights in America, not to mention social equality. Set the Wayback Machine to the late 1800's. Hospitals had a very bad reputation. People pretty much went in but didn't come out because no one knew what they were doing, didn't understand how disease spread, and didn't know much about treating it anyway. The mortality rate was through the roof.
In 1866, Mother Marianne Cope opened and operated St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, New York. Among the policies she enforced was a cleanliness standard. For example, physicians were required to wash their hands between visits with patients. At the time, this was a preposterous notion. Until cross-contamination from disease dropped like a stone kite. Realizing that maybe she was on to something, other hospitals started copying her policies. In 1869, she opened and ran a second hospital, the St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, New York (both are still running today). She did gangbusters there, too. So much so that the College Of Medicine in Geneva, New York, relocated to Syracuse to learn at her hospitals. This meant that patients had access to the finest medical minds in the country now. The College Of Medicine became the Syracuse University's College Of Physicians And Surgeons, and Mother Marianne's religious congregation became the Sisters Of St. Francis Of The Neumann Communities.
Mother Marianne was criticized heavily for her work helping alcoholics. She treated alcoholism as a disease, something unheard of then (and, to some degree, still unheard of today). She also took in anyone who needed help, regardless of race, creed, religion, or economic standing. Keep in mind, this was 19th Century America. Desegregation didn't exist, and she told everyone who criticized her for that to suck mud.
Cut to Hawaii, which was dealing with Hansen's disease, better known as leprosy. People on the islands were so paranoid about it, people with even a skin rash were exiled to the remote island of Molokai. An island priest wrote to fifty different religious orders begging for help.
Only one person responded -- Mother Marianne Cope.
Mother Marianne left her New York hospitals and, along with six other sisters, went to Hawaii. Within a year, she established the first general hospital on Maui. It was so successful that King Kalakaua gave her the medal of the Royal Order Of Kapiolani. Mother Marianne also opened the Kapiolani Home for girls who had been orphaned when their parents were exiled. The government requested her to take over another hospital, this one in Honolulu. It was supposed to hold 100 patients. It actually held 200. One of Mother Marianne's compatriots, Sister Leopoldina Burns, wrote a book called "A Song Of Pilgrimage And Exile," and described the hospital. It's not a pretty picture....
"Fat bedbugs nested in the cracks (of the walls). Brown stains upon walls, floors, and bedding showed where their blood-filled bodies had been crushed by desperate patients. Straw mattresses, each more or less covered by a dirty blanket, lay upon the unswept floor. Blankets, mattresses, clothing, and patients all supported an ineradicable population of lice."
Mother Marianne and her sisters got to work, and cleaned the place up and gave the patients love. How successful were they? People with Hansen's there weren't exiled, they were allowed to stay on the island.
For a while.
In 1887, a new government took charge and decided to go back to the old banishment policy for people with leprosy. He also closed the Oahu hospital. Everyone was sent to Molokai, and no amount of arguing from Mother Marianne was going to change things.
So Mother Marianne went to Molokai.
She and her sisters decided to tend to the people there who needed help. It wasn't any better. People there dressed in rags and lived in rudimentary huts. On the island was Father Damien DeVeuster (named a saint in 2009), who was dying from Hansen's disease himself. He had established a medical facility called the Apostle Of The Lepers. Mother Marianne promised him she'd take care of his patients, and upon his death, took over the facility that cared for men and started another to care for the women. Her goal was to give the people there a more dignified life. She started classes for them and started gardening and landscaping activities. Thanks to her, patients got proper clothes, music, and even religious counseling. She stayed there for the rest of her life. She died of old age at 80 in 1918. She never got leprosy. In fact, not a single Franciscan sister there has gotten it. She gave hope and dignity to people cast away from the world.
These two women were brave and empowered themselves to help others be what they wanted, in complete defiance of church and social orders of the time. Honor them for their bravery.