• How a Saint Gets Made

    Sonja Livingston on the Complicated History of Canonization

    Sister Lilian’s body was found near the confessional. Father Weinmann was collapsed beside her but still breathing. The curtain of smoke had tricked them into thinking they’d reached the exit, but instead of opening a door onto the cold afternoon, they’d found only a small booth divided by a screen, a seat on one side and kneeler on the other. Flames made easy work of the church. The fire traveled from apse to ceiling, caught along the aisles, and swallowed the sanctuary with smoke.

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    Earlier in the day the snow had changed to drizzle, but had cleared enough by noon to allow the children outside for recess. Rochester, New York. Situated on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, the city was battered by winds coming south from Canada and east from Buffalo. Some days the kids slipped into the church to get warm. They were only outside a few minutes that February day in 1967 when a fourth grader told a boy on safety patrol that kids were playing inside the church. By the time the older boy opened the door, the altar was engulfed in flames. He rushed out and sounded the alarm.

    Everything quickened in his wake. Priests ran from the rectory without cassocks. Nuns tumbled from the school in dark veils. They ushered children into lines, led them to a nearby side street, and tried to distract them from the burning church. Impossible, of course. Sirens tore into the hollows of their ears. Smoke stung the insides of their noses.

    “Don’t look back,” the sisters said. The children would have known the story of Lot’s wife, but what is a pillar of salt compared to flames blooming like an out-of-season rose?


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    Built as a mission in an Italian neighborhood in the northeast section of the city, the one-story church was constructed entirely of wood. The air pulsed and cracked as flames licked the planks clean and smoke gushed from the bell tower in tremendous plumes.

    Father Weinmann entered the church first. He’d run outside without shoes and rushed into the burning sanctuary to save the Blessed Sacrament. The 77-year-old priest struggled at the altar—the lock to the tabernacle would not give or he was blinded by smoke. Either way he attempted to drag the entire tabernacle to safety, but the bulk of the brass box impeded his progress.

    “Don’t look back,” the sisters said. The children would have known the story of Lot’s wife, but what is a pillar of salt compared to flames blooming like an out-of-season rose?

    Nothing impeded Sister Lilian Marie McLaughlin. After calling the fire department the second grade teacher removed her veil, swallowed a final breath of cool air, and pushed in through the side door.

    A photograph in the next day’s paper shows four men bending into the stretcher holding Sister Lilian’s body. The men lift together, snow piled at their feet. The faces of onlookers are woven like ghosts into the backdrop. The nun had celebrated her 26th birthday only two days before, blowing out candles and eating cake, but by the time snow descended on the burnt church that night, the teacher had moved from ordinary human being to a model of self-sacrifice. Father Weinmann would live another two days, but Sister Lilian died on the scene and was declared a martyr by Rochester bishop Fulton Sheen, who said she gave her life in helping Father Weinmann save the Blessed Sacrament from fire. Greater love than this no woman hath.

    Saint Philip Neri was not far from where my family lived. Just a few streets to the north and it would have been my mother’s church, Father Weinmann her priest, and Sister Lilian her children’s teacher. Hers would have been one of the telephones ringing off the hook back in the winter of 1967, women gossiping about the tragic loss of life, the horror of the flames, and how close to them their children had been. My mother, who’d just turned 27, would have nodded, thinking perhaps of how close she was to Sister Lilian’s age.

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    But it happened that she lived a fraction to the south and east and went to Mass at Corpus Christi. Even if she’d attended St. Philip Neri, her phone might not have rung off the hook or she might not have answered, for there was nothing traditional about my mother. She was, in fact, more likely to be the source of gossip than its recipient. But some Sundays, when it was not too cold to walk the mile or so over the railroad bridge to church, my mother rounded up her children and told them to brush their teeth while she stared out the window and enjoyed the last few months before her stomach blossomed again into a globe.

    My mother’s body was not yet busy with me, but she’d already met the man who would kick things off. Eventually she’d learn he was married. Later she’d say she was blindsided. In time there would be insinuations of sin and martyrdom—but in the winter of 1967 there was only snow and fire, and when I came into the world a year later the earth was already scorched where the little church once stood.

    For Catholics sainthood is more than a question of goodness. Petitions must be made. Miracles must be verified. Official examinations of the candidate’s actions, attitudes, and influence must be undertaken.

    The Congregation for the Causes of Saints oversees the process as candidates rise from local petitions to Vatican review and move along the path from Servant of God to Venerable to Blessed (beatification). The final designation of Saint must be conferred by the Pope, and pontiffs have differed greatly in their approach. Some cases are fast-tracked while others linger. Miracles are tough to document. There are wars to contend with, politics to consider. Famine. Death. Petitions accidentally shuffled into back drawers. The candidacy for a group of men martyred at Otranto, Italy, in 1480, for instance, began 60 years after their deaths in 1539. They were beatified more than 200 years later, in 1771, but would not be canonized for another two and half centuries, in 2013.

    To safeguard the rigor of the process, the Church employed an official skeptic. The advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate) was trained in canon law and charged by the Vatican to argue against cases for sainthood. Known formally as the promotor fidei (promoter of the faith), the devil’s advocate was established about the time Protestants began to rebel against Church excesses, which motivated Rome to clean up its act to ensure that those it sainted were deserving of such a title. The devil’s advocate scrutinized each case, cross-examined witnesses, challenged miracles, and interrogated the holiness of the proposed saint’s life.

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    For Catholics sainthood is more than a question of goodness. Petitions must be made. Miracles must be verified.

    His primary adversary was advocatus Dei (God’s advocate), who supported canonization. The two men battled—one for, one against—taking every opportunity to promote their cause. If God’s advocate slept in or missed his morning coffee, the case might go to the devil and we’d miss out on a saint. If the devil’s advocate was distracted by a minor flirtation or indigestion from a seafood stew, he might not argue as vehemently and let a sinner slip past—so it happened that sinners were occasionally sainted and saints were sometimes overlooked.

    Bishop Sheen is himself a candidate for sainthood.

    Perhaps the most popular American Catholic until JFK, from 1930 to 1950 Sheen enjoyed an audience of millions for his Catholic Hour on radio. When television came along, even more tuned in to see him on the screen. In his cape and red silk zucchetto, the bishop referred to his viewers as friends and chose a few of the thousands of daily letters he received to read on the air, responding to each with a barrage of corny jokes. Backed by bookcases and a chalkboard on which he scribbled key concepts on such wide-ranging topics as “How to Psychoanalyze Yourself” and “False Compassion” and “Our Lady of Fatima,” Sheen presented his lessons as the elegant and intense professor he must have been in his Catholic University days. Even children were charmed and sent in their allowances to aid the needy via missions Sheen undertook as head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

    His assignment to Rochester in late 1966 resulted from trouble with Cardinal Spellman in New York. It’s said the cardinal wanted access to donations that skyrocketed during Sheen’s tenure. When Sheen refused he was backed by Rome, but the cardinal retaliated—using his political muscle to remove Sheen from committee appointments, force him off the air, and render him increasingly unwelcome in New York City churches. Rochester was so far north it was practically Canada, and Sheen’s 300-mile move west amounted to exile.

    Sheen’s star did not shine as brightly in the upstate diocese. Beleaguered by local squabbles and the massive upheaval following Vatican II, the 74-year-old bishop resigned after three years, but oversaw the diocese long enough to preside at confirmations, ordinations, and funerals—including those of the victims of the St. Philip Neri fire. Sheen eulogized Father Weinmann as a martyred priest on behalf of his Blessed Lord, and proclaimed Sister Lilian a modern saint in a time when we are losing faith.

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    As for his own sainthood, 20 years after Sheen’s death the petition for canonization was opened by the bishop of his home diocese in Peoria. Ten years later the cause was approved by Rome. Declared to have lived a life of heroic virtue, Sheen was given the title Venerable. A miracle was found. Another suggested. But the case was suspended in 2014 when the Archdiocese of New York—where Sheen has been interred at St. Patrick’s Cathedral since 1979—refused to send his remains to Peoria for examination and the taking of relics, both required for canonization. The case is now being waged in court, with those in Peoria fighting for Sheen’s body’s and those in New York refusing to part with it, leaving the former Bishop of Rochester caught somewhere between Servant of God and Blessed.


    Sainthood was not so formal in the early days. Eventually Rome would embrace Christianity and a clerical hierarchy would emerge outfitted in the trappings of the empire. Churches would move from catacombs and homes to sumptuous public buildings. Bishops, and eventually popes, would decide who was deemed sanctus (holy) and who was not.

    But in the first few centuries Christians had simply recognized holiness when they saw it. Martyrs were the original saints. Their stories flourished. Accounts were filled with rebellion, perseverance, and wonder. Agnes, for instance, whose beauty was said to enflame men, but who held as fast to her virginity as she did to her faith. When she was dragged through the streets of Rome, her hair grew and covered her naked body with its tresses. When they tried to rape her, her assailants were struck blind. When they tied her to a stake, the fire would not catch. Even after a soldier drew his sword and her murder finally took, Agnes did not stay put, appearing 50 years later to Lucy of Sicily, another beauty similarly martyred for her faith.

    Saints existed for every virtue, region, and mood. For musical devotion: Cecilia, who, even on her wedding day sang in her heart only to God. For tragic beauty: Sebastian, bound to a tree and shot with arrows. For strong women: Thecla, who shaved her head and donned men’s clothes so her voice would be heard. For love: old Valentine himself, upon whose life no one seems to agree, except that he was martyred in the third century, and a skull marked with his name is crowned with flowers in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Rome.

    The St. Philip Neri fire came less than a week after Valentine’s Day. Construction paper hearts would have been taped to the windows of elementary schools all over the city. In fact, a small fire had been found in the church on Valentine’s Day. Faulty wiring, people said. It was easily contained and the scent masked with lemon oil for weekend Masses. There’d been other incidents—singed paper, burnt altar cloth—but nobody thought much of them until the fatal fire on February 20 when, like the accounts of the early saints, the story of Father Weinmann running into the burning sanctuary with Sister Lilian at his heels flourished, buzzing over telephone wires and during coffee hours after Mass. Eucharistic Martyrs, they were called. Sister Lilian grew lovelier with each telling. How magnificent her heart. How obedient and humble she was to aid the priest in his sacred task. In an era of social and religious upheaval, it’s not surprising many found such devotion inspiring—even comforting, perhaps.

    Saints existed for every virtue, region, and mood. For musical devotion: Cecilia, who, even on her wedding day sang in her heart only to God. For tragic beauty: Sebastian, bound to a tree and shot with arrows.

    The only problem is that Sister Lilian doesn’t seem to have followed Father Weinmann into the church, but instead entered of her own accord. Those who knew her best say the teacher ran into the burning building to be sure it was clear of children. A report of kids playing inside is what alerted the safety patrol to the fire, after all. Children in the church. The words would have ricocheted in the air. By the time Sister Lilian ran inside, the smoke would have been so thick she’d have barely been able to see her own hands. She’d have searched the small sanctuary, feeling her way past pews, bending beneath them to check for small bodies. But there were no children. No one was inside, in fact, except for Father Weinmann struggling at the altar. Sister Lilian saw him there and turned to help the elderly priest instead of escaping the fire.

    An act of bravery, no doubt. An instance of utter selflessness, certainly. A martyr, yes—a eucharistic martyr even—but only if we allow that the tabernacle she sought to safeguard was not a brass box. Both priest and nun heard the word “fire” and thought immediately of the Body of Christ—but where an image of the ciborium flashed before Father Weinmann, Sister Lilian seems to have seen the golden oval of a child’s face.

    Declarations of sainthood are relatively rare, but the designation became more common in 1983 when Pope John Paul II greatly reduced the adversarial nature of the proceedings. The role of the devil’s advocate was abandoned, and the floodgates opened. John Paul canonized 482 new saints and beatified 1,338—more than all the popes before him combined. His decision to streamline the process led to concern that too many saints were slipping by, with some even calling the Vatican a “saint factory.” The Church retightened the guidelines in 2008, but Pope Francis has already surpassed John Paul II’s numbers with his 2013 canonization of all 813 martyrs of Otranto.

    But what does it really mean, to be sainted by the Church? Apart from an entry in the canon? What can it matter to Lucy or Agnes what anyone calls them once they’re gone? What can it matter to Sister Lilian—whose flat marker in the nuns’ section at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery is dwarfed by the head- stones in the priests’ section where Father Weinmann lies? Such distinctions matter most to those needing models of courage and grace as we make our way through difficult days. Perhaps that’s why we continue to assign status even in death—erecting finer monuments to some than others, clinging to the last to our need to categorize and rank. Only the bones are free of such entanglements. They let go of their salt and marrow and sink into the earth until it’s impossible to parse sinner from saint.

    In early March the same fourth grader whose report of children playing in the church had alerted others to the blaze was caught setting a small fire in the school basement. The official cause of the St. Philip Neri fire was faulty wiring, but when confronted by the principal the ten-year-old admitted to playing with matches, to using a taper to light curtains and altar linens and then staying around to watch them burn. The local paper reported the story, providing the boy’s age, details about the fire, and the fact that he was studying to be an altar boy. But after one article the story disappeared, so that in the years that followed, when the fire was remembered, faulty wiring was most often claimed as its cause.

    A saint, that principal, to let the boy go. Or maybe it wasn’t her choice. Perhaps she thought of her lost sister, bit a bottom lip, and recommended he be turned in. The new pastor may have advocated for the boy. Or Bishop Sheen himself. Or the group of them together. Two lives have been lost already, someone would have said. Why add a third?

    It was Lent. Ashes would have been pressed upon the boy’s forehead days before the fire. He’d have been given his Self-Denial Folder with the image of the crucified Christ on its cover and encouraged to collect nickels and dimes for the diocese in the inside slots. Did they look into his face, that group of adults? Did anyone wonder if the boy had acted out of some hidden pain, attempting to inflict what burned inside him onto the outside world? What chance did whatever troubled the child stand of being spoken of openly in 1967?

    But what does it really mean, to be sainted by the Church? Apart from an entry in the canon? What can it matter to Lucy or Agnes what anyone calls them once they’re gone?

    I see them there—father and son, priest and nun, celebrated bishop in his newly assigned exile—each of them staggering under the weight of their losses, barely able to look each other in the eye. The father waves his hands as he speaks. The boy’s head hangs nearly to the floor. The principal sets a hand on his arm. The bishop in his study scribbles thoughts on redemption and grace while trying without success to keep images of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at bay. How effortlessly they rise before me. How easy it is to see them as collectively culpable as it is to imagine them a roomful of saints.

    Had the fire raged a year later, I’d have breathed in the char and seen the neighborhood darken through the slits of my infant eyes. Just a year later, but the world had remade itself by then. Priests had traded in their cassocks for black uniform pants. Sisters had removed their wimples and veils. A lifetime away,

    1967 and St. Philip Neri. But in certain moments I feel closer  to the lost church and to my mother in her Leighton Avenue kitchen than I do my own life.

    When I’m back in Rochester, I drive down the streets where they once sat and stood and stretched into patches of sun: my father, Father Weinmann, the boy’s parents. I think of Bishop Sheen, his body now trapped in the place where he’d once been so cruelly shut out. I think of Sister Lilian laughing as she blows out 26 candles. I think of the boy with a pack of matches, the sulfur scent of his fingertips, and the way some fires start. I think of my mother in South Texas, alone after all these years, tracking a bird from her window and trying her best to paint a red hibiscus. I think of myself shadowing ghosts and scouring the wreckage. I think of us—all of us—and the push and pull of human flesh.

    It’s not easy to become a saint, but some say that’s who we are.

    Father Bob starts Sunday Mass by saying, God morning, Saints.

    And while the changing of good to god is familiar—a reversal of what I’ve done in my head since I was a kid—it’s strange to hear it spoken aloud and nearly too punlike for church. But how quickly I’ve grown used to it. How I’d miss it if he ever stopped. How I’d mourn the loss of  his looking up and out into the congregation—no matter how we slump in the pews, how lackluster our singing, or how impervious we  appear to his words—before anything else, the priest stands at the altar, looks into our faces, and calls out:

    God morning, saints.

    Good morning, Father, we say, and this is the beginning of church.


    The Virgin of Prince Street by Sonja Livingston

    Excerpted from The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion by Sonja Livingston. Copyright © Sonja Livingston 2019. Reprinted with permission from the University of Nebraska Press.

    Sonja Livingston
    Sonja Livingston
    Sonja Livingston is the author of four books, including the forthcoming essay collection, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, and the memoir, Ghostbread, which won the AWP Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have garnered prizes from The Iowa Review, Arts & Letters, and NYFA, and appear in such outlets as Salon, Sojourners, and The Rumpus. Sonja is an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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