America has just celebrated the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, our very first Native American saint, "the Lily of the Mohawks." I reviewed her history in a recent "Faith Perspectives" column.
There are two additional Americans whose pilgrimages to the honors of the altar were approved by the Vatican in mid-May. Cited as candidates for sainthood and meriting the title "Venerable," they are the famed Bishop Frederic Baraga, a Slovene who evangelized Michigan (d.1868); and the relatively unknown Sister of Charity (Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton’s community), Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich (d.1927).
Sister Miriam Teresa’s story was explained to me and my sisters by my parents as soon as I could comprehend. My good father, who was born and raised in northern New Jersey, was an alumnus of Seton Hall College, where he took his Bachelor of Arts degree. He had to postpone his M.A. until the Great Depression abated.
It was at Seton Hall that he met Sister Miriam Teresa’s brother, who eventually became Msgr. Charles Demjanovich, Pastor of St. Mary’s in Rutherford, N.J. There, in turn, I was introduced to him by my father. (We had driven down for the funeral of my aunt, a parishioner of St. Mary’s.) Monsignor Charles and I were able to talk on occasion, and we exchanged notes regularly at Christmastime. For my part, I felt especially blessed: here I was, conversing with a great priest, whose sister had already been proposed for Beatification.
I should add that frequent visits in and out of New York and New Jersey were part of my life all the way up to the 1970s. However, I can still cross the Tappan Zee Bridge and enter the Garden State Parkway without even looking at a sign; the territory is almost as familiar as Fairfield County. Returning isn’t always so easy. Even veterans like me can miss the "New England" exit ramp on the other side of the bridge. The GW (1936) is hectic now.
Teresa’s parents Alexander and Johanna had emigrated in 1884 from what is now Slovakia (the Slovak Republic) but was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father worked as a shoemaker in New York City before moving his family to Bayonne, N.J., where he labored as a cooper (a lost art, almost, today). Teresa, one of five, was born in Bayonne in 1901. She went through the public school system in Bayonne, graduating as valedictorian of her high school class. (Teresa’s family, incidentally, belonged to the Ruthenian Church, within the Byzantine tradition.)
After her mother died in 1918, Miriam entered St. Elizabeth’s College at Convent Station (where I have stopped to pray countless times, especially on the way to graduate studies in Madison, N.J.).
Graduating in 1923, she taught at St. Aloysius Academy in Jersey City, and then in public high school there. But after her father died in 1925, she entered the Sisters of Charity at Convent Station. Miriam Teresa died there two years later, at age 26. Her brother, Msgr. Charles, acquired permission for Teresa to profess her formal vows in articulo mortis. She is buried at Convent Station.
In 1928, Miriam Teresa’s conferences, titled Greater Perfection, were published. Now available in various translations, they give witness to an extraordinary soul on a pilgrimage Godward.
In 1945, Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, Papal Delegate to the United States, included Sister Miriam in his book, Sanctity in America. In it he prayed:
"Please, God, this girl who was born and lived and died in the twentieth century, within the shadows of the world’s greatest metropolis, who tried to live only for God, in God, and with God, may some day be raised to the altars."
It appears that the Cardinal’s prayer has been heard. Here again is a public school teacher from New Jersey, who became a Sister of Charity, in the 20th century, and who represents two great Catholic Traditions, the Latin and the Ruthenian. Surely, she is a sign that sanctity in America today is possible.
(I included a brief chapter about Sister Miriam Teresa in my second hagiography, More Saints for Our Time, published by Arena Lettres, N.J., in 1983.)
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.