In the Footsteps of St. Patrick: Celebrate Irish-Americans on the Path to Canonization

What better time than St. Patrick’s Day to look to 10 lesser-known Irish-American Servants of God and Venerables?

Top left: Mother Mary Teresa Tallon
Top right, row 1: L to R: Father Edward Flanagan and Father Patrick Ryan
Top right, row 2: L to R: Bishop Francis Ford and Father Theodore Foley
Bottom left, row 1: L to R: Mother Maria Adelaida O’Sullivan and Cardinal Terence Cooke
Bottom left, row 2: L to R: Bishop (then Father) James Walsh and Msgr. Bernard Quinn
Bottom right: Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory
Top left: Mother Mary Teresa Tallon Top right, row 1: L to R: Father Edward Flanagan and Father Patrick Ryan Top right, row 2: L to R: Bishop Francis Ford and Father Theodore Foley Bottom left, row 1: L to R: Mother Maria Adelaida O’Sullivan and Cardinal Terence Cooke Bottom left, row 2: L to R: Bishop (then Father) James Walsh and Msgr. Bernard Quinn Bottom right: Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory (photo: Fair use and public domain)

Every March 17, St. Patrick gets plenty of attention. This year, the day should also bring to mind the current causes for canonization of Irish-Americans in the United States. There is the well-known quartet with Irish backgrounds — Blessed Michael McGivney, Blessed Solanus Casey, Venerable Fulton Sheen and Servant of God Patrick Peyton —but what better time than St. Patrick’s Day to look to 10 lesser-known Irish-American Servants of God and Venerables?

Father Edward Flanagan, named Servant of God in 2012, founded the famed Boys Town for orphaned youth in Nebraska in 1917. He believed, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” He said everyone — no matter their color, race or creed — could become a productive citizen if they were given a home, education and training, all grounded in love.

Born in Ireland in 1886, he was ordained in the United States in 1912 and sent to St. Patrick Church in O’Neill, Nebraska, then appointed pastor at another St. Patrick Church in Omaha. Three years later, he opened his first home; in 1921, it moved to its present location. The success of Boys Town was phenomenal. Father Flanagan was asked to speak around the country about juvenile delinquency and caring for children. In 1938, the film Boys Town told the story of the endeavor’s success. Even the United States government asked for Father Flanagan’s help, sending him to Europe in 1948 to aid children orphaned by World War II.

Mother Mary Teresa Tallon, named Servant of God in 2013, caused surprise — rather, her mortal remains did — when her body was exhumed in 2016 for transfer to the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in her congregation’s motherhouse in Monroe, New York. She had died in 1954. “She was well preserved,” the vice postulator said. “We weren’t prepared for that.”

Born of Irish immigrant parents in 1867, Mother Mary Teresa founded the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate in New York City on the Solemnity of the Assumption in 1920. The sisters do catechetical work and evangelization through door-to-door visits in parishes, especially to bring lapsed Catholics back to the faith.

Mary Angeline Teresa (McCrory), named Venerable in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, founded the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in a roundabout way. She was born and baptized Bridget Teresa in Ireland in 1893. At 19, she joined the Little Sisters of the Poor in France and was assigned to be the superior in their home in the Bronx, New York. Finding their French customs and European approach unable to meet the needs of American elderly, and not permitted to change the situation within her order to what she believed would be best, she spoke to Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York, himself a son of Irish immigrants, for his guidance and counsel. He was in her court, believing the elderly could be better served with the ideas she believed God was calling her to put into practice in caring for them. The cardinal gave his blessing for her and six sisters to withdraw from that congregation. Then, with Rome’s permission, she started a new community with her principles of care for the elderly. In 1931, Mother Angeline’s new community became affiliated with New York’s Carmelite Friars and named the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. When the foundress died in 1984, she was well-known for her principle: “If you must fail, let it be on the side of kindness. Be kinder than kindness itself to the old people.”

Father Patrick Ryan, named Servant of God in 2020, died in the yellow fever epidemic in 1878. Born in Ireland, he immigrated to the United States to study for the priesthood, was ordained in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1869, and by 1872 named pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Chattanooga.

Then came 1878 and the dreaded epidemic: 80% of the city’s residents left due to panic. Father Ryan remained, ministering to the sick and dying. An eyewitness described him “going from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to find what he could do for the sick and needy.”

Father Ryan worked tirelessly until he also was stricken by yellow fever. The heroic priest received the last sacraments from his own brother, also a priest, Father Michael Ryan, and died after two days. He was only 33. His last request: “Bury me in Chattanooga among my people.”

Considered a martyr for giving his life for his flock during the epidemic, he was buried in the churchyard, and when his body was relocated to the new cemetery in 1886, hundreds of people lined the route to pay their respects as the procession of 100-plus carriages made its way past.

Bishop James Walsh, named Servant of God in 2011, co-founder of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, was born of Irish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1867. His first priestly assignment was St. Patrick’s Church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Appointed diocesan director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, at the Eucharistic Congress in Montreal in 1910, he shared his idea of forming a U.S.-based mission society with fellow American Father Thomas Frederick Price. The nation’s bishops approved their vision to send and support U.S. missionaries worldwide. In 1911, the priest co-founders received Pope St. Pius X’s blessing for the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, better known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. In 1933, Pope Pius XI ordained Father Walsh a bishop.

Msgr. Bernard Quinn, named Servant of God in 2010, a priest in Brooklyn, New York, was a champion of racial equality. In 1922, he founded the diocese’s first church for Black Catholics, St. Peter Claver Church, which remains a vibrant parish. (Incidentally, he was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1888 on the same day that Pope Leo XIII canonized Peter Claver.) In 1928, Msgr. Quinn founded the diocese’s first orphanage for Black children.

As a World War I chaplain, he became the first priest to offer Mass in the house where St. Thérèse of Lisieux was raised. Later, at St. Peter Claver Church, he started a novena to the Little Flower, which became a catalyst for bringing scores of Black and white Catholics together. He named the orphanage on Long Island the Little Flower Children’s Services. The Ku Klux Klan burned the orphanage down twice, but he stood courageous — and alone — against them and prevailed. He worked tirelessly for racial equality and civil rights until he died in 1940.

Msgr. Paul Jervis, postulator for the cause, described Msgr. Quinn as “the quintessential priest and a role model for priests because he loved people totally and especially felt for the poor and downtrodden — the Black people in the U.S. who had no one to defend their rights.

“He went out to them as a shepherd, inviting people to come into the church as he walked the streets. In time, among his greatest admirers were thousands of white Catholics. They came to St. Peter Claver Church for the same reason the Blacks came: He loved them.”

Msgr. Jervis added that Msgr. Quinn even put in writing that he was willing to shed the last drop of his blood for the least among his parishioners: “Those words summarize the priesthood of Msgr. Quinn.”

Mother Maria Adelaida O’Sullivan, a Servant of God, was a convert who entered the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary and then later became a Discalced Carmelite. She was born in New York in 1817, and although her father was Catholic, she was baptized an Anglican after her mother. As a child, she desired to, and did, become a Catholic. Joining the Visitation sisters, she soon learned of St. Teresa of Jesus (St. Teresa of Ávila) and her writings and, with the help of her confessor, entered the monastery of Discalced Carmelites in Guatemala City. There, she was given the name of Maria Adelaida de Santa Teresa.

In 1868, she became the prioress of the monastery but was soon expelled by “liberal” elements. She and the sisters with her wended their way to Grajal de Campos in Spain, restructuring the Carmelite-Teresian life. She died there in 1893. Of note, her Anglican mother and brother also converted to Catholicism.

Father Theodore Foley, named Servant of God in 2008, was superior general of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ, better known as the Passionists. Born in Massachusetts in 1913, he entered the order when he was 14. In 1964, he became their superior general and “led his community through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s when social unrest, political confrontations, assassinations, anti-establishment and anti-war demonstrations shocked the Western world and the Catholic Church,” according to his biography. “He was a rock of hope to those shaken as traditional values were questioned and Church membership declined.”

Father Foley participated in Vatican II and worked to bring Jesus Christ everywhere. The Passionists’ biography of him states, “The mystery of the passion of Jesus, which he constantly kept in mind, nourished a steady hope that God is with us, no matter how dark life seems to be.”

Working tirelessly to make those bad times better for the Church, he died in Rome in 1974 after returning from Asia, where he had caught a deadly virus. Speaking during a church memorial for him, Bishop Timothy McDonnell of Springfield, Massachusetts, said, “There is holiness and then there are the superheroes of holiness; many people have acknowledged that he was a superhero of holiness.”

Bishop Francis Ford, named Servant of God in 2017, a Maryknoll missionary, died in a Chinese prison in 1952. Born in Brooklyn in 1892, he became a Maryknoll priest after he heard its co-founder, Bishop (then Father) James Walsh, speaking at Cathedral College in Brooklyn. Father Ford became the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America’s first student entry. Ordained in 1917, he joined Maryknoll’s co-founders and another priest in what was the first Maryknoll group to go to China. In 1935, Father Ford was elevated to be the first bishop of Kaying, South China. During World War II, he tirelessly cared for refugees deluging the city.

When the communists came to control in China, Bishop Ford was arrested. Maryknoll Mission Archives report, “On April 14, 1951, after a public trial, he and his secretary, Sister Joan Marie, were bound with ropes, placed under an escort of 30 armed soldiers, and taken to Canton prison. Along the entire route of their journey they were insulted and humiliated, both physically and verbally, by the Communist-organized demonstrators of the Chinese people. After a year in prison, after much suffering, Bishop Ford died, reportedly on Feb. 21, 1952. The news of his death came with the release of Sister Joan Marie the following September.”

When a Mass was celebrated for him at Maryknoll in Ossining, New York, that September, another candidate for canonization, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, preached the eulogy.

Cardinal Terence John Cooke, named Servant of God in 1992, was archbishop of New York from 1968 to 1983. He was born in New York City, the youngest child of Irish immigrants. 

Likely because of his roots, before and during his time at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he was always attuned to the plight of the needy. His ideas and leadership led to founding Birthright (a pioneering apostolate of the pro-life movement), Courage (to support, through Church teaching, those with same-sex attraction) and the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic New York. He was a champion of the city’s neglected and abandoned children, as he had the Church care for 60% of them. 

“Always an advocate for the young and aware of the growing problem of New York’s homeless and at-risk youth, he strongly supported … institutions that cared for the thousands of teenagers,” stated Catholic New York. He supported the Inner-City Scholarship Fund to help children of all races and creeds, plus an archdiocesan program providing affordable housing to the disadvantaged. The handicapped, prisoners, elderly, homeless, sick — he constructed nine nursing homes and 14 general and special hospitals to better serve the sick and the dying — Cardinal Cooke helped them all.

Few knew that, in 1968, his first year as archbishop, he had already been diagnosed with leukemia. Despite years of treatments, he never complained or let up on his hectic schedule and care for others. The Cardinal Cooke Society stated, “Even up to his death in 1983, he was heard joyfully saying, ‘Life is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness, weakness, hunger or poverty, physical or mental diseases, loneliness or old age.’”

His saintliness was widely known. On his deathbed, Cardinal Cooke was even visited by President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy. In 2010, Cardinal (then Archbishop) Timothy Dolan told L’Osservatore Romano, “Cooke maintained serenity amidst the tempest; he was always close to his people, despite a serious illness. His testimony of strength and truth especially encourages us bishops of today.”

Surely, these holy witnesses are spiritual sons and daughters of St. Patrick.

As the “Apostle of Ireland” prayed, they witnessed:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.”
Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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