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The following is excerpted and adapted from Bronwen McShea’s new book, Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know, out today from Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute.

In recent weeks, audiences all over the United States have been introduced by Angel Studios, through the film Cabrini, to the remarkable figure of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who built up charitable orphanages, schools, and hospitals for marginalized Italian immigrants in New York City. During the lifetime of their foundress, who died in the middle of World War I in 1917 and who was canonized less than thirty years later, the Missionary Sisters tended also to other neglected, impoverished populations across the United States and in several Latin American and European countries, building, as the makers of Cabrini call it, “an empire of hope” for the poor in an era famous for the robber barons and widespread exploitation of the lower classes.

Most baptized Catholics today know little about the fuller historical legacies of saints such as Mother Cabrini. They tend to be taught even less about the broader, rich, and complicated history of the Catholic Church that is also part of their patrimony. In my new book, Women of the Church, I attempt to do my part as both a professional historian and committed Catholic to help remedy this problem, retelling the story of famous female saints from the Apostolic era through the twentieth century as part of larger historical narrative about historically significant Catholic women, canonized and otherwise, whom I believe every Catholic should know. 

Some of the lesser known, less venerated Catholic women of the past who contributed in important ways to the history of the Church and of their times more broadly include rather ordinary women who have not traditionally been acknowledged in our history books. In Mother Cabrini’s time, for example, on the eve of World War I, Catholic women all over the world were busy with countless responsibilities for their families, parishes, religious communities, and wider societies. Unlike more ordinary Catholic women in previous epochs, much can be learned about them because numerous records survive, including letters and journals written in their own hands since women’s literacy and educational opportunities had increased dramatically by that point.

One such woman was Élisabeth Arrighi Leseur, a middle-class Frenchwoman married to a physician named Félix Leseur. She kept a diary on spiritual matters after her husband began publicly promoting atheism in Paris. Her husband’s anti-religious activities made her even more devout, and she prayed continuously for her husband’s conversion, especially after she fell sick in 1907 at age forty.

After Élisabeth died of cancer seven years later, grief-stricken Félix was annoyed to find a message she left him that predicted he would become not just a Catholic but a priest. He responded to this in a strange way, visiting the shrine of Our Lady at Lourdes in the hope of proving that accounts of people’s miraculous healing by its waters were lies. Unexpectedly, Félix experienced a conversion and did enter the priesthood. He eventually had his wife’s journal published and became well known as a retreat leader, later influencing a young American priest named Fulton Sheen.

A French contemporary of the Leseurs who also converted—but only after being mired for years in the modern world’s increasing decadence—was Anne-Marie Chassaigne. Better known by her stage name, Liane de Pougy, she fell into a life of promiscuity, prostitution, and drug use as a dancer and actress at the Folies Bergère nightclub in Paris. Eventually, Pougy settled into a respectable marriage. But the great turning point in her life was the death of her son in World War I. This hit her hard, and she unexpectedly found consolation in the Catholic faith and volunteer work, assisting poor children with birth defects along with her husband. In time, Pougy and her husband moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where they encountered a community of Dominican friars. After repenting of her sins, Pougy became a Dominican tertiary as a widow and was called Sister Anne-Marie in her final years.

Across the Atlantic, the millions of ordinary Catholic women in the United States on the eve of World War I included Julia Greeley, an elderly black woman who had been born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri, around 1833. As a girl, she had experienced the horrors of slavery. At only five, her right eye was disfigured while watching her mother get whipped by their master. After emancipation, Greeley worked hard to make a dignified life for herself and impoverished people she encountered.

Upon moving to Denver in her mid-forties, Greeley worked as a cook and nanny for a wealthy widow named Julia Pratt Dickerson, who introduced her to Catholicism. After deciding to become Catholic herself, Greeley was baptized in 1880 and became a daily Mass attendee. She worked for more wealthy families and was frugal with her pay. She then used her savings to assist the poor whom she met in the streets, encouraging devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Eventually she became a lay Franciscan.

By the early twentieth century, Greeley was a beloved Catholic philanthropist. After she died on June 7, 1918, several months before the end of World War I, the Jesuits at Loyola Chapel in Denver allowed her body to lie in repose before the altar—the first time they bestowed that honor on a deceased layperson. Almost a century later, her remains were reinterred in Denver Cathedral’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Her cause for canonization is open.

In addition to Mother Cabrini’s Missionary Sisters, many new institutes of consecrated life were founded and nurtured by women in the second half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. These included the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, founded by St. Leonie Aviat, who were devoted to guiding working-class young women toward lives of virtue and Christian witness in their uprooted, urban circumstances. In Spain, St. Genoveva Torres Morales founded the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Holy Angels, which aided homeless, poor, and abandoned women. In Germany and France, the Daughters of the Divine Redeemer, founded by Blessed Alphonse Marie Eppinger, focused on educating very young children and nursing the poor and the sick. Eventually they staffed the teaching hospital at the University of Würzburg and established communities in the United States and Tanzania.

When World War I started, this congregation’s general superior, Maria Helene Müller, converted buildings into military hospitals run by the sisters and permitted some women in her authority to serve as nurses on the war’s brutal Western Front. In the meantime, her biological sister Caroline, who had immigrated to the United States, was serving the Church in a different way: by raising a brood of working-class Catholic children in New York City and praying patiently for her Lutheran husband’s conversion, which eventually occurred in 1930, fifty years into her marriage. The Müller sisters’ strong faith—and a pair of cherished Rosary beads belonging to Caroline in her final years—were passed on through several generations, including to me, the present author, Caroline’s great-great-granddaughter.

Remarkable contributions by ordinary Catholic women in this period are still coming to light thanks to researchers engaged with the subject. For example, we now know that a group of nuns labored long hours at the Vatican Observatory, contributing knowledge about the locations and brightness of 481,215 stars for an international astronomical project, the 254-volume Astrographic Catalogue of all the known stars in the universe. These women—essentially working as human computers for publicly credited male scientists—did not do this for fame. But recently their identities were discovered by the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, who publicized them: Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi, Luigia Panceri, and Emilia Ponzoni. They were all professed as Sisters of the Holy Child Mary.

In the years leading up to World War I, more opportunities opened for women to pursue higher learning and even to teach at a university level. With many young men leaving their professional posts during the war, such opportunities multiplied.

Among the women who benefited from this was St. Edith Stein, one of the most famous women of the modern Church. Her story, like Mother Cabrini’s, has been dramatized in a film, Sphinx Productions’ (2018). She achieved a great deal, intellectually and spiritually, before suffering a tragic fate during what many people at the end of World War I believed would never afflict humanity again: another global war that killed millions.  

It is to the story of this philosopher, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and victim of the Nazis at the Auschwitz death camp that I turn next in my book.

Bronwen McShea is based in New York City and is also the author of La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France published in 2023 by Pegasus Books. 

Excerpted and adapted from Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know by Bronwen McShea. Published by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute. © Ignatius Press / The Augustine Institute. Used with permission. 

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