Six U.S. cardinals, 80 bishops, 700 priests, 1,300 nuns and thousands of other Americans on charter tours descended on Rome last week for a singular event in Catholic history. Over the centuries, their church had designated thousands of saints, including 22 from Uganda, 20 from Japan, and 40 from England, but never had a native-born citizen of the U.S. been canonized.* Now the church was to remedy that as Pope Paul VI infallibly proclaimed Mother Elizabeth Seton (TIME, Dec. 23) a saint who should be venerated "in the company of saints with pious devotion."
Ever since Vatican II, canonizations have been less ornate than they used to be. No trumpets would blare during Mother Seton's Mass, nor would (banners wave in St. Peter's Square, where the ceremony was scheduled to be held. Still, the more than 50,000 onlookers in the square would witness a mighty spectacle as the white-robed Pope proceeded from St. Peter's to a specially constructed outdoor altar. Behind it, a huge tapestry depicted Mother Seton looking down from heaven on North America.
To mark this a special day for Catholic women and celebrate the International Women's Year, the Pope would for the first time permit a nun to read one of the lessons in his presence. She was Sister Hildegarde Marie Mahoney of Convent Station, N.J., the head of the Federation of Mother Seton's Daughters. And four women, one each from France, Italy, Spain and Canada, had been chosen to present petitions for canonization during the 2½-hour ceremony.
For nearly a century, thousands of American Catholics had prayed and worked for this moment. Canonization would mean that Mother Seton was "the first American girl who 'made good' according to God's exact standards," Jesuit Writer Leonard Feeney once observed. Whatever God's standards, those of the Catholic Church are strict indeed. Vatican officials had sifted and sifted again through more than 3,000 letters and other writings by Mother Seton to assess her character and deeds.
Along with virtue, miracles were required, and the most celebrated visitors in Rome for the canonization were two persons whose cures, attributed to the heavenly intercession of Mother Seton, had been decreed miracles. One was Mrs. Ann O'Neill Hooe, 27, of Severn, Md., who recovered from childhood leukemia 23 years ago. The other was Florida's Carl Kalin, 73, a convert from Lutheranism only last year, who was cured of a rare brain disease in 1963. The third case involved a nun, since deceased, who had recovered from cancer of the pancreas.