On January 4, it’ll be the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be canonized a saint. Elizabeth, however, was not always Catholic. Born in 1774, She was raised as a devout Episcopalian in a prominent New York family (her stepmother was a Roosevelt). She married at age 19, but her husband died nine years later, leaving her to care for her five kids and her husband’s six younger siblings.
Despite being a widow and having eleven kids to care for, Elizabeth was incredibly active in caring both for them and for other New Yorkers in need. At the same time, she was drawn increasingly toward the Catholic Church, deeply moved by Catholic devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. She wrote to her sister-in-law, “How happy would we be, [if we] believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and [comes] to them when they are sick!”1 At the age of 30, she converted and was received into the Church. Later, she founded an American branch of the Sisters of Charity, along with a boarding school and orphanage. Her order was instrumental in establishing and spreading Catholic schools in the United States.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an inspiring example of a prominent American convert to Catholicism. The United States, though a predominantly Protestant country, furnishes quite a few surprising examples of people who, one way or another, came to full communion with the Church. With St. Elizabeth as #1 on our list, let’s look at a few more.
2. John Wayne (1907 – 1979)
Who hasn’t heard of John Wayne? A legendary actor, Wayne starred in many Western films from the ‘40s through the ‘70s, winning two Golden Globes and an Oscar. During his life, he wasn’t known for being particularly religious; he married three times and held some questionable political views. However, toward the end of his life he became drawn toward Catholicism, and during the last days of his battle with cancer he converted and was received into the Church.2
3. Norma McCorvey (b. 1947)
Almost no one has heard of Norma McCorvey; she’s better known by her legal pseudonym “Jane Roe.” Yes, McCorvey was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. At the time, McCorvey was an ardent supporter of abortion rights, but as the years passed her views began to change, as she was haunted by the thought that perhaps everything she had stood for was wrong. In the 1990s, she changed her position on abortion, and in 1998 she entered the Catholic Church. Today she works as a pro-life activist.
4. Demetrius Gallitzin (1770 – 1840)
Born a Russian prince and raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Demetrius Gallitzin converted to Catholicism at the age of 17 while living in Holland. His parents sent him abroad to the United States to complete his education; to their horror, Demetrius decided to abandon his inheritance and become a priest in America. He was sent as a missionary to the mountains of Pennsylvania, where his tireless work to build up the local Catholic community earned him the title “Apostle of the Alleghenies.” He is currently being considered for canonization.
5. Clayton Fountain (1955 – 2004)
Clayton Fountain was once known as the most dangerous prisoner in the United States. Convicted in 1974 of murdering his staff sergeant in the Marines, he was sent to a top-security prison where he killed three other inmates and a correctional officer. He had to be moved to a specially constructed solitary cell. During this time, he was brought around to conversion through the ministry of a Trappist monk, Fr. W. Paul Jones. Fountain began to study theology, and soon chose to begin living the life of a monk in his prison cell. After his death in 2004, his spiritual director published Fountain’s story in the book A Different Kind of Cell.
6. Dorothy Day (1897 – 1980)
Dorothy Day began as something like the 1920s version of a hipster, living a bohemian lifestyle in New York’s Greenwich Village, drifting in and out of love affairs, and engaging in social activism in socialist and anarchist circles. However, her interest in religion began to grow, and to the dismay of her friends she converted to Catholicism in 1927. Though no longer a socialist, she was still deeply concerned by the plight of the poor, and so along with Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker movement, dedicating herself to faithful activism aimed at putting Catholic social teaching into practice. Her cause is currently open for canonization.
7. Jeb Bush (b. 1953)
In the United States, many people convert to Catholicism on the influence of their spouse, and Jeb Bush is no exception. In high school, Bush spent some time as an exchange student in Mexico, where he met his future wife, Columba Garnica de Gallo. Four years later they married, and Jeb began his political career. His wife was a practicing Catholic throughout this time, and through her influence he began RCIA, a Catholic program of study to prepare for initiation. In 1995 he was received into the Church. Today he credits his Catholicism as a major influence on his choices, saying that “As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you.”3
8. Gerty Cori (1896 – 1957)
Gerty Cori, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize, was born to a Jewish family in Prague. She was well-educated and aspired to be a doctor. While in medical school, she met her future husband Carl Cori and converted to Catholicism. They immigrated to the United States and tried to find work in medical research, though Gerty struggled constantly with gender discrimination in the workplace. Despite the obstacles she faced, she was rewarded for her persistence when she and her husband received the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the Cori cycle, otherwise known as the lactic acid cycle.
9. Dutch Schultz (1901 – 1935)
Dutch Schultz is better known as a ruthless gangster than as a Catholic convert. As a New York City bootlegger known for his brutality toward those who crossed him (he once hung a rival by his thumbs from a meat hook), the law eventually caught up to him. While in prison awaiting trial, he experienced a religious conversion and became Catholic. After his release, he unfortunately failed to reform his life, and he was soon shot by a rival gang. Lying on his deathbed, he requested a priest. He received last rites and died in the Church at the age of 34.
10. Audrey Assad (b. 1983)
Born to a Syrian father and an American mother, Audrey Assad grew up as an Evangelical Protestant and took to music at a young age. At the age of 19, she felt God calling her to serve Him as a Christian singer and songwriter. As she was pursuing this she began to find herself attracted to the Catholic Church, in large part due to the depth of its intellectual tradition. In 2007, she converted to Catholicism, and today she is a well-known figure in the world of Christian music.
11. Orestes Brownson (1803 – 1876)
A prominent American intellectual during the 1800s, Orestes Brownson was a Unitarian preacher and Transcendentalist, a philosophical and literary comrade of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. However, in his late thirties he began to have misgivings about this philosophy, and his conversations with the Bishop of Boston brought him around to Catholicism. After his conversion, he used his status as a well-known writer to defend the Catholic faith and to bring America back to the Church.
12. Dean Koontz (b. 1945)
Dean Koontz is known mainly as the author of bestselling novels, but he, too, is a Catholic convert. He was raised in an abusive family, but during his college years he discovered Catholicism and converted. Though he is rarely explicit about his faith in his novels, his Catholicism has influenced him to write books stressing the ever-present battle between good and evil. In his words: “Each of us, in our daily lives, encounters evil … If we don’t want to read about it or think about it, I don’t think that’s a truly Christian point of view. We have to acknowledge it, face it and defeat it. That’s what each of my books is about.”4
13. Rose Hawthorne (1851 – 1926)
Most people know of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great American writer and author of The Scarlet Letter. However, few have heard of his daughter, Rose, otherwise known as Mother Mary Alphonsa. Rose grew up in Massachusetts, married author George Lathrop, and eventually the two of them converted to Catholicism. However, George died in 1898, and after spending a year doing charity work she founded an order of Dominican sisters. Her cause for canonization is currently open.
14. Avery Dulles (1918 – 2008)
Few people know that Avery Dulles, a Jesuit priest and one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, was actually the son of John Foster Dulles, a famous American politician who was Secretary of State under Eisenhower and a major player in the Cold War. After a few years as an agnostic, Avery converted to Catholicism while he was a student at Harvard. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he entered the Jesuits and later became a renowned scholar and lecturer.
15. Walker Percy (1916 – 1990)
Walker Percy’s life got off to a rough start: his father committed suicide, his mother died in a car wreck, and he was sent to live with a cousin in Mississippi. Raised agnostic, he pursued a career as a doctor, but it was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis during an autopsy. Confined to a bed, he took to reading and writing, encountering thinkers and writers like Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and St. Thomas Aquinas. As a result, after his recovery he converted to Catholicism and became a full-time writer. To this day, Percy is regarded as one of the great literary voices of the American South, and his book The Moviegoer is listed by TIME magazine and Modern Library as one of the top novels of the past century.5
16. Mildred Gillars (1900 – 1988)
During World War II, the infamous Mildred Gillars earned the nickname “Axis Sally.” An American citizen, she defected to Germany and worked to spread Nazi propaganda. During the war, she ran several radio programs targeted at Allied soldiers, attempting to incite despair, homesickness, and fear. In 1946, a year after Allied victory, she was captured and sentenced to prison for treason. However, while in prison she experienced a change of heart, repenting of her past and converting to Catholicism. After her release in 1961, she became a nun and taught at a Catholic school in Ohio.
17. Elizabeth Bentley (1908 – 1963)
While a member of the Communist Party, Elizabeth Bentley became a spy for the Soviet Union, eventually becoming one of the most important Soviet agents in the US. As time passed, she began to have doubts about her role, and in 1945 she defected and turned herself over to the FBI. In the years after her defection, she was involved in a series of highly publicized trials; however, this was also a time of great spiritual changes for her. In 1948, she converted to Catholicism, largely through the influence of Bishop Fulton Sheen.
18. Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)
Thomas Merton grew up nominally Anglican and spent most of his formative years between France, England, and the United States. While studying at Columbia University in New York, he had his first serious encounters with Catholicism, and began to study the Catholic faith. While reading about the conversion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic poet, he was deeply moved with the desire to convert, and in 1938 he entered the Church. He found that God was calling him to the life of a monk, so he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It was there that he wrote his renowned autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.
19. Gary Cooper (1901 – 1961)
Gary Cooper, another famous actor and unlikely convert, began his rise to stardom during the silent film era, and continued to have success through the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, winning three Oscars and a Golden Globe. Though raised Episcopalian, his personal life was not especially Christian: he had a rocky marriage and was involved in a number of high-profile love affairs. His wife and daughter, however, were devout Catholics, and in 1953 he accompanied them to visit Pope Pius XII in Rome. The experience made an impression on him, and over the next few years he reconciled with his wife and in 1959 entered the Catholic Church.
20. St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656 – 1680)
Ending our list is another canonized saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri was a member of the Mohawk tribe in what is now upstate New York. Inspired to turn her life to Christ by the preaching of Jesuit missionaries, she was baptized at the age of 19 and committed herself to a life of service to God. Ridiculed and threatened by her fellow Mohawks for her faith, she was forced to flee to a nearby mission village, where she gained a reputation for heroic holiness. Unfortunately, she had been infected with smallpox in her youth and continued to struggle with poor health, dying at the age of the 24.
Julia Tyler: First Lady and wife of US President John Tyler
Buffalo Bill Cody: outdoorsman and creator of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show
Black Elk: famous Lakota Sioux medicine man, fought at Wounded Knee
Newt Gingrich: former US Congressman and Speaker of the House
Bernard Nathanson: ex-abortion doctor and NARAL founder, later became pro-life activist
Jim Bowie: leader of the Texas Revolution and inventor of the Bowie knife
James Longstreet: ex-Confederate general, later supported equality for blacks
Anyone else you think should be on the list? Add them in the comments!
Cover photo courtesy of Prayitno.