Embracing the Many Stories of “American”

Here’s a thing I don’t often admit: I’ve always struggled with identifying as an American.

That’s such a strange thing, considering I was practically born here (my family and I immigrated when I was only five years old). But I never really felt at peace with the term. In my elementary school class concerts, I would lip sync the elaborate patriotic closing numbers (usually a medley of songs like “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful”). In middle and high school, I pored over every reading assignment from our U.S. history textbooks — but I approached it all as someone from the outside looking in, not as someone who lived in the nation we were studying. Every Fourth of July, people would don their red, white, and blue with such pride that I felt as though I was sinning to think of it as just another ordinary day.

These feelings continued even after I became a citizen of the United States at 21 years old. When that big moment came, I thought, “This will be the day when I will really feel American.” When I gathered that evening with family and friends to celebrate, my friends greeted me with a large American flag and wrapped me up in it, Olympic athlete style. Can’t get more American than that, right?

I was finally eligible to vote. I eventually obtained an American passport. So why didn’t I feel like an American?

My relationship with this word as an identity is one I still have difficulty explaining and haven’t quite sorted out. But I think a big part of the struggle to celebrate the concept of “American” and apply it to myself was because everything I knew about that identity — whether from history, the media, or lived experience — was centered around people who looked and lived nothing like me or my friends. My thought process went something like, “If American looks like A, but I look like B, then I can never be American because B will never be A.”

It has not been until the last few years that this thinking has really shifted for me, as I have become more and more aware of the fact that the experience of being American ranges from A to Z. I have been fortunate enough to be reminded that the American experience has always been a diverse one, and have had the honor of learning about people whose experiences reflect my own and also have greatly impacted what an American identity entails. Though those diverse figures aren’t always front and center, they are there — and their impact is real.

As a Catholic, I have also greatly benefitted from the examples of men and women who looked nothing like the founding fathers and still had a tremendous effect on the life of the Church in the United States. While it is often easier for us to access the widely-known stories of European saints, it is important not to forget that our young nation has been the stomping grounds for a number of heavy-hitting saints (or soon-to-be saints) that aren’t limited to our sometimes too narrow views of what it means to be American. Here are just a few I think you’ll enjoy getting to know:

St. Kateri Tekawitha

What you have to know: Kateri is the first Native American saint to be canonized and is lovingly nicknamed the Lily of the Mohawks. At the Mass for her canonization, Pope Benedict XVI said: “In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.” St. Kateri is a great example of how faith and culture can sometimes be difficult to reconcile, but ultimately work together to sanctify us in the way God has planned for us.

Why you’ll love her: Saint Kateri is known as the patroness of ecology, so all you lovers of the outdoors take note! Her people’s deep respect for nature was embedded in her, and she often sought out to find God in the stillness of creation. If you need extra signs of God’s presence in your life today, head out into nature and ask St. Kateri to lend a hand. Lily of the Mohawks, pray for us!

Venerable Henriette Delille

What you have to know: Henriette was born in New Orleans as a free woman of color. At the age of 24, she had a profound experience of conversion that made her want to live for God alone. She eventually founded the Society of the Holy Family, a religious order for free women of color who responded to the need for treatment of the enslaved, the elderly, and the sick. The sisters also looked after and educated the poor.

Why you’ll love her: If you’re the kind of person who seeks to put the needs of others before your own, then you might find a prayer pal in Henriette. The closing line of her obituary reads: “for the love of Jesus Christ [she] made herself the humble devout servant of slaves.” That humility is everything! (You can lift up her cause for sainthood by praying this prayer).

Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

What you have to know: Fr. Tolton is recognized as the first Black priest in the United States. He was born into a slave family that gained freedom near the start of the Civil War, escaping with his mother and siblings to the free state of Illinois. Though he was certain of his call to be a priest, he was rejected from every seminary in the United States. Eventually, he ended up in Rome to study and, afterward, returned to the States to serve in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Why you’ll love him: If you’ve ever felt the pain of discrimination due to your race, you are not alone — Fr. Augustus experienced the brutal ugliness of racism, but trusted in God’s plan for him throughout the struggle. When it’s hard to tell if things will ever get easier, look to him and ask for his intercession for extra encouragement and peace. (Also, help him become a saint by praying for his cause!)

Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman

What you have to know: Shortly before she died of cancer in 1989, Sr. Thea presented to the United States Conference of Bishops on what it meant to be Black and Catholic. She boldly called the clergy to acknowledge the beauty of Black Catholicism and then unapologetically challenged Black Catholics to act upon their own agency to share the Gospel. What a lady!

Why you’ll love her: If you find yourself hesitating to bring your whole self to everything you do, Sr. Thea can be your guidepost. She was fearless in letting her unique personality and light shine no matter who was around — even if they were hundreds of super serious bishops. That’s hashtag goals. (P.S. Show her the love and pray for her cause for sainthood!)

Next time you celebrate America and all of her virtues, be sure to remember these incredible people and to make it a goal to learn about other lesser-known (but just as important) figures in this nation’s history. And be on the lookout for today’s saints-in-the-making that are shining examples of all the ways to be American.