POLONIA, Wis. – The statues above the altar at Sacred Heart Church depict the most ancient and well-known Catholic saints — Joseph, Ann and Mary. But a fresh face could soon adorn the walls of this Wisconsin church, that of a local farm boy and former St. Paul teacher on track to becoming a modern-day saint.
He is James Miller, a Christian Brother who taught at then-Cretin High School during the 1960s and who was later murdered as a missionary in Guatemala. This fall he will be beatified, the final step before sainthood. Then all he’ll need is a miracle to get the halo.
Miller is among three men on the road to sainthood who have ties to Minnesota. Their swift rise in stature reflects the burst of saint-making in Rome. Nearly 500 men and women have been beatified by the last three popes, compared with about 630 in the previous four centuries combined.
Only three saints, however, were born and raised in the United States. That is likely to change, say Vatican observers.
“For so long, saints were considered rather remote figures from ancient history,” said John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service who now lives in St. Paul. “Saints have gone from remote historical figures to people you have lived and worked with.”
For family and friends of the would-be saints, the express track to sainthood is both an honor and disconcerting.
“People have already been coming to his grave to get cured,” said Ralph Miller, a brother of James Miller, who lives on the family farm near the cemetery where his brother is buried.
American Catholic leaders, stung by the clergy abuse scandal, have welcomed the opportunity to spotlight their finest. They’ve reportedly put forth more than 70 people before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
The congregation oversees the process of scrutinizing proposed candidates, who must pass a rigorous investigation before they are “beatified” — or declared blessed — and ultimately acquire the status of saint.
Holy in the heartland
An estimated 10,000 saints occupy the Catholic pantheon. For centuries they became holy by popular demand, but 500 years ago the Vatican instituted a formal process and criteria. Those criteria were relaxed by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
Besides Miller, Minnesota has ties to two others who have been beatified and are awaiting a miracle — or miracles — that open the doors to Catholicism’s exclusive club.
One is the Rev. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma native who hailed from German immigrants to Minnesota.
He still has relatives here as well as friends from religious orders. Rother, like Miller, was murdered in Guatemala in the early 1980s. He is the first U.S. martyr and was beatified in 2017.
Brother Solanus Casey, born in Wisconsin, was confirmed at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater and worked in that city as a young adult. He was later ordained in Milwaukee and served mainly in Detroit and New York. Casey, best known for his work healing the sick, died in 1957 and was beatified in 2017.
Miller has the closest ties to Minnesota. He attended Saint Mary’s University in Winona and taught Spanish and coached soccer at Cretin High School in the 1960s and 1970s. He later was a missionary and educator in Nicaragua and then Guatemala, where he was killed by still-unnamed gunmen in 1982.
At Cretin, Miller gained the nickname Mr. Fix It because he was always walking around with tools and doing maintenance, said Lou Anne Tighe, director of ministry at the school now known as Cretin-Derham Hall High School. A portrait of Miller hangs in the school, and students are well aware that a would-be saint has graced their halls, she said.
Italy meets Wisconsin
On a quiet country road just east of Stevens Point, Wis., stands the farm where Miller grew up and where his two brothers still live. The old red barn, nestled in a landscape of snow, was once the hub of a bustling farm where the boys milked cows, tended chickens and lugged wood inside to heat the house.
Earlier this month, Bill and Ralph Miller — the brothers of James Miller — relaxed at their kitchen table overlooking the farmland. Spread out on the table in front of them were mementos of a brother they simply knew as “Jim” or “Jimmy.” There’s a photo of Jim and Bill in their one-room schoolhouse. A photo of a teenage Jim in his first black Christian Brother robes.
And there’s a fancy, red hardcover book filled with testimonies in English and Spanish from the Miller family and many others, a dossier created to present Miller’s sainthood case to Rome.
Several years ago, an Italian-speaking cleric whom the brothers call “the saint-maker” traveled to this unlikely slice of the United States to interview Miller family members and others. It was part of the official investigation into Miller’s life, required for his beatification.
“It was like being in a courtroom,” said Ralph Miller. “We had to swear to tell the truth, with our hand on the Bible. And then they had 37 questions we had to answer.”
Bill Miller said he told the interviewer that his brother was a studious and religious kid growing up.
He recalled that his brother loved the Catholic mass and would use Tinker Toys to make a “monstrance” — the fancy liturgical vessel that the eucharist is exhibited in during mass.
A few miles from the Miller farm, a memorial service was held Feb. 13, the anniversary of Miller’s death. His brothers were among several hundred people — friends, neighbors, admirers — who turned out on the winter night to honor their native son.
A display of Brother Miller’s life and death greeted visitors walking into Sacred Heart Church in Polonia, including photos and newspaper clips about the murder and his body’s return home. Knights of Columbus, in feathered hats and bearing silver swords, ushered the Rev. Greg Michaud up to the church’s ornate altar.
In his sermon, Michaud reminded worshipers of the many ways Miller served God. He was a teacher, a mechanic, a farmer, a fire chief in Nicaragua. A saint, he said, “is not some unknown figure on a wall from 2,000 years ago.”
“Saints don’t just come from Rome: they come from Ellis,” Michaud said, referring to Miller’s tiny hometown. “They come from Polonia. They come from Custer, from Minneapolis and Chicago.”
“Brother James Miller, pray for us.”
Marketing, making saints
Saints do come from everywhere these days, but they share one thing in common: They have relentless advocates to promote and finance the saint-making process, said Cummings. It’s a key reason so many saints come from Catholic religious orders, which have the institutional time and finances to see the process through.
Promoting saints also requires marketing, Cummings said. The Christian Brothers website, for example, has links to Brother James prayer cards, a video, an icon, class photos, essays and a Brother James PowerPoint.
With the Argentinian-born Pope Francis at the helm, it helps if the saint candidate has connections to Latin America.
The trend to hasten and diversify saint-making has received mixed reaction. It used to take an average of nearly 200 years from a saint’s death to canonization. Critics say it’s now too easy to become a saint. Said Thavis: “They call it saint inflation.”
But facing a clergy abuse scandal, the subject of a Vatican summit last week, and a shortage of priests, the Catholic church could benefit from more positive role models, supporters said.
“When Jim [Miller] died, it personally inspired me greatly,” said Tighe. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do in this world? What am I going to do with my life?’ ”
Likewise Lee Rother, a retiree from West St. Paul and a relative of Stanley Rother, said he was moved by Stanley Rother’s death. He was among the many Minnesotans who drove — and even rented a bus — to attend Rother’s beatification ceremony at a civic center in Oklahoma City in 2017.
Rother now gives presentations on Stanley Rother’s life to church groups in the metro area. He would like to see more American saints than the three now on the books — Elizabeth Ann Seton, Katharine Drexel and Kateri Tekakwitha.
The Miller family, meanwhile, waits with mixed emotions for the next step in their brother’s road to beatification. An official will exhume James Miller’s body in the months ahead from the cemetery down the road to certify that the body is indeed his — and to gather bone fragments for relics.
Being present for that “would be hard to take,” said Ralph Miller.
“People don’t know what family members go through,” he added. “It’s complicated. Most saints, their relatives aren’t around.”
But for the broader Catholic world, the hope is that modern-day saints bring new inspiration to the faithful.
“Sometimes older saints are so far beyond us,” said Tighe. “But I can relate to James Miller.”