By Sarah Downey

A few empty chairs and a tabernacle are all that remain in the old chapel on the second floor of the Sisters of Saint Casimir convent. If the setting is sparse, it’s still a comfort to the nuns who go there to pray. Standing in the doorway, Sister Elizabeth Ann explains in dulcet tones, “Mother Maria used to walk through this door.” She demonstrates by stepping back and taking two steps forward. “She used to pray right here, right in this room–most people are in awe when they hear that.”

She quietly leads the way down the hall to a room that looks the same today as it did 60 years ago, when Mother Maria Kaupas died there. A single bed is pushed against a wall. There’s a desk with a typewriter. An easy chair occupies one corner. “That is where she used to sit,” says Sister Elizabeth Ann. “Sometimes the sisters would gather at her feet and they would pray together.” Surveying the room, Sister Elizabeth Ann looks at the face of Mother Maria, who has piercing blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and the slightest of smiles. It takes a second to realize it’s only a sculpture.

Mother Maria Kaupas founded the order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir in 1907. Four years later this convent was built on the outskirts of Englewood, in the middle of a swamp. The home of America’s first Lithuanian religious community eventually grew into a sprawling complex that includes Holy Cross Hospital, Maria High School, and the stretch of Marquette Road named in Mother Maria’s honor. She started missions in New Mexico and Argentina, and members of her order work in two dozen parishes, schools, and hospitals across the United States.

In the eyes of her followers, Mother Maria is already a saint. But so far she’s only cleared the first hurdle: she was named a “servant of God” in 1989, after Joseph Cardinal Bernardin officially opened an archdiocesan tribunal that has since probed into every aspect of her life and legacy.

As the push for Mother Maria Kaupas’s sainthood has accelerated over the last decade, the tribunal’s findings have been meticulously compiled in a 972-page book, or “positio.” Last month the final chapters were sent by FedEx to a Vatican committee known as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Pending committee approval, the matter will then go before Pope John Paul II, who has the final say in whether Mother Maria is virtuous enough to cross the second threshold to sainthood–being declared “venerable.”

Saints are holy spirits revered for their access to God and their ability to intercede on behalf of people who pray to them. Roughly 10,000 people have become saints in the last 2,000 years, the majority of them martyrs chosen by public acclaim prior to the 12th century. Sainthood was more informal back then–a cult would spring up around a martyr or other religious figure, and the local bishop would sanction the group’s activities. But since Innocent III (1199-1216) saints have had to be approved by the pope.

A four-step process was later formalized, with a more rigorous investigation into all claims. After being declared venerable, candidates must have one miracle pan out before they can qualify for beatification; another miracle is required for the fourth and final step–canonization. About 700 people have earned the title of saint that way, and while canonization is touted as infallible it can take hundreds of years–even Saint Joan of Arc waited nearly five centuries.

In 1969 some popular saints were stripped of their titles–such as Saint Christopher, who was deemed fictitious. Today’s saints are less likely to be people who died for their faith. Instead they’re recognized for their lives and actions.

Only four people have been named saints for their work in the United States. In 1975, Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity, became the first American saint, 154 years after her death. Two years later sainthood came to John Neumann, the Bohemian-born bishop of Philadelphia who was instrumental in developing the diocesan school system in the U.S. Neumann died in 1860. Just a few weeks ago the pope approved a second American-born saint, banking heiress Katharine Drexel. She became a nun at age 30 and spent much of her $20 million inheritance on missionary work before her death in 1955 at the age of 96.

Mother Frances Cabrini, the Italian founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, remains the sole saint with Chicago ties. She set a record when she was canonized in 1917, a mere 29 years after her death. While no native Chicagoans are saints, Mother Maria Kaupas and Polish-born Mother Mary Theresa Dudzik, who founded the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, now have official cases before the Vatican. Dudzik was declared venerable several years ago, and a miracle has since been submitted for her beatification.

The Sisters of Saint Casimir are unfazed by what could be a lengthy wait. Patience, after all, is a virtue. Yet extra effort can only help, so last year Mother Maria’s remains were exhumed and reinterred in the convent’s chapel so people could easily pray before her. With the positio shipped overseas, the sisters await word from doctors investigating whether three miraculous recoveries resulted from the patients’ prayers to Mother Maria.

Meanwhile the sisters are working diligently for the cause. On a Saturday morning earlier this month, more than 200 people came to the convent to pray for Mother Maria’s sainthood, as they have done regularly for the past decade. Greeting them was Sister Margaret Petcavage, who, as Mother Maria’s biographer, interviewed nearly 60 people over the course of several years.

“I feel like it was my doctoral thesis,” says Sister Margaret, now seated at the same table where she first met with the archdiocesan tribunal 11 years ago. “The church can’t make a mistake. They have to be very careful that someone doesn’t unearth, you know,” she says, her voice trailing off. “There are only a few American saints. Those in Europe had better connections and that helped move those cases along.” With the positio out of her hands, Sister Margaret must now put her trust in God and her connections in Rome.

Andrea Ambrosi, the sister’s advocate, or “postulator,” who will formally present Mother Maria’s case, has 20 years’ experience in the field. “I wouldn’t call it pull, but the gentleman is familiar with the process,” says Sister Margaret, who scoffs at the notion that the road to sainthood resembles a political campaign. “Sixty years after her death, Mother Maria remains a woman of hope. She gives people hope when they are ready to give up.”

“It is not a popularity contest,” explains Sister Elizabeth Ann. “The evidence has to portray her to be a holy person. And the evidence is in the book.”

Mother Maria was born Casimira Kaupas, the fifth of eleven children, in the tiny farming village of Gudeliai, Lithuania, in 1880. Catholics had been persecuted after Russia conquered the country 17 years before, and it was forbidden to teach, write, or read the Lithuanian language. While Casimira’s father, Anufras, had only a grade school education, he cherished literature and went to daring lengths to obtain smuggled books and prayer pamphlets for his family. When Russian officials dropped by for a surprise inspection, Anufras would hide the contraband in beehives.

Such repression had driven out half of Lithuania’s three million residents by the 1890s. Among them was Casimira’s older brother Anthony, who had joined the Catholic priesthood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1897 he needed a housekeeper and sent for his sister.

Casimira was wary of the long journey and the strange new land, but her family insisted. Her girlfriends joked that she was sure to marry a rich man. But Casimira, then 17, was too young to secure a passport. She had to slip across the border to join a group emigrating from East Prussia. Evading armed guards, she traveled by grain cart, train, and ship to reach her new home.

In the 1958 book Lily and Sword and Crown: History of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Casimir, author Katherine Burton notes that Casimira foundered a bit during her first year in the States. When she wasn’t working, Anthony took her to the opera in New York and bought her fine clothes. Still, she was listless and discontented. Then she encountered some nuns on the streets of Scranton. “She always looked at them with an odd little sense of surprise,” Burton writes, “for religious who wore their habits openly were something new to Casimira; since her childhood there had been none in her land.”

One day, while running an errand at a Polish convent in Brooklyn, Casimira impulsively queried the mother superior about joining the order. The 18-year-old was advised to come back later, Burton writes, but Casimira was intrigued by the sisters, some of whom were Lithuanian and lamenting that they had no group of their own in the United States.

Perhaps she could begin one, Casimira said to her brother that evening. “But he told her he thought she was too young…and must see more of life,” Burton writes. “Even the priests who came to see Father Anthony agreed, though they all said they wished there were a Lithuanian congregation to teach the children of their parishes.”

Casimira had just started to explore that possibility when her father’s death called her back to Lithuania. The visit eased her homesickness, yet she was saddened her native country still had no opportunities for Catholic religious life. Vowing to change that, she went to Switzerland in 1902, beginning formal studies with the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross.

She experienced a fruitful three years there. Support came from priests and nuns on both sides of the Atlantic, who urged her to start a religious community to teach the children of Lithuanian immigrants in America. Casimira convinced two other novices, Judith Dvaranauskas and Antoinette Ungaritis, to join her in the venture. When word of their mission reached Father Anthony Staniukynas–a recent immigrant to Scranton from Lithuania–he agreed to be their chaplain, spiritual director, and solicitor of funds. Once the bishop of Harrisburg blessed the idea, the three women journeyed west and commenced a year of often complex negotiations. In April 1907 the Vatican approved the new order, and the Lithuanian sisters at last had their own sacred haven, where they were free to teach and worship in their native tongue.

They took the name Sisters of Saint Casimir after the patron saint of Lithuania. Saint Casimir’s grandfather, Wladislaus II Jagiello, was the king of Poland who introduced Christianity to Lithuania in 1386. The prince, known for his chastity and sense of justice, earned the title of saint by defending peasants against banditry before he died of tuberculosis at age 24.

At first Casimira wasn’t so keen on the order’s name, given its resemblance to her own, but within a few months she would formally don her habit and become Sister Maria. Judith took the name Sister Immaculata, and Antoinette became Sister Concepta. They adopted as their symbols the lily, sword, and crown, representing chastity, fortitude, and perseverance.

In 1908 the three sisters opened their first Lithuanian school in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. The number of nuns soon grew to 20 and student enrollment topped 150. By 1909 word of their enterprise had reached Archbishop James Quigley of Chicago, and he offered to buy them land for a motherhouse and assist in its building. The decision to leave Pennsylvania was difficult, but Chicago already was home to a dozen Lithuanian parishes in need of teachers.

Sister Maria led the cadre of five nuns who arrived at the Englewood train station on a cold January day in 1911. Work was just being completed on their convent, which sat upon a newly drained wetland. As they stepped inside, their feet squished in the muddy deposit that had oozed over the floor when several pipes burst the night before. The sisters quickly said a few prayers before cleaning up the mess.

In 1913, Sister Maria was elected Mother Superior, and over the next decade the convent swelled with nuns. They toiled amid the swampy marshes surrounding the property, eventually coaxing the land into verdant lawns and gardens. Some of the nuns taught at the on-site academy, others were summoned to parishes around Chicago and the rest of the country.

World War I brought destruction to Lithuania. While the sisters did what they could from overseas, requests for Mother Maria’s assistance came in droves. She vowed to go once the fighting ended and bring the funds to begin a new mission. “It was obvious that such a plan might meet with difficulties,” Burton writes. “It was, however, an intriguing idea. Only rarely did a congregation send its members from the New World to the homeland.”

When Mother Maria and a handful of sisters arrived in 1920, Lithuania was an independent nation, but it was at war with Poland. To avoid the fighting, they traveled at night, on darkened trains. Still, they didn’t need light to see the ravaged countryside. Finally they came upon an old monastery, abandoned except for a large assembly of fleas. As they started renovations, curious residents began to appear and offer their help. When Mother Maria left a year later, the new mission was home to a dozen nuns and a day school of 130 pupils.

Back in Chicago, students of the Sisters of Saint Casimir were sweeping citywide academic competitions, prompting the Chicago Daily News to run the headline “Casimir Girls Bring Home the Bacon.” The convent was enlarged, and a new chapel, infirmary, and auditorium were dedicated in 1925. At the ceremony, Burton writes, Cardinal George Mundelein lauded the sisters’ knowledge, industry, and self-sacrifice. “This congregation which has come to us was the answer to our pleas,” he said. “Requests come to me from many places, asking me to send them Sisters of Saint Casimir. Only the past week a bishop pleaded with me for three. It is Mother Maria who guides this community.” The cardinal would deliver similar praise three years later, at the opening day of Holy Cross Hospital, which the sisters established across the street from the convent.

In 1933 Mother Maria underwent treatment at the hospital for what seemed to be an annoying case of arthritis. The diagnosis, however, was malignant bone cancer, and she was given six years to live. After a bedridden few months, Mother Maria emerged to embark on another trip to Lithuania, and then she paid visits to sisters posted across the United States. She also started a pair of missions in New Mexico and laid the groundwork for the first of three in Argentina. Her order assumed the day-to-day operations of the financially troubled Loretto Hospital. When Mother Maria died in 1940 at age 60, she had outlived the doctors’ prediction by a year. The sisters she left behind were soon printing up prayer cards to start their crusade for her sainthood.

More than a half century later, the Sisters of Saint Casimir have reached the most difficult and seemingly subjective part of the process–proving that Mother Maria is a bona fide miracle worker. “It brings us to a precipitous moment,” says Sister Margaret. She is expecting a report on a fellow nun who had acute leukemia and faith in Mother Maria. The nun and several patients had been through extensive drug treatment, yet the nun is the only one alive 21 years later. “It is an assumed miracle at this time,” Sister Margaret says. “If someone doesn’t feel that is evidence enough, then we start over and find something else.”

Sister Margaret does a bit of hand-wringing when asked if she has a backup plan. She seems reluctant to talk, then confides there are at least two other beatification-worthy miracles. One involves a baby girl surviving severe fetal distress. The mother, a graduate of Maria High School and a volunteer in the convent’s infirmary, prayed to Mother Maria as her first-born child hovered between life and death. Today the girl is ten years old and doing well. The other possibility involves a nun diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome who overcame near paralysis after praying to Mother Maria. “Our postulator, Mr. Ambrosi, has said this is the first time in 20 years of his work that a servant of God has had three presumed miracles attributed to her,” Sister Margaret says, her bespectacled eyes gleaming.

“Is it easy to be holy? Absolutely not,” Father Paul Burak tells the congregation at the prayer service. “Mother Maria,” he says, “she had a great love and sensitivity for the poor and underprivileged.” Burak reads from a new, four-color brochure–7,000 have been printed to promote the cause. The brochure expounds on Mother Maria’s mischievous side: “Memories of her warmth and joy sparkle with her lively humor. She loved celebrations, folk dancing and comical skits. She enjoyed jokes, told funny stories, and played card games,” like pinochle.

Burak walks down the aisle to greet the sisters. A few smile shyly, and one snaps a photo to be included in an album at the back of the church, near Mother Maria’s tomb and the new ten-foot-wide mosaic depicting her acts. “So many people give up their Saturday to come here for Mother Maria,” says Sister Elizabeth Ann. Sister Margaret adds, “Even when she was alive, she was an ordinary person in an extraordinary way.”

The Sisters of Saint Casimir are not as strong as they once were. In the 1950s and ’60s, the order had 500 nuns. A few hundred resided in the motherhouse; the rest were posted elsewhere, in parishes, schools, and missions. Now the order has just 170 nuns, and several of its missions have closed. The south-side convent houses 120.

This shouldn’t affect Mother Maria’s shot at sainthood. “Whether they were head of a big order shouldn’t make a darn bit of difference,” says Father Richard Saudis of the Chicago archdiocese. The order is only 92 years old. There are still nuns who knew Mother Maria, and it’s hoped their extensive testimony will amount to something of a trump card. Sister Cleopha is 87 and, after kneeling for much of the Saturday morning prayer service, eagerly breaks from preparing the day’s repast to recall yet another miracle she believes Mother Maria made possible.

At the height of World War II, Sister Cleopha was forced to flee the sisters’ Lithuanian mission. While taking refuge one night at a Carmelite convent in Germany, Sister Cleopha opened her eyes to see the image of Mother Maria, whom she had met shortly before her death: “She was very clear, very beautiful, very peaceful. She speak in that voice and she tell me, ‘We take you to America.'” The next day, the visa Sister Cleopha longed for finally arrived. “Mother Maria, she helped me very much.”

“She was such a motherly type, and so very down-to-earth,” says Sister Genevieve, who was an eighth-grader at the now-shuttered Saint George School in Bridgeport when she met Mother Maria in 1938. “We all waited and watched for Mother. And when she got there we’d sing her a song or read poems and, oh yes, because we knew that she’d be coming we would always try to look our nicest.” Today, whenever Sister Genevieve is passing by Mother Maria’s bedroom on the second floor, “I always try to make it my business to stop in and pray for her and ask for her intercession.”

In the bustling line for lunch at the convent, one sister recalls the privilege of clipping Mother Maria’s nails. Another describes her patience with youngsters wanting to yank on the cord of her habit. While walking to the convent museum, where Mother Maria’s rosary is on permanent display, Sister Elizabeth Ann reveals that one nun who cut Mother Maria’s hair saved the tresses and sewed them into a pincushion.

Such veneration is valuable to the cause, which so far has cost the Sisters of Saint Casimir several thousand dollars. “Let’s just say it’s like a wedding,” Sister Margaret says. “It’s like what you’d put out on a wedding.” As donations from the faithful keep coming in, so do the requests for Mother Maria’s help. “They ask for her intercession on health, finding a job, or even selling their home,” Sister Margaret says, “We just got a letter today from a woman who told us how her mother prayed to Mother Maria and just came through cancer surgery.”

Sister Margaret is encouraged that the road to sainthood has fewer obstacles since sweeping church reforms came during the Second Vatican Council. In canonizing more saints than any other pope, John Paul II also has eliminated some of the more archaic traditions. “Until 1983,” Sister Margaret says, “everything had to be translated into Italian. Can you imagine?”

More importantly, she adds, this pope recognizes that having saints of all nationalities is vital. Since the pope has declared this the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he is expected to beatify dozens of venerated Catholics, including some of the 30 Americans with cases now before the Vatican. The candidates primarily hail from religious life, but there are also a few laypeople. Two were even married.

“We are trying to extend the community of saints,” says Father Michael McGovern, a vice chancellor at the Chicago archdiocese. “If there is emphasis that it can be everyone’s calling to become a saint, then you might begin to see more people leading heroic lives of virtue.”

The Sisters of Saint Casimir have no doubt that Mother Maria will be canonized, sooner rather than later. “You just have to have faith,” says Sister Margaret, “that miracles do happen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.