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5 Catholic Saints Who Were Migrants Back in the Days

We reflect on their life and work on International Migrants Day this December 18.

Why do people migrate? According to the United Nations, people move away from their country of origin for better work opportunities, studies, or to be reunited with family. Still, others move to escape conflict, human rights violations, or terrorism.

In 2019, there were 272 million migrants worldwide— 51 million more than in 2010. And while most of them are in search of a more peaceful life for themselves and their loved ones, many of these migrants face dangerous situations while seeking asylum.

“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” Pope Francis said. “They are children, women, and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.” (Read: Cardinal Tagle washes the feet of migrants and refugees)

Even some of our beloved saints lived as migrants, too. Before they were canonized by the Catholic church, three male and two female saints were migrants who left their homeland for different reasons— two to flee from persecution, two to spread the faith, and one to freely express her love for God. We remember their life and works on International Migrants Day this December 18. 

Migrant Saints: St. Patrick

Photo from Aleroy4 / Getty Images /

Born in Great Britain, Migrated to Ireland

The Patron Saint of Ireland is actually a Brit who first entered Ireland as a kidnap victim of Irish raiders who stormed the home of his affluent family. Six years into his captivity, he followed what he believed to be the voice of God and escaped, walking 200 miles to the Irish Coast. 

Back home, a second voice instructed him to return to Ireland, this time as a missionary. Upon his ordination as a priest, he sailed back to the Emerald Isle to minister to Christians, incorporating Irish traditions in his teaching. 

Migrant Saints: St. Francis Xavier Cabrini

Photo from Catholic Online

Born in Italy, Migrated to the USA

After establishing nurseries, schools, and orphanages in Cadagono, Italy, Sister Francis Xavier Cabrini, co-founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, set her sights on expanding her mission in China. Instead, Pope Leo XIII said “Not to the East, but the West”— meaning the United States, where communities of Italian immigrants were growing. A dutiful Francis and six sisters complied and arrived in New York City in March 1889. (Read: Pope Francis Brings Five People Closer To Sainthood)

Despite initial setbacks, Francis persisted, launching 67 orphanages, schools, and hospitals all over America. She earned her US citizenship in 1909. 

Migrant Saints: St. Damien de Veuster

 (Photo from CNS File Photo / Tyler Orsburn / The Boston Pilot)

Born in Belgium, Migrated to the USA

When his older brother, a priest, was too ill to take on a missionary assignment in Hawaii, USA, Jozef de Veuster took his place and set sail for Oahu. Ordained in May 1864 and taking on the name Damien (after physician and martyr St. Damien), Fr. Damien was assigned to many parishes in the island of Hawaii, whose faithful were stricken with a number of diseases brought in by foreign traders. (Read: Who is St. Rose Philippine Duchesne? Here Are Five Fun Facts!)

Those afflicted with leprosy were quarantined in a settlement in Kalaupapa. Fr. Damien, who volunteered to serve this ostracized community, was more than a parish priest to them. He cleaned their wounds; built homes, churches, schools, roads, and hospitals; and lived as equals among them. Upon contracting leprosy himself, he continued to work hard for this rejected community until his death in 1889.  

Migrant Saints: St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Photo from The Holy Ones

Born in the USA, Migrated to Canada

The first Native American to be declared a saint, Kateri Tekakwitha was drawn to the teachings of Christ when three Jesuit priests visited her tribe in 1667. Mocked and shunned by her community for her beliefs (and fearing the violence and debauchery rampant in her village), she fled to Caughnawaga, Quebec, near Montreal, Canada, where she spent her days in constant, fervent prayer, until her death at age 24. (Read: 3 Game Changer Officials Who Won at the 2020 US Elections)

Migrant Saints: St. Lorenzo Ruiz

Photo from Catholic Online YouTube

Born in the Philippines, Migrated to Japan

Life was good for Lorenzo Ruiz, husband of Rosario and father of their three kids. That is until he was accused of killing a Spaniard in 1636. 

With three Dominican priests, he fled to Japan for safety. But that’s where his troubles began. Imprisoned for two years by the Tokugawa Shogunate on the grounds of their belief in God, Lorenzo and other devout Christians were then brought to Nagasaki, where they were subjected to more torture. 

Yet, Lorenzo refused to renounce his faith, declaring before his death, “I am a Catholic and wholeheartedly do accept death for God. Had I a thousand lives, all these to Him I shall offer. Do with me as you please.” 

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