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When Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian, converted to Catholicism in 1676, she did it with gusto. She slept on a bed of thorns. She had a friend whip her. She put hot coals between her toes. She suffered from smallpox, and the disease left her almost blind. Yet she still fasted, in penitence, and ministered to the sick and elderly. When she died, it was said, the smallpox scars instantly vanished from her face. It wasn’t long before people began to credit her with miracles.

Indeed, the Vatican has just announced, 300 years after her death, that Tekakwitha is a miracle worker. She will be named a saint—America’s first indigenous saint, no less—as early as next fall. But what, exactly, does that mean? How does someone become a saint? What’s the vetting process?

In this thoroughly entertaining investigation into the mysterious world of saints, Bill Donahue tells the strange and fascinating story of how the holy get their halos. The journey to canonization is long (sometimes, as in the case of Tekakwitha, it can take centuries), lurid (decayed body parts play a role), and, nowadays, surprisingly cutting-edge. Tekakwitha earned her saint status thanks to a medical miracle she allegedly caused in 2006: A boy suffering from a fatal flesh-eating bacteria suddenly and inexplicably recovered after his family prayed to the Blessed Kateri. Church experts grilled the boy’s doctors, studied his MRIs and hospital chart, and came to the conclusion that a force stronger than modern medicine saved him.

In addition to Tekakwitha, Donahue introduces us to a cast of celestial characters, from Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II—both on the fast track to sainthood—to Saint Francis, Joan of Arc, and the shady Padre Pio, who claimed to suffer stigmata and raise bodies from the dead. But it’s what happens after these holy folk die that’s arguably even more intriguing. Mixing legend and science, history and on-the-ground reporting, The Secret World of Saints sheds light on one of the Catholic Church’s most arcane and captivating traditions.


Bill Donahue is a journalist living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in “The Atlantic,” “The New York Times Magazine,” “Wired,” “Runner’s World,” “The Washington Post Magazine,” and “Inc.” He has been nominated for two National Magazine Awards, and his stories have been reprinted in “Best American Travel Writing,” “Best American Sports Writing,” and numerous other anthologies.


“My sinful covetousness for Bill Donahue’s talents and the fun he’s having here has put me out of the running for sainthood. I love his story anyway.” —Mary Roach, author of the bestselling “Stiff,” “Spook,” “Bonk,” and “Packing for Mars”

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