28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Thank you, St. Jude (1996)

In Thank You, St. Jude Robert A. Orsi examines the prayers that American Catholic women have made to Jude Thaddeus, the Saint of Hopeless Causes, in Chicago since 1929. Orsi traces the rise in popularity of this devotion to historical and cultural developments that made for “hopeless” situations among immigrants’ daughters and granddaughters. This study explores how women engaged in relationships between heaven and earth as they prayed to St. Jude and participated in the material culture of the devotion.


Devotion to St. Jude emerged as one of the most popular devotions among women from the 1930s to 1960s. Men were integral to the devotion as they stood at the forefront of promoting and overseeing the devotion. But, women played a more central role in the practice and care of the devotion. The devotion to the Saint of Hopeless Causes emerged during the Depression, World War II, and after the war as women prayed for themselves and their families at home and abroad. Women prayed to St. Jude about marital relations, love, war, health, birth, and their jobs. Mostly, women prayed for and about the men in their lives. Women were also central to the devotion as they were responsible for responding to other women’s letters and petitions in the Voice of St. Jude and in the periodical’s office. Material devotions to St. Jude continued even after the Second Vatican Council’s call in the 1960s for the devotion to be surrounded by words, not things. Despite women’s centrality in maintaining and constructing devotions to St. Jude, women were also constructed by their participation in the devotion. Periodicals attacked women for their constant problems that had to be taken to St. Jude. Advice literature called women to be more moderate consumers of goods and American culture. It advised women to focus more on the spirituality of their homes. According to Orsi, “The whole culture directed the immigrant’s daughters into devotionalism, and there they were remade against the movement of their own times” (94). Devotionalism provided women with agency and their own voices (particularly in the growing field of American medicine overseen by men). At the same time, devotions to St. Jude encouraged women to be passive, to be submissive to men, and to be dutiful sufferers.


Orsi argues that scholars must go beyond using theological, socio-historical, and psychological dichotomies for explaining why women turned to St. Jude from the 1930s to 1960s. Rather, devotion to St. Jude must be situated in the “in-betweeness” of these poles. Orsi argues that women used these devotional practices to negotiate how culture, men, and their families imagined them and how they imagined themselves. St. Jude was also a part and product of this “in- betweeness” as he constituted and destabilized American Catholic culture and women’s perceptions of themselves. The narrative and the material cultures of the devotion were integral parts of women’s relationships as they were used to give St. Jude and women agency. Orsi argues that women were subjects to and subjects of American Catholic culture and devotion to St. Jude. Orsi’s theory for understanding devotional practices as relationships between heaven and earth is profound. It allows scholars to study how people perceive themselves to interact with “the supernatural” without reducing religion to a fantasy.