Coming Into the Church? 50 Notable Converts You Should Know

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From St. Kateri Tekakwitha to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and beyond, learn who became a member of the Church.

By Matthew E. Bunson, National Catholic Register, 3/27/18

“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future,” goes the quote often attributed to St. Augustine.

This is of considerable encouragement to all of us, but it is especially meaningful for those who are preparing to complete their journey into the Church this Easter.

As we celebrate again this year some of the converts who have entered the Church over the centuries, the words of wisdom ascribed to the Father and Doctor of the Church — himself no stranger to profound conversion — seem additionally appropriate. Included in the list are a few converts who might raise some eyebrows, especially Dutch Schultz and Oscar Wilde. Both were rather infamous in their times, for very different reasons. Schultz was one of the most brutal mobsters of the 1930s, while Wilde, who wrote such famed works as The Picture of Dorian Gray, caused immense scandal for his homosexuality. Both, too, died in the Catholic faith, with a priest at their side.

As Pope Francis taught at a general audience in 2016, “We are all called: the good and the bad. The Church is not only for those who are good or those who seem good or believe they are good; the Church is for everyone, and even preferably for those who are bad, because the Church is mercy.”

A blessed Holy Week and Easter and a special welcome to everyone entering the Church this year. We are praying for you!

Fanny Allen (1784-1819) — The daughter of Revolutionary War Gen. Ethan Allen was the first New England woman to become a Catholic nun. She converted after a profound mystical experience of the Real Presence.

Cardinal Anders Arborelius (b. 1949) — a member of the Carmelites, bishop of Stockholm since 1998 and a cardinal, the first from Sweden, since 2017.

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) — an English philosopher, professor at Oxford and Cambridge, and protégé and friend of the famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Her husband, philosopher Peter Geach (1916-2013), was also a convert.

Audrey Assad (b. 1983) — An American singer and songwriter, she is best known for her work in contemporary Christian music. She converted in 2007.

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) — The youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, he converted from Lutheranism while studying in Italy. His first major composition was a Mass, and he was much admired by a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

St. Josephine Bakhita (ca. 1869-1947) — A Sudanese-born former slave, she became a member of the Canossian Religious Sisters in Italy.

James Roosevelt Bayley (1814-1877) — The first bishop of Newark, New Jersey, (1853-72) and archbishop of Baltimore (1872-77). St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was his aunt.

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) — An artist, author and illustrator, he was best known for his lurid and licentious illustrations that influenced the Art Noveau movement. He converted to Catholicism in 1897 and renounced all of his previous erotic work.

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) — An English priest and author, he was the son of an archbishop of Canterbury and is best known for his novel Lord of the World (1907).

Sam Brownback (b. 1956) — The U.S. ambassador-at-large for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he has also served as a U.S. member of the House of Representatives from Kansas (1995-1996), a U.S. senator from Kansas (1996-2011) and governor of Kansas (2011-2018).

Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) — A convert in New England from Presbyterianism and Transcendentalism, he became a noted Catholic writer.

Jeb Bush (b. 1953) — The second son of former President George H.W. Bush and a younger brother of former President George W. Bush, he served as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007.

Warren Carroll (1932-2011) — A famed Catholic historian, he is best known for his multivolume History of Christendom and as one of the founders of Christendom College.

Ronda Chervin (b. 1937) — An author, speaker, professor of philosophy and student of Dietrich von Hildebrand, she has written more than 60 books.

Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) — Queen of Sweden from 1632 until her abdication in 1654 for becoming a Catholic, she spent much of her life in exile in Rome.

Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) — An English art historian and broadcaster, he was famous for his monumental 1969 television series for the BBC, Civilisation.

Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917) — A scout, soldier, trapper, cowboy and showman, he became one of the most famous figures of the American West thanks to his show “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” He became a Catholic the day before his death.

William Congdon (1912-1998) — an American painter whose work was praised by Jacques Maritain.

Gerty Cori (1896-1957) — The first American woman to win a Nobel Prize, she shared the award with her husband in 1947 for “Physiology or Medicine.”

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) — One of the greatest Catholic historians of the 20th century, he taught at University College, Exeter, University of Edinburgh and Harvard.

Joseph Dutton (1843-1931) — A Civil War veteran and Union Army lieutenant, he worked for many years with St. Damien de Veuster on the island of Molokai in Hawaii caring for lepers.

Ulf Ekman (b. 1950) — A onetime evangelical Charismatic pastor and missionary, he surprised the Protestant world with his announcement in 2014 that he had converted.

Servant of God Demetrius Gallitzin (1770-1840) — A Russian prince, he converted at the age of 17, was ordained a priest and served for more than 40 years as the “Apostle of the Alleghenies.”

Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart (b. 1938) — A onetime Hollywood actress, she shocked the film industry when she left her career in the early 1960s to become a Benedictine nun.

Jesuit Father Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) — One of the foremost English poets of the late Victorian Age, he was received into the Church in 1866 by Blessed John Henry Newman.

Laura Ingraham (b. 1963) —  a conservative TV and radio talk show host and author.

Bobby Jindal   (b. 1971)— The governor of Louisiana (2008-2016), the first Indian-American governor, he previously served as a U.S. congressman 2005-2008.

Mother Nirmala Joshi (1934-2015) — A member of the Missionaries of Charity, she was successor to St. Teresa of Calcutta as head of the Missionaries of Charity from 1997 to 2009.

Ronald Knox (1888-1957) — A onetime Anglican priest, he is best known as a theological writer and author of detective fiction.

Peter Kreeft (b. 1937) — A professor of philosophy at Boston College, he is considered one of the foremost modern Catholic philosophers and specialists in apologetics.

Frances Kydd (1936-2004) — The mother of Diana, Princess of Wales, she converted in 1994. After Diana’s death in 1997, she dedicated herself to assisting Catholic charities.

Father Dwight Longenecker (b. 1956) — A former Anglican priest, writer and speaker, he is the author of more than 20 books.

James Longstreet (1821-1904) — Confederate general during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) under Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) — An English-born Scottish writer and Scottish nationalist, he was one of the founders of the Scottish National Party.

Cardinal Henry Manning (1808-1892) — The archbishop of Westminster from 1865 until his death in 1892, he served as a cardinal from 1875.

Servant of God Takashi Nagai (1908-1951) — a physician and survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Sally Read (b. 1971) — A British poet, she converted to Catholicism in 2010 and wrote a memoir, Night’s Bright Darkness, on her path to the Church.

Sylvester Rosecrans (1827-1878) — bishop of Columbus, Ohio, from 1868 until his death. He converted in 1845, the same year as his brother, William.

William Rosecrans (1819-1898) — A Union general during the American Civil War (1861-1865), he converted in 1845, the same year as his brother Sylvester.

Dutch Schultz (1901-1935) — One of the most famous gangsters in the United States, he earned the title of “Public Enemy No. 1.”

E.F. Schumacher (1911-1977) — A German economist best known for his books Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics (1973) and A Guide for the Perplexed (1977).

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) — the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized.

Frank Sheed (1897-1982) — An Australian-born lawyer and writer, he was also one of the great Catholic apologists in the 20th century.

Father Cyprian Tansi  (1903-1964) — A Nigerian priest and later a Cistercian monk in England, he was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1998. He baptized the future Cardinal Francis Arinze.

Ellen Tarry  (1906-2008) — The first African-American picture-book author, she wrote biographies of St. Katharine Drexel and Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) — the first American Indian to be canonized by the Church.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) — An English writer, poet and scholar, he is beloved for his epic fantasy novels The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Maria von Trapp  (1905-1987) — The famed stepmother of the Trapp Family Singers whose account of the family’s story inspired the Broadway musical and film The Sound of Music.

William Ward (1812-1882) — An English mathematician, editor and theologian, he belonged to the brilliant circle of Blessed John Henry Newman.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) — An Irish poet and playwright, he was also infamous in his era for his homosexuality. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.


Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.