Every baptized Christian is in the business of striving to become a saint. Some canonized saints, however, literally ran businesses of their own — and quite honorably.
They experienced the kind of difficulties and successes commonly experienced in entrepreneurial ventures and conducted their enterprises with admirable integrity and virtue. In that regard, they serve as inspirational role models for businesspersons in the modern world.
Here is a glimpse of just a few such saints.
A good (business) man
The distinction of sole recognition as the patron saint of business people goes to St. Homobonus Tucingo, who lived in 12thcentury Cremona in what is now part of Italy. The son of a successful tailor and merchant, he inherited his father’s wealth as well as his desire to serve God and neighbor through his conduct of business.
He earned a reputation for scrupulous honesty, commercial success, and for donating the majority of his profits to the poor. He clearly understood that the financial blessings he received through his entrepreneurial gifts were meant to be shared with the needy around him. Some say the more he gave away, the more his business grew. At the age of 50, he gave up his tailoring business to devote himself full time to his charitable initiatives. Always a devout and pious man, he died at 86 while attending Mass, collapsing to the floor with his arms outstretched in the cruciform position.
“In addition to being a married layman, what was interesting about Homobonus is how quickly he was canonized,” says Dr. Robert Sexty, professor emeritus of business ethics at Memorial University of Newfoundland who used the saint to teach his graduate students how good corporate citizenship is good for business.
His story, Sexty says, raises questions about social responsibility. “There’s been a shift away from pure giving with no strings attached,” he said. “Businesses and individuals should consider doing good works that are not directly connected to a financial return.”
Homobonus did indeed achieve sainthood quickly: in 1199, two years after his death, he was canonized by decree of Pope Innocent III. “His business he looked upon as an employment given him by God,” read the papal bull. Homobonus, it continued, “is a saint by acquitting himself diligently, upon perfect motives of virtue and religion, of all the obligations of his profession.”
‘They were complementary and united’
Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin were each accomplished entrepreneurs even before they met in Alençon, France, in 1858 — the same year they wed and started a family that would include a daughter who would one day be known as St. Therese of Lisieux. Louis was a successful watchmaker and jeweler, while Zelie had a lacemaking business: she would design patterns, assign sections of the work to her employees, and then assemble the pieces into the exquisite lacework for which Alençon is known.
The Martins operated separate enterprises for awhile, but eventually Louis sold his shops so he could assist his wife as her manager and salesman. As something of an artist, he also designed lace. He traveled throughout France drumming up business for their enterprise.
The Martins “worked very hard and were conscientious employers,” says Fr. James Geoghegan, OCD, who has spoken and written widely on St. Therese and her family. “They had a developed sense of social responsibility, with a practical concern for the poor. Louis insisted that the lace workers be paid as they finished their work, and he took good care of them, especially when they were sick.”
Zelie’s preserved letters reveal the ups and downs she experienced in her business. “How much toil and hard work for this cursed Alençon lace, which is filling up my suffering to the brim!” she wrote in 1866. “I earn a little bit of money, true, but my God, at what cost!” At times she expressed exasperation, as she did in 1868: “My business is going badly, really badly, it couldn’t get any worse.” But Zelie’s faith would always carry her through. “When I began my Alençon lace business, I ended up sick with all the worries,” she wrote earlier that same year. “Now I am more reasonable about it; I worry less, and I accept all the unpleasant obstacles that happen or could happen. I tell myself: the Lord wants it this way, and I don’t think about it anymore.”
Louis also provided concern and encouragement for his wife, as evidenced by letters he sent home during his sales trips. “You’re working too hard, you’re tiring yourself out,” he once wrote Zelie from Paris. “We’ll work hard, but God will take care of the rest. We’ll build up a small, prosperous business, but don’t be killing yourself in the process.”
As daughter Celine would later write in a biography of her father about her parents’ marriage: “They were complementary and united. Each one approved and gave a helping hand to their charitable commitments. The same for work: it was not so common that a father helped his spouse as [Louis] did with the children and even less so that he left his own work (that he loved so much) to help her work with her (and not in her place), to spend more time with her and to lighten her labors.”
When Zelie died of breast cancer in 1877 after 19 years of marriage, Louis left the lace business and moved his daughters to Lisieux so they could be near Zelie’s brother and his wife. Retired, he dabbled in a few small business ventures and property investments until he experienced declining health and, eventually, death in 1894.
Priest, martyr, and entrepreneur
St. Maximilian Kolbe is well known and remembered as the “saint of Auschwitz” for having stepped forward to volunteer to take the place of a married man with children who was selected for execution in a starvation bunker at the notorious World War II concentration camp in southern Poland. What is less known is that prior to his arrest by the Nazis, Fr. Kolbe was a tireless missionary who achieved great success in the publishing and communications industry.
As a young priest in his native Poland, he founded the monthly magazine Knights of the Immaculate and operated a printing press. In 1927, he founded a new Conventual Franciscan monastery near Warsaw that would become not only the largest monastery in the world but also a major religious publishing house; soon he would employ 700 friars, and his magazine would circulate 750,000 copies (two other magazines would reach peak circulations of over 200,000). Four years later, he founded a monastery and a newspaper in Japan before returning to his Poland monastery to start a radio station.
His publishing house in Poland was state of the art. Consulting the best business professors from Warsaw universities, he implemented a production scheme based on “scientific management” or “Taylorism,” an efficiency method popularized by American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorism breaks down every action, job, or task into small and simple segments that can be analyzed and easily taught to employees. It would be credited for the immense wartime production from Allied factories, and it helped Fr. Kolbe to efficiently produce printed materials for the edification of his readers.
The Polish priest had other entrepreneurial visions he was unable to act on. He looked into using telegraph and television for outreach; he planned to build airstrips and use planes to distribute his publications more efficiently. Fascinated with astrophysics, he even developed a concept for an “ethereoplane,” a vehicle for space travel.
So impressive was his business acumen that a group of Polish businessmen has petitioned Pope Francis to name St. Maximilian Kolbe “the patron saint of entrepreneurs and start-ups beginning their business journey.” Their petition reads in
As entrepreneurs, we know very well that the world of business needs inspiring role models… We consider St. Maximilian Kolbe one of such people.
St. Peter Faber, the business whisperer?
St. Peter Faber, a 16th-century co-founder of the Society of Jesus and the first Jesuit priest, is a relatively new saint, having been canonized by Pope Francis in 2013. It was done without fanfare; the Pope, dispensing with the conventional canonization process requiring verification of miracles attributed to Faber’s intercession, merely signed a bull of canonization to recognize a new Jesuit saint.
He was a seminary roommate of St. Francis Xavier and actually taught Aristotelian philosophy to St. Ignatius of Loyola. Yet he remains in the shadow of those two holy missionaries, to the point that one of Faber’s biographers refers to him as “the other companion.”
St. Peter Faber was a great spiritual director whose ability to dialogue and teach patiently helped reform the Church and strengthen Catholics in their faith during the turbulent times of the Reformation. His pastoral counsel was often simple and practical: “Seek grace for the smallest things,” he wrote, “and you will also find grace to accomplish, to believe in, and to hope for the greatest things.”
Despite the fact he had no entrepreneurial experience, some have suggested Faber be considered a patron saint for business. Why is that?
Chris Lowney, author and popular speaker on leadership and business ethics, has suggested the wise Jesuit saint had some profound ideas to share about the role of business in society.
Overwhelmed by the rampant poverty in the city of Mainz, Germany, Faber estimated there were some 6,500 beggars and homeless wandering the streets. He did his best to tend to their basic needs, but envisioned a more permanent solution: “Perhaps if we [Jesuits] had a flair for business … and we had not such a [spiritual] harvest to be reaped … we could concern ourselves more with this problem.”
Here he was stating and implying several things:
Business can help alleviate poverty in society. Entrepreneurs support themselves and their families, and often provide jobs for others. All benefit from the dignity of work. Business owners must operate with concern for the common good of the community.
It takes a certain “flair” to run a business. Entrepreneurship requires particular gifts and talents. If a person has the God-given gifts to succeed in business, he or she must use those gifts for the greater glory of God, in keeping with sound moral and ethical values.
Spiritual goods take precedence. The Jesuits of his time were not businessmen because they were focused primarily on addressing the spiritual needs of the people, helping them navigate the path to eternal life. That points to a greater good: businesspersons must conduct their affairs in such a way as to recognize both the earthly needs and the spiritual well being of their employees, their customers, and the communities they serve. We need charitable outreach, but we also need a strong business economy in order to provide longterm solutions.
He may have been an outsider to the business world, but St. Peter Faber certainly makes an appropriate “other companion” to help guide the principles of business leaders today. The Australian Catholic University certainly thinks so: in 2016, administrators renamed their School of Business after him.
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.