Throughout our country’s history, Catholics have played an active role in building and shaping American culture. In fact, many practicing Catholics are included among the ranks of America’s Hall-of-Fame athletes, world-famous movie stars, and chart-topping musicians.
Here are five beloved cultural icons from the last century who you may not have realized were Catholic.
Babe Ruth (1895-1948)
Regarded by many as the greatest baseball player of all time, George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s profound reversion story is even more awe-inspiring than his stellar 1927 season, when he bashed a then-record-shattering 60 home runs. Indeed, his remarkable transformation from a directionless street child to a role-model for millions is a sign of God’s boundless mercy.
The “Great Bambino” was born to a working-class Catholic German-American family in Baltimore near the turn of the 20th Century. Despite the fact that both he and his parents were born in the United States, English was his second language. George had a troubled childhood. Shortly before his death in 1948, he wrote: “Looking back to my youth, I honestly don’t think I knew the difference between right and wrong.” He was described as an “incorrigible” kid who often skipped school and spent many of his days aimlessly roaming around Baltimore. He started drinking alcohol at an extremely young age and admitted that he “hardly knew” his parents.
When he was seven, George’s parents sent him to a Catholic reform school run by the Xaverian Brothers, who instilled in him a new foundation of faith and much-needed discipline. Indeed it was one of the Brothers who first tought young George to play baseball.
Ruth began his 22-year MLB career at the age of 19, and in his 20’s, he joined the Knights of Columbus. Humble and repentant, he attributed his incredible success to God and “prayed often and hard.”
In 1946, shortly after he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his life, Ruth received a note from a young boy from New Jersey named Mike.
Dear Babe. Everybody in the seventh-grade class is pulling and praying for you. I am enclosing a medal which if you wear will make you better. Your pal — Mike Quinlan. P.S. I know this will be your 61st homer. You’ll hit it.
Ruth wrote of that experience, “I asked them to pin the Miraculous Medal to my pajama coat. I’ve worn the medal constantly ever since. I’ll wear it to my grave.”
Bing Crosby (1903-1977)
Born Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr., the prolific singer and actor dominated the airwaves and movie theaters for five decades. His 43 number-one hits amounted to more than those of Elvis and The Beatles combined. However, what kept the Washington state native grounded in the midst of his enormous fame and popularity was his enduring faith and vocations to marriage and fatherhood.
“Crosby certainly wasn’t a perfect Catholic, but he was serious about his faith, and lived it more intentionally than many in Hollywood,” according to The American Catholic Almanac, by CatholicVote President Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson:
When he married, he stayed married. He lost his first wife to ovarian cancer in 1952, and his second marriage lasted until his death in 1977. Crosby also gladly welcomed children into the world– seven in total– and raised them in the Church.
When Crosby died in 1977, he received, at his request, a private Low Mass for his funeral and burial in a Catholic cemetery.
Bob Hope (1903-2003)
The legendary all-around entertainer Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope is considered to be one of the founders of American stand-up comedy. Born in England, he came to America at the age of four. Like many fellow immigrants at the time, he and his family were processed at Ellis Island.
As a young man, Hope was persistent, working hard as a boxer and through a series of jobs before finally landing his first acting role in his 20s. His storied career would last for seven-and-a-half decades. Hope was a 19-time host of the Oscars and starred in over 70 movies. He was also known for his many performances to American troops overseas, prompting Congress to pass a resolution making him an honorary military veteran.
Although Hope was not born or raised Catholic, Dolores, his wife of 69 years, was. Current Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose H. Gomez called Dolores Hope “a Catholic of deep and abiding faith [whose] own spiritual journey was her highest priority.” The Hopes financed two chapels dedicated to Our Lady of Hope: one in France, the other in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Hope finally was received into the Church in his 90s, seven years before he passed away at the age of 100. His personal friend Cardinal Roger Mahony stated that one of his greatest joys was “knowing that Bob Hope died as a Catholic.”
Danny Thomas (1912-1991)
Danny Thomas was born Amos Kairouz to Maronite (Eastern Rite Catholic) parents who immigrated from Lebanon. Growing up in a large family with nine siblings, he adopted his stage name after combining the names of two of his brothers: Danny and Thomas. The Michigan-born comedian and actor made a name for himself on the radio and the big screen, and starred in one of the earliest sitcoms, The Danny Thomas Show (originally called Make Room for Daddy).
However, despite the success of his long-running program, Thomas’ proudest accomplishment was not in show business but instead founding St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Thomas had a special devotion to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, which began when he was a young husband and father in Detroit struggling to provide for his newborn child. Walking into a nearby church, he found a statue of St. Jude and prayed, “Help me find my place in life.” Shortly thereafter, he had his first big break in the entertainment industry. Thanking the great saint and apostle for his intercession, in 1962, Thomas founded a non-profit charity hospital for children in St. Jude’s honor.
Currently, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis treats over 8,000 children a year and is funded exclusively through donations. Its patients, whose families never receive a bill, suffer from a variety of deadly diseases (to which the team of doctors and scientists at St. Jude are dedicated to finding cures), such as leukemia, other types of cancer, and sickle-cell disease. Though Thomas passed away in 1991, his legacy lives on. His daughter Marlo, now 85, is currently the National Outreach Director for St. Jude.
Kobe Bryant (1978-2020)
One of the greatest basketball players to ever live, Kobe Bryant inspired millions both on and off the court and during his brief retirement. The late NBA superstar, who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, was also a devoted husband and father of four girls whose life was shaped and guided by his unfailing Catholic faith.
Born to a Catholic family in Philadelphia, Bryant spent a sizeable part of his childhood and adolescence in Italy, where his father Joe played basketball for eight years. In 2001, at the age of 22, and months after winning his first NBA Finals, Bryant married the love of his life, Vanessa, in a Catholic ceremony.
Bryant credited his trust in God for helping him overcome several struggles in his life. He and his family regularly attended Mass, and he raised his daughters Catholic. Cristina Ballestero, a singer who would often see Bryant at daily Mass, reflected on his reverence.
As we went up to communion, [Bryant] waited for me to go. If you grew up in the Catholic Church, you understand this is a respectful thing men do in church as a sign of respect to women. He said I have a beautiful voice.
Tragically, Bryant’s life was cut short on the morning of Sunday, January 26, 2020, when he was killed in a helicopter accident while taking his daughter, Gianna, to her basketball game that afternoon. He was only 41. Gianna, 13, also passed away in the crash.
Just hours before his death, Bryant attended Mass with his family and received Communion. Father Steve Sallot, the priest who said Mass that fateful day, remarked: “We shook hands. I saw that he had blessed himself because there was a little holy water on his forehead.”