Television has an easier time with sinners than with saints. "A Time for Miracles," the ABC Sunday Night Movie at 9 on Channel 7, treads on such hesitant tippy-toes around the story of Mother Seton, the first American-born saint, that the film utterly lacks dramatic tension.
However, the raw materials of the story are very strong, and nothing if not appropriate to a holiday season, and Kate Mulgrew ("Mrs. Columbo" in a brief, unhappy former life) looks like she just stepped off a Christmas card in the role of Mother Seton. So Henry Denker can be forgiven a screenplay that amounts to little more than a recitation of events from a remarkable life.
Certainly Mother Seton was visited with more than the usual share of tribulations. Her husband dies of consumption early in the film; later she loses two daughters to the disease. In the early 1800s, in New York, she decides to convert to Catholicism even after a makeshift St. Peter's church has been stormed by a vicious mob (the film gives brief but rare attention to early anti-Catholic prejudice in America).
In 1808, with the promise her children can attend a "fine Georgetown school" ("Georgetown!" she says breathlessly), she goes to Baltimore to open a school of her own. Enter Lorne Greene as Bishop John Carroll, who joins a lackluster supporting cast that includes John Forsythe, Rossano Brazzi and Jean-Pierre Aumont. The film begins to look less like the story of a saint than priests' day at Pimlico.
But Mulgrew is its saving grace, radiant in a selfless, understated way; every shot of her snaps one to attentions and respect. At odds with a numbing narration by Forsythe ("After the dedication of her new school, Mother Seton's order grew") and a laggardly approach by director Michael O'Herlihy, she brings life and conviction to the film.
It ends with Pope John Paul VI proclaiming from St. Basilica, in 1975, "Elizabeth Ann Seton is saint." There may be other works about the life of Mother Seton -- surely somebody is writing or has written an opera -- but Kate Mulgrew makes "A Time for Miracles" a respectable beginning.