St. Katharine Drexel
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who abandoned her family’s fortune to found an order of sisters dedicated to serving the impoverished African American and American Indian populations of the United States.
Katharine, the second daughter of Francis Anthony and Hannah Drexel, was born in Philadelphia in 1858. Hannah died about a month after Katherine’s birth.
A few years later, Katharine’s father, a wealthy and prominent banker and philanthropist, married Emma Bouvier – a distant aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. Emma was a deeply religious woman. Three years later, Emma gave birth to her own child, a third daughter whom they named Louise. The deeply religious couple taught their children that wealth was meant to be shared with others, particularly the poor.
The three siblings – Elizabeth, Katharine and Louise — were inseparable. They traveled out west together where they encountered native American Indians who lived on reservations and learned of their plight. These travels instilled within Katharine the desire to alleviate the sufferings of the Indians as well as those of the African Americans.
When she visited Pope Leo XIII in Rome, Katharine asked him to send missionaries to the Indian missions that she as a lay person was financing. He surprised by responding, “Why don’t you go? Why don’t you become one?”
As a teenager, Katharine had considered convent life, but in a letter to Bishop James O’Connor, stated that: she couldn’t bear separation from her family, she hated community life and the thought of living with “old-maidish” dispositions, did not like to be alone, and could not part with luxuries. At that time, the Bishop discouraged her from entering the convent.
After she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, Katharine began to realize that all the money her family had could not purchase protection from suffering or death. It was then that her life changed dramatically.
As time passed, Katharine became more and more convinced that she should become a religious. She once again wrote the Bishop, stating that she wanted to give herself completely to the Lord, adding, “The world cannot give me peace.” Thus, Katharine made the decision to give herself totally to God by her service to African Americans and Native Indian Americans. On February 12, 1891, Katharine took vows as a religious, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Katharine established many ministries, founding schools for African Americans and native Indian Americans, including, Xavier University, the only predominately black Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.
In 1935, Katharine suffered a severe heart attack and spent the next twenty years of her life in prayer until her death on March 3, 1955. She was canonized on October 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II.
Quotes from St. Katharine Drexel:
“The patient and humble endurance of the cross – whatever nature it may be – is the highest work we have to do.”
“If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well,we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them.”
“Often in my desire to work for others I find my hands tied, something hinders my charitable designs, some hostile influence renders me powerless. My prayers seem to avail nothing, my kind acts are rejected, I seem to do wrong things when I am trying to do my best. In such cases I must not grieve. I am only treading in my Master’s steps.”
“And here is the passive way – to be filled unto the fullness of God. The passive way – I abandon myself to it, not in a multiplicity of trials, extraordinary penances accomplished, practices of great works – but in peaceful abandonment to the tenderness of Jesus, which I must try to imitate, and by being in constant union with his meek and humble heart.
What likeness is there between me and my Mother? Do I try to be like her, in her love for Jesus? In her devotion for the cause for which he died – the salvation of souls – in her absolute submission to the will of God, in her patient suffering? Holy Mary, Mother of God and my Mother, too, let me stand at the foot of the cross with you, to learn its lesson and to learn to be like the Mother of Sorrows. Amen.
Photos of St. Katharine Drexel