St. Katharine Drexel: Woman of Charity, Fortitude, and Justice
On March 3, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, an American heiress and socialite who shocked the world when at age 31, she abandoned her family’s fortune to become a Roman Catholic nun and to found an order of sisters dedicated to serving the impoverished Blacks and American Indian populations of the United States. Using her inheritance of $7 million, she spent the next 60 years and an estimated $20 million building missions, schools and churches for Native Americans and Blacks.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 26, 1858, Katharine Drexel was the second daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. 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 poor Indians and Blacks.
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.
As a young and wealthy woman, Katharine Drexel made her social debut in 1879. However, 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 Blacks 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, Between 1891 and 1935 she led her order in the founding and maintenance of almost 60 schools and missions, located primarily in the American West and Southwest. Her most important achivement was the founding of New Orleans’ Xavier University, the only historically Black Catholic college in the U.S.
At age 77, Katharine suffered a severe heart attack and spent the next twenty years of her life in prayer and contemplation until her death at 96 on March 3, 1955. She was canonized on October 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II.
Katharine left a four-fold dynamic legacy to her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who continue her apostolate today:
– her love for the Eucharist, her spirit of prayer, and her Eucharistic perspective on the unity of all peoples;
– her undaunted spirit of courageous initiative in addressing social iniquities among minorities — one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
– her belief in the importance of quality education for all, and her efforts to achieve it;
– her total giving of self, of her inheritance and all material goods in selfless service of the victims of injustice.
Quotes from St. Katharine Drexel:
“Union with God alone gives us life and abundance of life. We are not sufficient in ourselves.”
“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.”
“O Mary, make me endeavor, by all the means in my power, to extend the kingdom of your Divine Son and offer incessantly my prayers for the conversion of those who are yet in darkness or estranged from His fold.”
Ever Loving God, You called Saint Katharine Drexel to teach the message of the Gospel and to bring the life of the Eucharist to Black and Native American peoples. By her prayers and example, enable us to work for justice among the poor and oppressed. Draw us all into the Eucharistic community of your Church that we may be one in you. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.