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St. Katharine Drexel (March 3)

March 3, 2005

Today’s saint was a woman of many journeys, besides being the first U.S.-born, cradle Catholic to be canonized (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S.-born saint canonized, was a convert). While she was growing up she traveled extensively with her family in Europe and the American West, but as her vocation matured, her travels developed a more missionary flavor.

St. Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia in 1858 with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her grandfather’s small banking firm, managed in collaboration with his two sons, flourished through their hard work and favorable economic conditions. However, money could not buy her mother’s health. Katharine and her older sister, Elizabeth, were left motherless just five weeks after Katharine was born. Two years later, Katharine’s father remarried and his new wife, Emma, a devout Catholic who was nicknamed “Lady Bountiful” for her routine generosity to the poor, took the girls under her wing. In time, God blessed them with a baby sister, Louise.

Katharine learned to love God at an early age. Emma supplemented her lessons (given by a private tutor) by leading family discussions on the lives of the saints and the teaching of the Church. The girls helped her distribute food, clothing, coal & rent money when the poor came to the house twice a week for help. Her father also was a man of deep prayer, who often took Katharine to Mass and secretly helped immigrant priests “get on their feet”, which meant that priests were regular visitors. One priest in particular, Fr. James O’Conner (who later became bishop of Omaha), became a close family friend and Katharine’s spiritual director. The family prayed together in the morning, at night and before meals. Their country estate was named after St. Michael the archangel, who was depicted in stained glass at the head of the front staircase and in stone over the entrance, and their main home had a special room set aside for prayer, with a beautiful marble statue of Our Lady.

In this atmosphere of prayer, generosity and open devotion, Katharine developed a hunger for the Eucharist. In those days the usual age of First Communion was twelve, and most people were only allowed to receive the Eucharist once a month. Even Sisters were usually limited to three times a week. Because of her eagerness, Katharine was allowed to make her First Communion when she was eleven, and when she later founded her religious order, she requested (and was granted) special permission for her Sisters to receive the Eucharist daily. This prayer of hers expresses her Eucharistic devotion:
****
O memorial of the wonders of God’s love! Take our cold hearts prisoner, draw them to yourself, for a heart is not worthy to beat that does not beat for you alone! (http://www.synod-phl.org/call_to_holiness.htm)
****

Tragedy again struck the family in 1883, when Katharine’s beloved stepmother died after a three-year battle with cancer. Her father died two years later, leaving her orphaned at age 27. She and her sisters were now wealthy heiresses, hounded by suitors, greedy businessmen and charities. Having heard of the plight of the Native Americans from the priests who had visited their home, and appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s _A Century of Dishonor_, Katharine and her sisters began donating regularly to the Native American missions and traveled to some of these missions themselves. They noted the lack of teachers and began to recruit missionaries. Katharine was also concerned about the welfare of former slaves. The Civil War had been fought while she was still a little girl (it started when she was about three & ended when she was about seven), and by this time African Americans were free in name, but more or less left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.

In 1887, while traveling in Europe, Katharine begged Pope Leo XIII himself to send missionaries to help the Native Americans and African Americans. His response surprised her. “Why not become a missionary yourself, my child?” This wasn’t what she expected. When she returned home she consulted her spiritual director, now Bishop O’Connor of Omaha, describing the pope’s response and explaining that she felt drawn to a more contemplative life, especially to the daily reception of the Eucharist which was allowed for contemplatives. She wanted to enter a cloister, not an active, missionary order. The bishop, however, advised her to found her own community which combined her love of the Eucharist with her love for Native Americans and African Americans. In preparation for this, she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy, learning along with the younger novices (she was thirty-one) the spirit and structure of Religious Life. Two years later, in 1891, she professed her vows as the first member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. She opened a novitiate and by the end of the year 21 women had joined her.

Another American saint, foundress St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, gave her advice for developing the Rule of her new community and presenting it for approval in Rome.

To the usual three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Mother Drexel added a fourth: “to be the mother and servant of the Indians and Negro races according to the rule of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and not to undertake any work that would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian and the Colored races.” The vow of poverty raised the question of what to do with her sizeable inheritance. The Archbishop of Philadelphia, who was responsible for the new order because it had originated in his diocese, settled the matter for her. “You can retain the possession and the administration, but you have to promise in case of my requiring it, that you would renounce your possessions” (http://www.allformary.org/AmericanSaints/drexel.htm). She agreed, and in the course of her lifetime spent $14 million of her inheritance for the benefit of Native Americans and African Americans. Much of that money went into building and funding schools and missions, providing disadvantaged children with an education so that they could learn to help themselves. She founded 62 schools and the only Catholic University for African Americans in the United States, Xavier University in New Orleans. In addition, she founded 49 convents of Sisters to staff the schools and missions. All this required a great deal of travel and correspondence as well as courage and diplomacy.

Mother Drexel’s respect for those she served was unusual in her day, even among Catholics. Agnes Davis, who had studied at one of Mother Drexel’s schools, recalled that when Mother Drexel visited the school for inspections, she always told the African-American children, “Remember, you’re just as good as anybody!” (http://www.stthomasirondequoit.com/SaintsAlive/id271.htm) At every opportunity, she spoke out about the needs of the Native Americans and African Americans. Her respect provoked a great deal of opposition from those who did not share it. Two of her schools were burned down. She rebuilt. The Ku Klux Klan threatened to tar and feather the pastor at one of her schools in Texas, and to bomb his church. After the Sisters prayed for help, a tornado destroyed the KKK headquarters, killing two of their members. The KKK backed down. In other instances, Mother Drexel faced the opposition with such refinement and style that she won the respect of her enemies.

During the last years of her life Mother Drexel was an invalid, deepening the contemplative life of prayer she had wanted to embrace from the beginning. She died on this date in 1955, at the age of 96. Her reputation for holiness was so great that the cause for her beatification was formally opened less than ten years after her death. She was declared Blessed in 1988 and canonized in the year of the Jubilee, 2000.

St. Katharine Drexel, please pray for us.
Pray for holiness and generosity within our families.
Pray that we might devote our lives and our resources
to God’s purposes rather than our own comforts.
And pray also that we might learn to demonstrate love and respect
for those who differ from us as well as for those who oppose us.

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