SAINT KATHARINE DREXEL (1858-1955), virgin, religious and foundress
Today, the Church honors Saint Katharine Drexel, who truly lived a very humble and prayerful life, serving the Body of Christ by attending to the spiritual and corporal needs of both Native-Americans and African-Americans throughout the United States.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858, Katharine was the second daughter of Francis and Hannah Drexel. Her father was a well known banker and philanthropist. Katharine’s mother died just weeks after her birth. Francis remarried and both he and Katharine’s step-mother, Emma, instilled in both their daughters the idea that their wealth was simply loaned to them and was to be shared with others.
When the family took a trip to the Western part of the United States, Katharine, as a young woman, saw the plight and destitution of the Native-American Indians. This experience aroused within her a strong desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition. This was the beginning of her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. The first school she established was Saint Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1887.
Later, when visiting Pope Leo XIII in Rome, and asking him for missionaries to staff some of the Indian missions that she, as a lay person, was financing, she was surprised to hear the Pope suggest that she become a missionary herself. After consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O’Connor, she made the decision to give herself totally to God, along with her inheritance, through service to Native-Americans and African-Americans.
Katharine’s life was now transformed into a poverty of spirit that became a daily constant in a life supported only by the bare necessities. On February 12, 1891, Katharine professed her first vows as a religious, founding the “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose dedication would be to share the message of the Gospel and the life of the Eucharist among the Native-American and African-American peoples. The Order’s Rule was approved by Rome in the year 1913.
Always a woman of intense prayer, Sister Katharine found in the Eucharist the source of her love for the poor and oppressed, and of her concern to reach out to combat the effects of racism. Knowing that many African-Americans were far from free, still living in substandard conditions as sharecroppers or underpaid workers, denied education and constitutional rights enjoyed by others, she felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.
Founding and staffing schools for both Native-American and African-American children throughout the country became a priority for Mother Drexel, as she was now known, and her congregation. During her lifetime, she opened, staffed and directly supported nearly 60 schools and missions, especially in the West and Southwestern United States.
Her crowning educational focus was the establishment in 1925 of Xavier University of Louisiana, the only predominantly African-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. Religious education, social services, visitations in homes, hospitals and prisons were also included in the ministries of Mother Drexel and her fellow religious sisters.
Through the initiative of her prophetic witness, the Church in the United States was enabled to become aware of the grave domestic need for an apostolate among Native-Americans and African-Americans. She did not hesitate to speak out against injustice, taking a public stance when racial discrimination was evident.
For the last 18 years of her life, Mother Drexel was rendered almost completely immobile because of a serious heart ailment. During these years, she gave herself to a life of adoration and contemplation, as she had desired from early childhood.
She died at the age of ninety-six at the Order’s Motherhouse in Bensalem, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1955, and was canonized a saint by Pope St. John Paul II on October 1, 2000. Her shrine at the Motherhouse was declared a National Shrine in 2008, where her mortal remains are interred.
We commemorate the feastday of Saint Katharine Drexel on March 3.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org and vatican.va)
(The following prayer is from the Roman Breviary from the Proper for Saint Katharine Drexel)
“Ever-loving God, You called Saint Katharine Drexel to teach the message of the Gospel and to bring the life of the Eucharist to the African-American and Native-American peoples. By her prayers and example, enable us to work for justice among the poor and the oppressed, and keep us undivided in love in the Eucharistic community of Your Church.
“Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”