Modern Day Saint

Katherine Drexel

(1858 to 1955)

One of the wealthiest women in America, Saint Katherine Marie Drexel offered her fortune, her life, and the total commitment of her heart for the benefit of others. She was born in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, the second daughter of Francis and Hannah Drexel. Hannah died one month after Katherine's birth. Later Francis married Emma Bovier, who was Catholic and who raised Katherine and her sister in the faith. At an early age she was drawn to prayer and felt a special attraction to Saint Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi. Katherine made her debut in Philadelphia Society in 1879, but was inclined to the religious life. Katherine's stepmother, Emma died that same year and her father died a year later. As a result, Katherine and her sister each received an inheritance of $1,000 per day.

In 1886, Katherine became ill and went to Germany to recover at a spa. While there, she recruited European priests and nuns for the American Indian missions, having recommended the establishment of a Catholic Bureau for such endeavors. When she had an audience with Pope Leo Xlll, she begged him to send missionaries to help the native Americans. Challenged by the Pope to become a missionary herself, the following year Katherine built schools in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, California, Oregon, and New Mexico. Katherine's generous acts were also motivated by the deprivations and injustices suffered by many African Americans as well as the Native Americans.

In 1889, Katherine entered the Sisters of Mercy novitiate, receiving her habit on November 7th from Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia. In 1891, Katherine 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, at Cornwall Heights near Philadelphia, there were twenty-one religious in the congregation. The first mission was St. Catherine's in Santa Fe New Mexico. Other missions and schools followed, including Xavier University in New Orleans.

Pope St. Pius X gave preliminary approval of the congregation in 1907. Katherine instituted a fourth vow in the congregation, beside those of poverty, chastity and obedience. Katherine vowed "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." She also received prudent counsel on religious affairs from a contemporary, Saint Mother Frances Cabrini.

Elected superior general, Katherine continued to expand the scope of her congregation's labors. In 1912, while in New Mexico, she contracted typhoid fever and was forced to spend time recuperating. She recovered, and in 1915 founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first U.S. Catholic institution of higher education for blacks.

Katherine did not stop her many projects or the dispensing of her millions of inherited dollars until 1935, when a heart attack forced her to retire as superior general. She went to the convent infirmary to pray and to mature in the contemplative life. She died in March 1955, in Cornwall Heights. Mother Katherine left behind a true legacy of love -- a host of dedicated sisters to provide education and assistance to African and native Americans.

Pope John Paul ll beatified Katherine on November 20, 1988, calling her a woman of lively faith, deeply committed to the truth revealed by Christ, the truth she knew so well because she constantly heard Christ's voice.

At a jubilee mass on October 1, 2000, Mother Katherine Drexel became the second native-born United States citizen to be declared a saint. During the service, Pope John Paul ll said her use of a family fortune to help educate the poor was a shining example of American generosity. The Pope praised Mother Drexel for recognizing the dangers of racism in U.S. society, then giving all she had to fight it. She eventually founded more than 60 schools for Native Americans and African-Americans. He said: "Her apostolate helped bring about a growing awareness of the need to combat all forms of racism through education and social services. Katherine Drexel is an excellent example of that practical charity and generous solidarity with the less fortunate which has long been the distinguishing mark of American Catholics."

The Pope described how, as a young woman in the late 1800s Katherine Drexel was deeply moved by the suffering endured by many Native Americans and African-Americans. Using her inheritance she built missions and schools dedicated to helping them. The Pope noted that Mother Drexel taught a spirituality that combined prayerful union with the Eucharistic Lord and zealous service to the victims of racial discrimination.

Pope John ll said he hoped this example of faith in action would appeal to young people today, showing them there is nothing better than following Christ with an undivided heart and sharing one's gifts in the service of others to build a better world.

Attending the Mass were members of the Blessed Sacrament Order, whose 225 nuns run more than 40 schools and ministry sites in 13 states. Also among those attending was a man cured from an inner ear disease in 1974 that was attributed to the miraculous intercession of Mother Drexel. Earlier this year, Church officials recognized another miracle attributed to Mother Drexel's intercession. A U.S. girl was cured of deafness in 1994. This cleared the way for Mother Drexel's canonization, completing a process that began 36 years ago in Philadelphia.

Jim Fritz

A portion of the above was edited from an article in John Paul ll's Book of Saints published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. Other portions of the article were taken from the October 12, 2000 issue of Catholic Standard.



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