Lifelong CatechesisForming Catholic identity across generations
For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Katharine Drexel, Religious, 1858-1955
Katharine was the daughter of Francis A. Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphia banker. When she was just five weeks old, Katharine’s mother died and she was raised by a loving step-mother, Emma Bouvier Drexel.
Katharine traveled extensively with her parents and two sisters, and received the best education available. But she was also given a firm foundation in faith. Her mother—Katharine refused to allow anyone to call Emma a stepmother—had an oratory (prayer room) built into the family home. All of the family members used this retreat for prayer and meditation. Three days per week, Emma, supported by her husband, opened her doors to the poor of Philadelphia and gave them food, clothing, and money for rent. It is said that the family spent about twenty thousand dollars per year in this charity. Her family also contributed generously to the missions which served the American Indians and Blacks, and Katharine found herself working in this ministry even as a young girl.
Katharine chose to give her life over to taking care of Indians and black people. Shortly after her father’s death in 1883 (Emma had died two years earlier), Katharine became aware of the gross injustices with which Indian affairs were being handled. Over the next several years, she and her sisters gave $1.5 million to the construction of missions and schools, including money for equipment, and teachers’ salaries. An efficient, practical businesswoman, Katharine, oversaw the disbursement of most of this money and the design of simple, but serviceable buildings for the Native American Indian schools.
In her early twenties, Katharine had considered a religious vocation. She was doing much good in her charitable works, however, and the fullness of her life left little time for thoughtfully pursuing that vocation. A bishop who acted as her spiritual advisor was initially unconvinced that Katharine had a calling to the religious life. After a time, he recommended that Katharine found her own order to minister to the Indians and blacks. At first, Katharine felt unworthy to do this, but at the bishop’s urging, agreed to the mission.
In 1889, Katharine entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh to prepare herself for her mission. In 1891, she founded a new order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Katharine did much for the Native Americans and the blacks over her long life. Schools for Indians covered most of the West from the Canadian border to Mexico. In 1915, she founded Xavier University in New Orleans for the black people of that city. It has been estimated that, in her lifetime, Katharine spent approximately $12 million in her ministry to the Indians and blacks.
Pope John Paul II canonized this saint on October 1, 2000. We honor her on March 3.
Katharine's message today: While Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven, he never said that it was impossible. The Drexel family provides an excellent example of the proper use of wealth. Although most of us will never be in this position, we can follow the example of Katharine and use our resources to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.