When he declared her “Blessed” in November 1988, Pope John Paul II praised Mother Katharine Drexel for her untiring efforts to uphold the dignity of America’s two most underprivileged minorities, the Blacks and the Indians. Because she had expended her own funds for this purpose, he compared her to Christ, who as St. Paul wrote, “made Himself poor though He was rich,” so that others might “become rich by His poverty.”,
Who was this woman whose beatification was attended by 1000 United States pilgrims, among them many Blacks and Native Americans led by Black Bishop Joseph J. Francis of Newark, N.J and Indian Bishop Donald L. Pelotte of Galiup, N.M.? Who was this sister, the second native-born American to be declared “Blessed,” and at that only 33 years after her death?
Katharine Drexel was one of the three children – all daughters – of Philadelphian Francis Anthony Drexel. The name Drexel is still notable in the American world of finance. Francis Drexel, the descendant of Austrian forebears, was a colleague of J. Pierpont Morgan, and himself one of the leading United States stockbrokers. Despite their multimillions, however, Francis and his first and second wives were very devout Catholics, actively engaged in charities. Their three remarkable daughters, Elizabeth, Katherine, and Louise, followed the parents’ example in serving the needy.
The second Mrs. Drexel, Emma Bouvier, died in 1883, and Francis followed her in 1885. He left an estate of $15 million. One million he bequeathed to a Lutheran hospital and several Catholic institutions. The rest he put into a trust fund, the interest payable to his young daughters as long as they lived. After the death of the last heir, the principal was to be divided among the institutions that had received the $1 million in bequests.
Katharine had early become saddened by the wretched state of the Indians in the western states. During a private audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1887, she pleaded with him to provide missionary priests for these Native Americans. The pope replied, “Why not become a missionary yourself, my child?” This was not what she had meant, but the more she thought about his question, the more she felt it was a divine call.
In 1891, therefore, Katharine founded a religious order devoted to Eucharistic worship and to an apostolate restricted to American Blacks and Indians. She called it “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored people.” It is interesting to note that when compiling her religious rule, she consulted with another American missionary nun, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
We have not space enough to describe the many ingenious ways that Mother Katharine found to assist Indians and Blacks, working bravely against the discriminatory attitudes that even Catholics then had towards both races. Her chief thrust was educational. Today the order counts 360 members in charge of 13 social centers, 18 elementary schools, 3 high schools, and one outstanding university (Xavier University of New Orleans). A black sister now heads the order. Most of the funding for Blessed Katharine’s campaign came from her own patrimony. Since her two sisters had died without children by 1945, from then until her death in 1955 she was the sole recipient of the interest, although physical ailments after 1935 obliged her to promote her cause mostly by prayer. When she died at 96, the total amount she had spent was $14 million. Because she gave her annual income to charity, she was exempted from income tax by a special federal law that excused anybody who donated at least 90 percent to nonprofit organizations. Yet in her own life, this woman, born in the lap of luxury, adhered very literally to her vow of poverty.
Since Mother Katharine carefully avoided any personal publicity, she was little known to most American Catholics. But those who felt her helping hand bear witness to the impact she had on them and theirs.
“To many Blacks and Native Americans,” says Father Clarence Williams, president of the Black Television Network, “she is still the most important Catholic figure.” And retired Nurse Agnes Davis, who attended the Sisters’ St. Mark’s School in New York, asks, “What would we have done without her?” Agnes lovingly recalls how Mother Katharine, on visits of inspection, used to tell the African-American children, “Remember, you’re just as good as anybody!”
Pope John Paul II canonized Mother Katharine on October 1, 2000.
Saint Katharine Drexel is surely a woman for our country and our times!
–Father Robert F. McNamara