F. Skye, a Native American who attended St. Paul’s Indian Mission
High School in Marty, South Dakota, in the early 1950s, never met
Blessed Katharine Drexel. But in a very real sense, this San Antonio
real-estate agent says he owes his life to one of the most remarkable
women in American history.
In class each day, Skye learned
about Mother Katharine, courtesy of Sister Marie Celine Enright, an
Irish-born Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. Sister Marie Celine had
regaled her Native American students with stories about the Philadelphia
heiress and how she had devoted her life and her multimillion-dollar
fortune to educating and seeking justice for Indians and African-Americans.
Sister Marie Celine told her
teenagers about the woman in the “black robe” who had befriended Sioux
Chief Red Cloud, about the slight but energetic nun who had overcome
the hostility and indifference of society and the Church to establish
an amazing network of schools, churches and missions specifically
for blacks and Native Americans, about the zealous visionary who was
almost a century before her time in demanding civil rights for all.
“I knew all about her through
Sister Celine,” says Skye, who in 1957 became the first Native American
graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, there on a special scholarship
secured by Sister Marie Celine. Xavier University is the only Catholic
institution of higher learning established exclusively for African-Americans
in the Western Hemisphere and the crowning jewel of St. Katharine’s
educational system. “Sister Marie Celine told us she was a millionairess,
the daughter of an investment banker named Francis Drexel. I was very
impressed because she was somebody who could do anything or be anything,
and she gave it all up to work with minorities.”
Sister Marie Celine, now 80 and
doing community work at St. Agatha Parish in Los Angeles, says she
had hoped to motivate her students by telling them inspirational stories
about Mother Katharine.
“I knew if they went back to
the reservation that would be the end of it,” Sister Marie Celine
says. “I would tell them that Mother Katharine knew they could do
the work and that they should be proud of themselves. The blacks and
Native American people were her pride and joy, but they had never
had a chance.”
And now, the woman who many believe
started the Catholic Church in America on the road toward racial integration
belongs to the world. On October 1, Pope John Paul II will canonize
Blessed Katharine in St. Peter’s Square, making her only the second
American-born saint. (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first in 1975.)
Katharine Drexel, whose cause
for sainthood began in 1964 and who was declared blessed by Pope John
Paul II in 1988, cleared the final hurdle to sainthood last January
when the pope decreed that two-year-old Amy Wall had been miraculously
healed of nerve deafness in both ears through Katharine’s intercession
in 1994. It was the second miracle credited to her intercession. In
1988, the Vatican had concluded that Robert Gutherman was miraculously
cured of deafness in 1974 after his family prayed for her intercession.
Skye, one among the hundreds
of thousands of lives touched by Katharine and her sisters, floods
with emotion when asked what her canonization means to him. “It just
overwhelms me,” Skye says, pausing to find the right words. “I get
full inside when I think about it. I can’t even talk about it.”
Drexel’s story is rich, overflowing and, quite frankly, mind- boggling.
Her story goes far beyond the millions of dollars she invested in
establishing and supporting 65 schools, churches and centers in 21
states through her religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
But in an age in which Americans obsess over million-dollar game shows,
Powerball lotteries and the stock market, the money Katharine Drexel
gave away is a powerful and countercultural sign that, indeed, she
was someone on a very different, spiritual mission.
Consider this: When
her father, Francis Drexel, died in 1885, the high-powered banker
left behind a $15.5 million estate that was divided among his three
daughters—Elizabeth, Catherine (Katharine’s birth name) and Louise.
About $1.5 million went to several charities, leaving the girls to
share in the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for
each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $250
Over the course of 60
years—up to her death in 1955 at age 96—Mother Katharine spent about
$20 million in support of her work, building schools and churches
and paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and
Indians. Louise Drexel Morell, her younger sister, contributed millions
more to similar causes. Elizabeth, the eldest sister, died in 1890
in premature childbirth, one year before Catherine formed the Sisters
of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Negroes, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania,
just outside Philadelphia.
Francis Drexel crafted
his will carefully. His daughters controlled the income from the estate,
and upon their deaths, the Drexel inheritance would flow to their
children. Drexel did this to prevent his unmarried daughters from
falling prey to “fortune hunters.” Neither Elizabeth nor Louise, however,
had children, and the will stipulated that if that were to happen,
upon his daughters’ deaths, the money would be distributed to several
religious orders and charities—the Society of Jesus, the Christian
Brothers, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Lutheran hospital and
Drexel, of course, had
no way of knowing that his “Kate” would enter religious life in 1889
and two years later found her order. Thus, after 1955, the Sisters
of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available
to support their ministries. Dr. Norman Francis, president of Xavier
University in New Orleans, considers Mother Katharine’s longevity,
especially in light of a serious heart attack she suffered in 1935,
to be another miracle.
“There were any number
of miracles that the Lord provided through her, and we’ve always called
Xavier a miracle,” says Francis, whose university sends more African-American
graduates to medical school than any other university in the country.
“Xavier is a miracle not just for all that it has done but for the
mere fact that it has survived and thrived. Under normal circumstances,
that shouldn’t have been the case. If she had died at the normal age
of 70, which at the time would have been a big age, Xavier would have
struggled. [But] God allowed her to live until she was 96, and we
had that interest available for many more years. It’s still a struggle
every day, but people know we have a meaning.”
Not Be a Missionary Yourself?'
Many believe Kate’s
stepmother, Emma Bouvier, planted the seeds for her religious vocation.
Drexel married Bouvier a few years after the death of his first wife,
Hannah, who had died after giving birth to Kate in 1858. Twice a week,
the Drexels distributed food, clothing and rent assistance from their
family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or
lonely single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance,
the family sought them out, but always quietly. As Emma Drexel taught
her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”
Kate made her social
debut in Philadelphia in 1879, but her stepmother contracted cancer
a short time later. Kate nursed her for the final three years of her
life and came to realize that not even the Drexels’ immense fortune
could do anything to prevent Emma’s death. Kate began to consider
a religious vocation.
Her family’s wealth
also allowed Kate a firsthand opportunity to travel and see the disgraceful
treatment of Native Americans. In 1868 a federal treaty had promised
the Indians one teacher and one classroom for every 30 children of
school age. Like so many other treaties, it was a hollow promise.
In a trip with her father to the U.S. northwest territories in 1884,
Kate saw Indians living in squalor and despair. After her father’s
death in 1885, she and her sisters contributed money to help the St.
Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation.
For many years Kate
took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James
O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic
of Nebraska. When Kate wrote him of her desire to join a contemplative
order, Bishop O’Connor suggested, “Wait a while longer. Wait and pray.”
Kate still was reeling
from the death of her father when she and her sisters went to Europe
in 1886, with the hope of her regaining some physical vigor. The vacation
climaxed in Rome in January 1887 when Pope Leo XIII received the Drexel
sisters in a private audience. Kate told the pope about her inward
pull toward the contemplative life, but she also described the plight
of the Indians in North America.
“It has seemed to me
more than once, Your Holiness, that I ought to aid them by my personal
work among them as well, and if I enter an enclosed congregation,
I might be abandoning those whom God wants me to help,” she told the
pope. “Perhaps Your Holiness will designate a congregation that would
give all its time and effort to the Indian missions.”
Pope Leo XIII replied
with a question: “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”
Reaching the anteroom
after the meeting, Kate broke down in tears, knowing she no longer
had to wait. Bishop O’Connor counseled her to start her own order
to work among Native Americans and African-Americans because if she
were to join an existing order, she “may be assigned to other work,
and that must not happen.”
Kate’s uncle, Anthony
Drexel, tried to dissuade her from entering religious life, pleading
with her to “stay with us who love you.” But she had made up her mind.
She arrived at the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh in May 1889
to begin her six-month postulancy.
Her decision rocked
Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger
carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives
Up Seven Million.”
A reporter seeking an
interview showed up at the Mercy convent the day after she entered.
Word was sent downstairs—there really was no news to report.
In November 1889, Kate
took the religious name Sister Mary Katharine upon the suggestion
of the superior general of Mercy Sisters. She professed her vows to
Philadelphia Archbishop Patrick Ryan, who had become another important
spiritual adviser. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and
obedience, she added a fourth: “To be the mother and servant of the
Indian and Negro races.”
In his homily, Archbishop
Ryan asked if Sister Katharine’s desire for religious life required
ambition. “Yes, in a way,” Ryan said, answering his own question.
“Ambition to work among the poor and neglected, to work in obscurity.
An even truer answer is that God calls some souls to a higher life
than others. How beautiful the mission of this child who comes to
devote her life, her heart, her future, to the suffering races, as
when Jesus said to the rich young man, ‘Sell all thou hast and give
it to the poor, and follow me.’”
Vicious Racial Prejudice
Sister Katharine pronounced
final vows on February 12, 1891, and a few months later, Archbishop
Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the new motherhouse under construction
in Bensalem. In the first of many incidents that indicated her convictions
for social justice were not shared by others, a stick of dynamite
was discovered near the site.
The Sisters of the Blessed
Sacrament were founded 28 years after the Emancipation Proclamation
which freed the slaves, but the reality of a good life for blacks
in the South was bleak. The country was still 70 years away from any
widespread notion of civil rights. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature,
hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon
school, tried to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers
from teaching black students. In 1915, when Mother Katharine purchased
an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School
in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window.
In 1922 in Beaumont,
Texas, a sign was posted by local Klansmen on the door of a church
where the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had opened a school. “We
want an end of services here,” the note read. “We will not stand by
while white priests consort with nigger wenches in the face of our
families. Suppress it in one week or flogging with tar and feathers
will follow.” A few days later, a violent thunderstorm ripped through
Beaumont, destroying a building that served as the Klan’s headquarters.
In the late 1920s, when
Mother Katharine found property in New Orleans for expanding Xavier
University, she used a third party as a purchasing agent to keep the
transaction from falling through. When the handsome campus was dedicated
in October 1932, a priest gazed upon the expensive Indiana limestone
buildings and remarked in Latin: “What a waste!”
Blessed Katharine never
heard the remark. The woman who had spent $656,000 for the land and
new buildings watched the dedication ceremony from a third-floor window,
far away from the dignitaries’ platform.
“She was so selfless
and so sacrificing and so considerate,” says Sister of the Blessed
Sacrament Ruth Catherine Spain, who helped document her cause for
canonization. “Way back in 1891, she was a pioneer for the most downtrodden
and the poorest of the poor. She didn’t have a prejudiced molecule
in her body, never mind a bone. She believed that everyone was a child
In Charlotte, North
Carolina, Blessed Katharine contributed $4,000 to finish construction
of two churches with the stipulation that several rows of pews be
set aside for use by black parishioners. In Wilmington, she funded
construction of a new St. Mary Church, which was to replace an old
church and be used by both blacks and whites. But when a priest, a
transplant from Blessed Katharine’s home state of Pennsylvania, objected
to the plan, African-Americans got the old church and whites the new
“It’s just painful to
see things like that and to see a priest so involved,” says Benedictine
Father Paschal Baumann, archivist at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina.
“We do Katharine Drexel a disservice if we view her only in terms
of her money. She had a real social policy to go with it. She was
working for the advancement of integration, and she made that so clearly
a mission of the Church, not just a social policy. When Rome is determining
who should be recognized as a saint, it looks not only at sanctity
but at heroic sanctity. It’s going that extra mile, and that
is certainly evident in her life. It’s just magnificent to have her
recognized by the Church. It’s such a tribute to all progressive thinkers
in issues of social justice.
“I wonder sometimes
what America and what the Catholic Church might have been in respect
to minorities had she not come along,” added Francis, who hopes to
build a $6.3 million St. Katharine Drexel Religious Center at Xavier
in her honor. “She saved the Church from embarrassment in terms of
Even though she was
raised in opulence, Blessed Katharine took seriously her vow of poverty.
She used pencils until they were nubs, wrote return correspondence
on the blank side of the letters she received and opened up the flaps
of envelopes for notepaper. When her shoelaces snapped, she sewed
them back together rather than buy a new pair. She frequently encountered
the ire of train conductors on her many visits to her schools and
missions because she spent as much time as possible in the day coach,
which was a cheaper fare, before retiring for a few hours in the sleeper
car. The savings were used to increase her tips to the black porters.
After surviving a heart
attack in 1935, Blessed Katharine refused to purchase a wheelchair.
Instead, she was reluctantly persuaded to allow workers to affix wheels
on a wooden chair from the motherhouse’s auditorium.
Her charitable ways
so impressed Congress in the 1920s that she successfully lobbied for
an amendment to the federal tax code that would allow an organization
that gave at least 90 percent of its income to charity an exemption
from income taxes. In 1923 alone, she had trust income of $217,426.98
and was forced to pay $74,390.32 in taxes, a 34-percent bite. The
law became known as “The Philadelphia Nun Loophole.”
Forty-five years later,
Senator Russell B. Long (D-La.), the powerful chairman of the Senate
Finance Committee, bemoaned the amendment because it allowed big corporations
to shield income with creative accounting methods. “I can tell you
one thing,” Long said. “If this Philadelphia nun knew all the trouble
she’s caused us, I’m sure she’d be sorry.”
Legacy Lives On
Whatever headaches she
may have caused lawmakers, Blessed Katharine changed lives, one at
a time. Knowing that rural schools for blacks in south Louisiana needed
qualified teachers to survive, she trained men and women at Xavier
for education degrees and then convinced their parents to allow them
to leave home to teach. Bertha Thomas Antonio, one of the first graduates
to respond to the call for teachers, told Sister of the Blessed Sacrament
Patricia Lynch that her mother said, “If we won’t help our own people,
who will?” Mrs. Thomas sent three daughters to teach in the rural
Katharine Drexel’s legacy
lives through the children whose lives she has touched directly and
through her sisters.
Her order, the Sisters
of the Blessed Sacrament, today has 245 members who are pursuing their
original apostolate of working with African-Americans and Native Americans
in 21 states and Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
“It humbles you to hear
how many professional men and women say, ‘I am where I am today because
of what the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament did for me,’” says Sister
Beatrice Jeffries, vice president of the congregation. “There is a
wonderful statement in the motherhouse chapel: ‘I look up and wonder
at all of God’s wonderful ways and I think to myself, What would happen
to a desire that God implants on the heart if we listen and act on
that desire?’ That colors everything we do.
“She’s beyond us now,”
Sister Beatrice adds. “She belongs to the Church. We can’t hold on
to her. She belongs to all of us.”
Her legacy lives through
Joseph Skye, the “immature kid” who remembers walking across the Xavier
campus “and looking at the beautiful buildings and saying to myself,
‘I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it.’
“I wanted to get away
from a government-subsidized existence,” Skye says. “I wanted to be
in a free market where you could go as far as you can based on competition.
Like my real-estate logo says today, ‘The Skye’s the limit.’” In a
loving tribute to his former teacher, Sister Marie Celine, Skye is
helping to pay her way to Rome for the canonization.
legacy lives through once-deaf Amy Wall, now seven, who just made
her First Communion and heard the priest say, “The Body of Christ.”
Sister Ruth Catherine
says, “Amy’s mother asked her one night, ‘Why do you think God healed
you?’ And Amy said, ‘Because God loves me and I love him.’ What more
could you ask for? Love is the be-all and end-all of life. If everybody
loved, how different the world would be.”
Peter Finney, Jr.,
is the editor and general manager of the Clarion Herald, the
Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is a former
sportswriter for the New York Post and the New York Daily
Katharine Drexel and the Cincinnati Friars
by Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
In 1897, the friars
of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, Ohio, agreed
to Mother Katharine Drexel’s request that they begin a mission
among the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico. She had purchased
a 160-acre tract of land two years earlier and sought other
religious communities to staff it but without success. She contacted
the Cincinnati friars through Msgr. Joseph Stephan, director
of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, and his friend, Father
Godfrey Schilling, O.F.M.
Schnorbus and Anselm Weber and Brother Placidus Buerger arrived
at St. Michaels Mission in northeast Arizona on October 7, 1898.
Father Berard Haile, O.F.M., who came in 1900, described Mother
Katharine Drexel’s 1902 visit for the opening of St. Michaels
we found to be a very agreeable woman. In fact, she seemed to
be simply a sister among her sisters, and she had to be pointed
out to us as the superior of the community. We admired her because
she readily made friends with the Indians who had come down
to St. Michaels from this great distance of the Lukachukai Range
to bring their children to her school....
“She never impressed
me as the daughter of a wealthy banker of Philadelphia. No,
she did the same work as the other sisters and she was happy
and jolly with them all the time, and the sisters were always
in good humor, and you couldn’t do anything else but admire
the good spirit among those sisters.
“Very often I
met the Mother Superior on her knees scrubbing the porch and
sweeping the rooms, the dining rooms and wherever the children
went” (Tales of an Endishodi: Father Berard Haile and the
Navajos, 1900-1961, transcribed and edited by Murray Bodo,
O.F.M., University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
Drexel made a very good impression on the Navajo parents and
students whom she met. In 1910, she financed the printing of
500 copies of A Navaho-English Catechism of Christian Doctrine
for the Use of Navaho Children, written by Fathers Anselm,
Juvenal, Berard and Leopold Osterman. Her contributions to the
friars’ work among the Navajos were extensive. Father Anselm
once said of her, “She pays for everything, even for horses
and saddles and Mass wine.”
Drexel stretched the Cincinnati friars apostolically since most
of them previously had worked in predominantly German-American
parishes. A few years later, she also helped finance the work
of the friars among the Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico.
The friars later began ministering to Hispanics and Anglos.
About a hundred
friars from St. John the Baptist Province started Our Lady of
Guadalupe Province in 1985. Headquartered in Albuquerque, New
Mexico, that province currently has 17 friars working on the
Navajo reservation with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Ten friars now work full-time with the Pueblo Native Americans.
also assisted the Cincinnati-based friars in their work at African-American
parishes in Louisville and Kansas City (Missouri) and on the