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The Legacy of St. Katharine Drexel
Peter Finney, Jr.
St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Saturday, March 3, 2012
A student walks past an image of St. Katharine Drexel at St. Michael Indian School in St. Michaels, Ariz., Oct. 24.
Joseph 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 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.”
In October 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized the woman who many believe started the Catholic Church in America on the road toward racial integration. Katharine Drexel became only the second American-born saint. (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first in 1975.)
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 million.
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 others.
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.”
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.’”
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 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 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 of God.”
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 one.
“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. ...
“I wonder sometimes what America and what the Catholic Church might have been in respect to minorities had she not come along,” added Francis. “She saved the Church from embarrassment in terms of social justice.”
Even though she was raised in opulence, St. 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, St. 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.”
St. 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 schools.
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 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. “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."
Peter Finney Jr., is the editor and general manager of the
, the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is a former sportswriter for the
New York Post
New York Daily News
Mother Katharine 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.
Fathers Juvenal 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 School:
“Mother Katharine 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).
Mother Katharine 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.”
Mother Katharine 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.
Mother Katharine also assisted the Cincinnati-based friars in their work at African-American parishes in Louisville and Kansas City (Missouri) and on the Louisiana Delta.
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