Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Women in History: St. Katharine Drexel

 

Katharine Drexel. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The following is a guest post by MommyMaestra contributor, Stacie Farias. 

Is it possible that one question could change the entire course of your life? To Katharine Drexel, a little known but extraordinary woman, a single question profoundly changed her life and enriched the lives of many in the Native American and African American communities during a very turbulent time in American history. A champion of racial justice and a deeply spiritual woman, St. Katharine Drexel, as she is now known, was a woman ahead of her time.

Fairytale Childhood 

Born into high society of one the Philadelphia’s most elite families, Katharine Drexel and her two sisters lived a storybook life in the 19th century. Katharine’s life is filled with love and diversions, summer homes and trips to Europe, ball gowns and lessons in French. Although Katharine’s parents had instilled in the young Drexel sisters a deep sense of God and compassion for the poor, their own lives would surely be comfortable and easy. However, real life rarely works out the way we expect and Katharine’s magical world was shattered by the death of her parents. Katharine nursed her beloved step-mother, Emma Drexel, through a painful and merciless cancer for four years before she passed. Then Katharine’s father, Francis Anthony Drexel died unexpectedly after a bout of pleurisy two years later. In 1885, the Drexel sisters, overwhelmed with sorrow, found themselves to be the heirs of a vast fortune.

The Question

Because of the Drexel family’s philanthropic history, two priests met with Katharine to discuss the aid needed to fund their mission on Native American reservations. Their description and photographs of the conditions the Native Americans were experiencing on the reservations left Katharine and her sisters heartbroken and horrified. Immediately, Katharine started donating her inheritance to support various missionary activities and charities but she felt that writing checks would not be enough. Katharine was resolved to get more help and decided to appeal to the Pope himself for help. In 1887, Katharine and her sisters had an audience with Pope Gregory XIII at the Vatican. Katharine pleaded with the Pope and told him of the suffering of the Native Americans asking him for missionaries and aid, when Pope Gregory responded with the question that changed Katharine’s life. Pope Gregory asked, “Why not my child, yourself become a missionary?” 

Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Her Changed Life

If you want something done right, do it yourself. 

For the next few years, Katharine would give away all her wealth and embrace a life of chastity, obedience, and poverty as a religious sister. In 1891, Katharine Drexel, now called Mother Drexel, founded her own religious order called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They were entirely devoted to the spiritual and educational needs of the Native American and African Americans on reservations, in rural areas, and the inner city. The Sisters, which started out with Katharine and 13 others grew to become 501 sisters in 51 convents, working in 49 elementary schools and 12 high schools. St. Katharine also founded Xavier University in New Orleans dedicated to educating African Americans - the first of its kind in the United States. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament also worked at 37 missions in 20 states and financially supported dozens more. During the Civil Rights Movement, St. Katharine’s order worked with the NAACP and spent years legally challenging Jim Crow laws. If you’d like to learn more about St. Katharine and her work for racial justice, check out this article

The Time St. Katharine Drexel Defeated the KKK

As one would imagine, St. Katharine’s work attracted enemies from racist and anti-Catholic groups. In fact, in one incident, the Ku Klux Klan set fire to a cross in front of the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Pennsylvania. St. Katharine was not intimidated. She had dealt with her share of threats to her work (from bomb threats to vandalism to arson) and had complete trust that the Lord would come to their aid.

But perhaps the biggest display of trust St. Katharine exhibited in her faith was during an incident involving the KKK in Beaumont, Texas. It was 1922 and the church and mission school founded by the Sisters faced yet another bomb threat and the KKK threatened to tar and feather the priests at the church. St. Katharine found extra security for the priests but more than anything she told the Sisters that they must pray! A few days later, a tornado destroyed the headquarters of the Beaumont KKK and killed two members. Perhaps it was all a coincidence, but one thing is for certain: the church and mission school were never bothered again. 

A Saint for Our Times

Pope St. John Paul II declared Katharine Drexel a Saint of the Catholic Church in 2000. Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that her feast day, March 3rd, falls during Women’s History Month because her impact on our history is strikingly relevant today. In her words, 

“Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”

To read more about St. Katharine Drexel, visit the website of her order.

This book is also a tremendous resource and was the primary source of this post:

For a children’s book about St. Katharine, I recommend: 



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