St. Katharine Drexel. Wikimedia Commons

Sell What Thou Hast… and Come Follow Me

She died in 1955 and was canonized on October 1, 2000. Her great sympathy for the “Indian and Negro” races, and a desire to bring the Gospel to them, conducted her to embrace the religious life–a life offered for others and led by an Other.
Chris Reynolds and Mark Baumeister

In 19th century America, there were many who gave their lives for causes they believed in, such as the Civil War, which brought an end to slavery. Among these 19th century Americans is a name that to this day stands out, not because she gave her life for a cause per se, but because she gave her life for a Person, Jesus Christ. In doing so, she followed a special calling-to be mother to the poorest of the poor, the black and Indian races. This call would lead her to found a religious order and to establish Catholic missions and schools among the Native Americans and blacks all across America.

Fr Giussani says in L’attrattiva Gesù [The Attraction That is Jesus], that “devotion to the saints has a special significance for the fact that they are our contemporaries: they remind us that the mystery of Christ is present to us…. The first devotion must be to our contemporary saints… because, through them, it [the Church] wants to teach that which is important for the Church today.” Saint Katharine Drexel, who died in 1955, surely fits this description, as the most recently canonized American saint, made official by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000.

Early Years
She was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1858, only three years before the end of the Civil War. Her father, Francis Drexel, an internationally known banker, managed the Drexel & Co banking firm that his father established. Her mother, Hanna Langstroth Drexel, died only five weeks after giving birth to her. Two years later, her father was blessed to find an extraordinary new wife and mother to his children, Emma Bouvier. Katharine’s childhood was full of all the things a child needs: caring parents, material comfort, and private teachers in every subject from philosophy to Church history. She was impressed with fancy things such as clothes and parties, yet was a generous child. Her father would often take her on short trips to the mountains. She was fond of the mountains, especially the Appalachians of the Northeast. In one of her letters to a teacher she writes, “No sunset makes these peaks soft. They never melt into the heavens as some mountains do. But they remind me in their might of eternity–the time that was, the time that will be.” Even as a young lady, she had a great love for her homeland and her fellowman. This love would remain with her throughout her life.

Her stepmother had the most influence over her concern for the poor and outcast. Three to four days a week, the hungry, homeless, and disadvantaged would come to the Drexel’s Philadelphia townhouse to receive charity. What most impressed Katharine was her mother’s direct concern for each individual. She would not benignly hand out gifts, but would confront the person’s essential needs one on one. Likewise, Katharine’s concern for blacks began by witnessing the way her parents treated their servants. The Drexels not only provided for them materially, but educated them as well.

As a teenager, she became more deeply aware of the Native American plight while reading Helen Hunt Jackson’s, A Century of Dishonor, a book critical of the US government’s handling of the “Indian problem.” A more direct encounter took place when she and her sister Elizabeth took a business trip with their father out to the Western United States and saw the terrible conditions that Native Americans were subjected to. It was a family friend of the Drexel’s, Bishop James O’Connor of Omaha, Nebraska, who kept Katharine abreast of the Native American crisis. He would later become Katharine’s closest spiritual advisor.

Katharine was 25 when her stepmother Emma died. Only two years later, her father died of pleurisy. After the death of her stepmother, Katharine began to experience a desire for the religious life. However, this desire did not exclude her desire for life as a whole. She was a pretty, young woman, full of life and sought after by many young bachelors. Being drawn toward both lives, she spoke with her confessor, who suggested she write a list of reasons for entering or not entering religious life. In her “against” list, she expressed fear of being insubordinate toward her superiors, and of living a life of obedience and poverty. In contrast, she wrote of her being created “to love God.” In her last “for” reason she writes, “The attainment of perfection should be our chief employment in life. Our Lord has laid a price upon its acquirement when He says, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven and come follow Me.’” These words of Christ struck a deep chord in her and would resurface many times in her life. In fact, she would take these words literally, as St Francis of Assisi did.

In 1887, Katharine and her sisters toured Europe. Their prestigious name allowed them a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. Katharine asked the Pope, at the request of Bishop O’Connor, to send more missionary priests amongst the Native American population in the US. The Pope responded, “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?” Katharine hesitated at the suggestion, but the seed of her vocation had been planted. Her first inclination was toward cloistered life, yet she had a great sympathy for the “Indian and Negro” races, and a desire to bring the Gospel to them. Bishop O’ Connor thought that her religious vocation would best be realized in the world among the poor blacks and Native Americans whose welfare she had become increasingly concerned with.

Religious Life
In March of 1889, Katharine entered the novitiate in Pittsburgh with the Sisters of Mercy in the hopes that she would begin her own order. On that day, she writes in a letter to Bishop O’Connor, “The feast of Saint Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and colored, to enter fully and entirely… to what is best for the salvation of the souls of these people.” Two years later, Katharine took her final vows. That day marked the beginning of her order, “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People,” as they would bring the Blessed Sacrament to these two races.

It is interesting to note that Katharine Drexel was born two years before the death of Bishop John Neumann, whose life was wholly devoted to Christ and to building up His Church in the vast Diocese of Philadelphia. Katharine Drexel was born into his flock, and the same zealous Spirit that drove him would be given to her, to bring the Gospel to America’s poorest. Her life was characterized by a multitude of works.

She began her new congregation with twelve sisters in Torresdale, Pennsylvania, where they started by building a home for black children that would also serve as a school where they would receive vocational training. She soon began to receive requests from bishops and priests in charge of Indian missions across the US, such as Bishop Martin Marty of Minnesota and Fr Joseph Stephan from the Dakota’s, two priests who would become her closest companions. Requests also came from Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. To these requests, she responded by sending financial help not only for existing missions but also for the construction of new missions, including schools and convents, many of which would be staffed by her “daughters.” Although many Catholic missions among the Native American people had long been established before 1870 by the Jesuits and Franciscans, many of these missions were in poor condition. Christian missions were supposed to be, in part, supported by the US government who adopted the Indians-after many years of retaliation–as their wards and assumed some responsibility for their education and welfare. However, this aid system proved to be inefficient and was later withdrawn. One of her greatest works among the Native American people was the foundation of the St Michael mission among the Navajo in Arizona. In 1902, with the help of Fr Stephan, who had proposed that it would serve not only for the evangelization of souls but also for education for work and life, she built a convent, a chapel, a trade school for boys, and a homemaking school for girls, all staffed by Franciscan fathers and her own spiritual daughters. A high school was later added. After construction was completed, she told her sisters, “God gave me this desire (to do something for these poor pagans)… before I entered religion…. And so on this visit I looked up in wonder at God’s wonderful ways and thought how little we know what may be the result of listening and acting on a desire He puts into the heart.” She would later found other missions in the Southwest.

Mother Katharine’s concern for black Americans was strongly tied to the historical events of her time. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which abolished slavery, left many unanswered problems for blacks, such as the problems of work and education. Thirty years after this act, most blacks were still denied civil rights, were poor, and lacked most educational opportunities. The Church recognized the needs of blacks and made efforts to help them. In the 18th century, the Jesuits had erected missions in Maryland, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In 1884, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore decided to erect churches, schools, and orphanages in places where large numbers of black Catholics lived. Despite these developments, the Church lacked the means of supporting these missions and a great task of bringing the Gospel to these people lay ahead of Her.

The former confederate states of the South were primarily Protestant and many were full of prejudice toward blacks and anyone who wanted to help them. Driven by her concern for their spiritual and material welfare, Mother Katharine entered the South. In 1915, she was asked by the Archbishop of New Orleans for her help in the foundation of “a high school for colored boys and girls that would have… a college for teachers, and perhaps even a university for colored Catholics.” She soon began the building of these schools. The high school was given the name Xavier Academy and later the university would be called Xavier University. On the main building of the university were written the words, “God’s greatest work on earth is man. Man’s master art is the leading of men to God.” She hoped that this university would spread Catholic culture and philosophy throughout the South. She also founded several schools in Lafayette, Louisiana, and supported the building of schools and churches in the rural areas of that state, as well as in Alabama and Texas.

Over the course of her life, Mother Katharine would aid close to 200 black and Indian missions and found 37 missions across the US from East to West and North to South.

She had truly assumed a life of poverty and gave all of her fortune to the Church and to the black and Indian races. She wished to attain the perfect love that Christ had indicated to the young rich man who asked Him what he must do to be perfect. So much did she wish to live this poverty that she would only travel coach class on trains, carrying her lunch with her. She would cut off pieces of unused paper on letters to re-use for personal notes. This might seem obsessive, but her interpretation of poverty was not that of the common mentality. She simply wished to please God, whose Son “became man and in stark poverty died naked on Calvary and was buried in the tomb of another.”

The last few years of her life, daily mass was said in her room by one of the Holy Ghost Fathers. She spent much of her time praying for her 500 or so daughters and their work, and for the “Negro and Indian people” that she had been called to be mother to. In 1955, Mother Drexel died in her room. An editorial in one of the Catholic newspapers read, “One of the most remarkable women in the history of America was called home to God yesterday.… [S]he belonged so truly to all America, but especially to the poor and forgotten people of America–our Indians and Negroes. Reverend Mother Katharine Drexel belonged to Philadelphia and to America, but one cannot help seeing in the story of her life that she belonged to God….”

It was said that the driving power of her work was her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, which formed her inner life of prayer and made possible her outer life of service. She gave her life for others, and it is clear that for her that Other was Christ.