Emerging from the shadows of American racism, Katharine Drexel had a remarkable and fruitful witness to religious freedom, civil rights, and Roman Catholicism in the United States.
Today’s worthy woman never knew her birth mother. Hannah died when her daughter was five weeks old. Her father Francis (brother to Anthony, Drexel University founder) remarried, and Kate’s stepmother was a guiding influence. The family distributed food and clothing twice a week. Emma Drexel is quoted as saying to her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”
As a young adult, Kate nursed Emma through three years of cancer. After losing her second mother, her father died in 1885. Kate’s exposure to the trials of black people and native Americans in her family’s travels touched something deep within the young woman. She and her sisters were generous with their father’s estate. But a more profound call was close.
Kate was considering a life in a cloister, but her spiritual director counseled her, “Wait a while longer. Wait and pray.”
The direction was given by Pope Leo XIII. During a private audience, this exchange is recounted:
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. Perhaps Your Holiness will designate a congregation that would give all its time and effort to the Indian missions.”
Pope Leo XIII replied, “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”
In 1889, she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh. Her spiritual director, James O’Connor, counseled her to begin her own order, so as to keep the mission apostolate at the forefront. Two years later, Mother Katharine and thirteen other women began the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In her final profession of vows, in addition to poverty, chastity, and obedience, Katharine added, “To be the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races.” One bit of the legacy is St Benedict the Moor School in St Augustine, Florida, imaged above, right.
The rest of the story is a stirring witness to service in the mission of Jesus Christ. A lifelong outreach to poor blacks and native Americans. Schools, mainly. Xavier University, notably. But all accompanied by a spirit of generosity and compassion from the inspired founder. This spirit, by the way, was undiminished by a strongly apostolic life, one grounded in prayer but not in a traditional convent setting.
One of my favorite stories involves the opening of a school in Beaumont, Texas. The Klan posted a sign on the nearby Catholic church demanding an end to liturgy and schooling under the threat of tar and feathers. A few days after the posting, a violent storm demolished the building that housed KKK meetings.
Xavier University president Norman Francis:
I wonder sometimes what America and what the Catholic Church might have been in respect to minorities had she not come along. She saved the Church from embarrassment in terms of social justice.
Clearly, this worthy woman cannot be dismissed for the family fortune she invested in those she mothered and served. Catholics today would do well to consider her witness for social justice, prayer, and personal generosity.