Drexel’s efforts to educate African Americans met with blatant prejudice. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon school, tried to pass a law that to prevent white teachers from teaching black students.
Furthermore, “in 1915, when Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School for black students in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window. Her lively sense of humor helped her endure. She was often self-deprecating; that joy would remain a gift throughout her lifetime.
Despite the prevailing bigotry, Drexel made possibly her most famous foundation–Xavier University, which sends more African-American graduates to medical school than any other university in the country. Despite harassment from the Ku Klux Klan, by 1942 her order had established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.
Her biography takes a surprising turn in 1935, when Katharine had a heart attack, and two years later retired as superior general. She had traveled constantly by train and stagecoach, gathering knowledge about the Navajos, the Sioux, and the deplorable state of education for native and black children. Until poor health at age 76 forced retirement, she made an annual visit to each of her far-flung foundations (145 missions and 12 schools for native Americans, 50 schools for black students).
It must have been a huge transition for one who had been so dramatically active and always on the move, but from her wheelchair she continued praying for justice to those she had served so long. She had wanted a more contemplative life, and she spent her last twenty years in prayer. She must have savored a cornucopia of memories, writing: “God has let me see with my own eyes the good results of God’s desire.”
Excerpts from When the Saints Came Marching In (Liturgical Press)