Katharine Drexel’s story shows that even the wealthy can be saints. When her father died in 1885, the financial genius left a $15.5 million estate, divided among his three daughters. 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. Mmmm—I’m already fantasizing about beach houses, mountain lodges and shoe sales…
But as a young girl, Katharine had been sensitized to the poverty of native Americans. During a papal audience, she pleaded for missionaries to work with them. Pope Leo XIII parried with an astute question: “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”
Katharine’s final decision was trumpeted by a banner headline in The Philadelphia Public Ledger: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.” That May 1889 news, which shocked the city’s elite, wasn’t quite accurate. She didn’t give up seven million; she would during the next 60 years give away about $20 million. It went to support of her work, building schools and churches, paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and native Americans.
It began in 1891, with the profession of Drexel’s first vows as a religious, dedicated to work among the native Americans and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. What quickly followed was the establishment of a religious community with thirteen other women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They started in 1894 the first mission school in Santa Fe, and eventually began 50 missions for native Americans in 16 states.
We may admire, but the road wasn’t easy; in fact Drexel faced enormous bigotry. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon school, tried to pass a law 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; humor would remain a gift throughout her lifetime.
Despite the prevailing prejudice, 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.”
During Drexel’s canonization at the Vatican, a gospel choir sang and native Americans danced. Must’ve livened up the solemn spaces considerably!