St. Katharine Drexel, a Great American Saint (1858-1955)

Mon, 03 Mar 2014 19:15:07 +0000


St. Katherine Drexel

Today, March 3rd, the universal Church celebrates a great American saint, who was an heiress, philanthropist, educator, Catholic sister and foundress.

Katharine was born to wealthy and devout Catholic parents on November 26, 1858, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wherein Frances, Katharine’s father, was an investment banker.  Because of wealth, Katharine was able to travel the world, receive a superior education and set forth her grand debut into high society.

In spite of the family wealth, the Drexel family opened their home to the poor three days each week, and Frances practiced a daily prayer life spending at least one-half an hour each evening in prayer.

Even though she was a high-status individual, for three years she nursed her stepmother through a terminal illness.  She understood then that money, although wonderfully helpful, could not provide any escape from “brother pain” and ultimately death.  This I will call her “final incident,” wherein she knew she was destined for a life of service.

Katharine read Helen Hunt Jackson’s, “A Century of Dishonor,” regarding the plight of the American Indians.  This book interested her in helping Native American Indians.  She met Pope Leo XIII whilst she was on a European tour, requesting that he send more missionaries to Wyoming to help Bishop James O’Connor, her friend.  The pope said to her, “Why don’t  you become a missionary?”  Obviously, the pope planted a seed into Katharine’s very being, thinking about his suggestion consistently.

Katherine decided to visit North and/or South Dakota, where she met “Red Cloud,” the Sioux Indian chief.  She continued to confide in Bishop O’Connor regarding her future, wherein she wrote in 1889: “The feast of St. Joseph (which is March 19th) brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored.”  She made headlines in the newspapers: “GIVES UP SEVEN MILLION!”

She went into training for three and one-half years, finding an Order of nuns entitled, “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored,” wherein she opened a boarding school in Santa Fe.  She set up various foundations.  Incredibly, she founded Catholic schools in 13 states for black people, 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.  The American segregationists dishonored her work by burning one of her schools in Pennsylvania.  But their tactics and evil deeds did not deter her.  She established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states.  And one of her most wonderful achievements was founding Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, the first Catholic university in the United States for African Americans.

Mother Cabrini, another American Catholic saint, met with her about her Order, advising her how to get Rome to approve her Order.

At the age of 77, Katharine suffered a heart attack and had to retire from her busy life of service.  But little did she know that she would spend 20 years living in a small room which overlooked the sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament was kept, praying intensely, where she wrote her thoughts on slips of paper.  Katharine said, “The patient and humble endurance of the cross–whatever nature it may be–is the highest work we have to do.  Oh, how far I am at 84 years of age from being an image of Jesus in his sacred life on earth!”  She died on March 3, 1955, and was canonized in 2000.

This wonderful Saint reminds me of what St. Paul said about money.  He said that the love of money was the root of all evil, not money itself.  Would you give away seven million dollars to help the less fortunate and poor?  She also used these monies to develop her productive foundations and missions, schools and even a Catholic university.  She was humble, innovative, compassionate and an incredible leader.  She was truly generous, not only with her tremendous monetary fortune, but generous with her entire life, giving it in service to her neighbor to those individuals who are “Jesus in disguise.”  May we  be reminded that such holiness can be lived even in today’s society, in current times, not just lived in early times in Jerusalem, Rome, Syria or Greece.  We, all, are called to be saints, called to be holy.

It is my hope that there is an extravagant party in heaven to match St. Katharine’s extravagant generosity, for this most inspirational lady and great American heroine and leader.  St. Katharine Drexel, pray for us!

With respect and love,


Source:  Franciscan Media

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