On October 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II solemnly decreed that Katharine Drexel, Founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, is a saint of the Catholic Church. A third-generation, thoroughly “Red-blooded” American had been added to the rolls of the canonized saints.
First, let us briefly summarize the significant events in the life of our saint. Katharine Drexel, the second of three sisters, Elizabeth, Katharine and Louise, was born in 1858. Her father, Francis, was a Catholic; her natural mother, Hannah Langsroth Drexel, a Baptist Quaker, died soon after giving birth to Katharine. Two years later, her father married a Catholic, Emma Bouvier, who gave birth to a third daughter, Louise, in 1863. In 1887, in a private audience with Pope Leo XIII, Katharine pleaded for priests to serve the American Indians. His fateful reply was that she, herself, should become that missionary. At the end of 1888, at the age of thirty, she received permission from her spiritual director to become a religious and joined the Sisters of Mercy for her training. In 1891, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Negroes. (Intending to extend the focus of her order, she later changed the word “Negroes” to “Colored People.”) The order grew to include sixty schools and missions while the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament eventually numbered more than five hundred. In 1935, when she was seventy-seven years old, St. Katharine suffered a severe heart attack and until her death in 1955 lived in prayerful retirement. Her cause was opened in 1964 and in 2000 Pope John Paul II canonized her.
A Privileged American Catholic Childhood
If anyone could be described as having been “born with a golden spoon in her mouth,” it would have been Katharine Drexel and her sisters, Elizabeth and Louise. Few American girls would have had more of an excuse to be distracted by the world and what it has to offer than these daughters of one of the most prominent and wealthy families in the United States. Their father, Francis Drexel, was an outstanding banker and exchange broker — a founding partner in what was known at the time as Drexel, Morgan and Company.
Francis Drexel and his second wife, Emma (Bouvier), were more than devout Catholics. They were determined to instill truly Catholic teachings and norms of behavior into their children. They understood the principle, later summed up by the great Fr. Leonard Feeney, that “Catholicism is a manner.” Thus, from an early age, Emma trained her daughters in the dispensing of alms and performing other works of Catholic Charity. She had the charitable heart of a great Catholic woman who wanted her children to capture the spirit of true Catholic Charity and learn how to give alms prudently — in sharp contrast to other wealthy Americans of the day who engaged in self-serving, pompous philanthropy.
Convinced that a proper education and formation are essential ingredients of a Catholic manner, Francis and Emma retained two devout Catholic women, both of whom would have a major influence on the Drexel girls. Johanna Ryan, their trusted servant, was from Ireland, where she had tried to become a Sister of the Sacred Heart but was unable to continue because of her health. Although a simple person, she was unflinching in her defense of the Faith and taught the girls of the necessity of the Catholic Faith in order for one to be saved. The absolute sincerity of Johanna’s faith was somewhat indecorously demonstrated during an audience with Pope Pius IX in 1875. After the family had visited a few moments with the Holy Father, she fell to the floor, threw her arms around his knees and exclaimed, “Holy Father — praise God and His Blessed Mother — my eyes have seen our dear Lord, Himself!”
A more reserved Miss Mary Cassidy, the governess, was also from Ireland. The Drexels hired her after a careful search for someone that was not only a devout Catholic but had a deep and broad education with emphasis on literature and philosophy. As part of Miss Cassidy’s tutoring program for the girls, she required regular compositions and lengthy letters while the family traveled. Katharine remained a prodigious letter writer for the rest of her life. We know a great deal about her intellectual, emotional and spiritual development from the thousands of her letters, memos and personal notes that have been preserved in the archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Several qualities of Katharine’s life are indicative of the road to sanctity she was to follow. The first was her intense love of the Blessed Sacrament which manifested itself when she was a little girl as a fervent desire to make her First Holy Communion. In a letter to her mother, written in 1867, she said, “Dear Mama, I am going to make my First Communion and you will see how I will try to be good. Let me make it in May, the most beautiful of all the months.”
Katharine’s love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament was to grow in intensity throughout her life. After she formed her order, she took great pleasure in building a tabernacle in a location where the Blessed Sacrament had never been adored before. Often, at night, long after everyone else had retired for the evening, the sacristan would find her in the darkened church, kneeling with arms outstretched in front of the Blessed Sacrament or the Crucifix. Her concentration was so intense that she remained completely unaware that she was being observed. Throughout her life she meditated before and upon Jesus present in the Tabernacle and recorded many of her reflections and prayers. One of her later notes reads as follows:
“Ah, Lord, it is but too true, YOU ARE NOT LOVED! Shall we not strive by every means in our power to make you known and loved? Shall we not try to pay many an extra visit to our dearest Friend, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament, ever living to make intercession for us? And may this prayer, dearest Lord, be on our lips when we bow down in lowly adoration in your sacramental presence: ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, you love! O Sacred Heart of Jesus, you are not loved! O would that you were loved!’ Our Lady, open your heart to me, your child. Teach me to know your Son intimately, to love him ardently, and to follow him closely.”
The salvation of souls, especially those souls that were the most neglected and forgotten, was the great quest of St. Katharine. Even as a little girl, she and her sisters knew that only Catholics are saved. As may be expected in “pluralistic” America, this proper Catholic belief led to several embarrassing incidents for Mr. and Mrs. Drexel, who, although they were devout Catholics, appear to have been somewhat weak in this area. As mentioned earlier, St. Katharine’s natural mother, Hanna Langsroth, as well as her grandparents, Piscator and Eliza Langsroth, were Protestants. One day, during a visit at the Langsroth’s, Katharine’s older sister, Elizabeth, said to her grandmother, “Oh, Grandma, I am so sorry for you because you can never go to heaven.”
“And, why cannot Grandmother go to heaven?” Mrs. Langsroth asked.
With the simplicity and purity of a truly Catholic child, Elizabeth replied, “You are a Protestant and Protestants never go to heaven.”
On another occasion, a friend of Grandma Langsroth’s, a Protestant minister, was visiting at the same time as were Elizabeth and Katharine. As the girls relayed the story in later years, when Mrs. Langsroth asked the minister to say grace before the meal, it caused them to go into a kind of panic. The girls decided to hold up their rosaries in full view during the meal prayer as a clear statement of their Catholicism. It appears that their feistiness for the Faith was more the result of the instruction of Johanna, the family servant and staunch Irish Catholic, than of the direct influence of Mr. and Mrs. Drexel. In fact, both of these early defenses of the faith caused some embarrassment for Francis and Emma. Sadly, they decided to smooth the ruffled feathers of the errant grandmother rather than support the innocent defense of the Faith provided by their children.
Despite this weakness in the belief of their parents, the Drexel daughters recognized the necessity of sacramental Baptism for salvation. When the oldest sister, Elizabeth, was married and in danger of losing a baby, she wrote to Katharine, “My pious and good little religious sister, Katharine, we count on your prayer to bring ours safely to the waters of Baptism and beyond them through a good and useful life to Heaven.” Later Mother Katharine would record this plea to the Mother of God, “O Mary, make me endeavor, by all the means in my power, to extend the kingdom of your Divine Son and offer incessantly my prayers for the conversion of those who are yet in darkness or estranged from His fold.”
Death and the
Awakening of a Vocation
In 1883, when Katharine was twenty-four years old, her mother died from a very painful and lingering cancer. Katharine had been her nurse during the illness and was profoundly moved by her mother’s resignation to the Will of God and received deep realizations about the evil of Original Sin. It was at her mother’s bedside that thoughts of a religious vocation came to Katharine repeatedly and forcibly. Two years later, her father died. It was a time of profound soul searching which resulted in growth in the spiritual life and the serious examination of her vocation. In particular, she pondered whether or not she would stay in the world, knowing that its allurements lay at her feet, or whether she would pursue a life of austerity and voluntary poverty.
Some years before her mother’s death, at the age of fourteen, she had taken as her spiritual director Fr. James O’Connor, the local parish priest. A few years later, he was consecrated Bishop and moved to Omaha, Nebraska. They began a lengthy correspondence on the topic of her vocation, the plight of the Indians under his care and many other spiritual matters. Because most of their letters have been preserved, we have a unique opportunity to penetrate into Katherine’s spiritual development. The graces gained through the means of a good spiritual director cannot be overestimated and, as is clear from his letters, Bishop O’Connor was a holy and intelligent guide for our saint. It was Bishop O’Connor who, for several years, challenged her initial advancement towards a religious vocation when he detected remnants of worldliness, impulsiveness, vanity or scrupulosity. Katharine’s natural inclination was to become a contemplative. Bishop O’Connor, as an insightful spiritual father, knew that this was not the appropriate venue to develop her spirituality and to utilize her talents and education. It was he who encouraged and guided her towards the financial support of the Indian missions, an endeavor which would eventually be incorporated into her new religious order.
Mrs. Drexel had taught her daughters of their obligations to the less fortunate and how to engage in works of Catholic Charity appropriate for a family who was very blessed by God. From their very early years they assisted their mother while she thrice weekly threw open the doors of her home to assist the poor and needy and donated money for rent, medicine, food, clothing and other necessary items. In this manner, they donated over twenty thousand dollars per year. Mrs. Drexel taught them how to dispense alms with prudence and justice. For example, she employed a well-qualified person to investigate and ascertain the need where assistance was to be given.
In 1884, during their first trip out West, the family visited Montana, where she saw first hand the poverty and destitution of the Indian missions. During a conversation with the priest in charge of one of the missions, she asked what she could do to help. He told her that the small, primitive chapel needed a statue. Before she left, she used her own personal money and purchased a beautiful statue of Our Lady from a catalog and had it shipped to the mission. When she informed her father of what she had done, instead of reprimanding her for her extravagance, he put his arm around her and, with great tenderness, told her how glad he was for her generosity. This began her life-long commitment of personal support of the Indian missions. Later in her life, Katharine recalled when, as a young student, she studied the history of America and learned of Christopher Columbus, she was convinced the only reason for his voyage was to convert the Indians.
It was not until 1888, nearly two years after her providential personal audience with Pope Leo XIII, that Bishop O’Connor dropped his opposition to her desires to pursue a religious vocation. During that audience, Katharine dropped to her k nees and pleaded for missionaries for Bishop O’Connor’s Indians. To her astonishment, His Holiness responded, “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?” The shock and instant realization of the implications of his comment made her physically ill. Influenced by the Holy Father’s words, Bishop O’Connor guided her continuing support of the Indian missions and used it as a preparation for the work of the religious community she would eventually found. For another two years, he strongly encouraged Katharine to probe the depths of her spirituality. He assisted her to continually clarify her thoughts and aspirations until she had attained the vision and depth to pursue the great work that would eventually lie before her. For the present, he encouraged her to remain in the world, assist Indian and other missions, and work for the conversion of her non-Catholic family members.
As stated before, the guidance of a holy and prudent spiritual director is of immense value. From one of Bishop O’Connor’s letters, here is a small sample of the advice he gave Katharine when she was twenty-five years old:
“Most of the reasons you give, in your paper, for and against your entering the states considered, are impersonal, that is, abstract and general. These are very well as far as they go, in settling one’s vocation, but additional and personal reasons are necessary to decide it. The relative merits of the two states cannot be in question. It is of faith that the religious state is, beyond measure, the more perfect. It must be admitted, too, that in both, dangers and difficulties are to be encountered and overcome. One of these states is for the few, the other, for the many85.
“You give positive personal reasons for not embracing the religious state. The first — the difficulty you would find in separation from your family, does not merit much consideration, as that would have to be overcome, in any case. The second — your dislike for community life is a very serious one, and if it continues to weigh with you, you should give up all thought of religion. You would meet many perfect souls there, but some, even among superiors, who would be far from perfect. To be in constant communion with these, to be obliged to obey them, is the greatest cross of the religious life. Yet to this, all who ‘would be perfect,’ must be prepared to submit. Indeed, toleration of their faults and shortcomings is, in the Divine economy, one of the indispensable means of acquiring perfection. The same must be said of ‘the privations and poverty,’ and the monotony of the religious life, to which you allude. If you do not feel within you the courage, with God’s help, to bear them, for the sake of Him to whom they lead, go no further in your examination. Thousands have borne such things and have been sanctified by them, but only such as had foreseen them, and resolved, not rashly, to endure them for Our Lord.”
Finally, at the end of 1888, when Katharine was thirty years old and her desire to enter the religious life became impossible to restrain, he gave his enthusiastic permission for her to pursue a religious vocation. Although her natural inclination was to join a cloistered order, Bishop O’Connor led her to the realization that the needs of the Indian and other missions were such that she would have to found a new order. This new religious order would use her wealth and talents to serve these desperate peoples in a manner peculiar to the United States. First, she would enter the convent of the Sisters of Mercy. There, Bishop O’Connor arranged that she be trained for the purpose of founding of her own religious order — an order that would eventually work for the conversion of the most neglected of all Americans: the Indians and the Negroes. One of Bishop O’Connor’s greatest challenges as her spiritual director was to help Katharine to exercise careful prudence over her fortune once she entered the religious life. At first she wanted to divest herself of everything in order to practice holy poverty. She preferred to have the American hierarchy disburse these funds to the missions rather than herself. He wisely saw the need for her to retain control over these funds in order to ensure the success of the missionary activity of her new order, and he convinced her to refrain from formally divesting herself of her inheritance. In fact, without these funds her new order could never have accomplished the remarkable achievements we are about to describe.
The Birth of a Religious Order
Although her inclinations were evident for many years, Katharine was what is referred to today as a “late vocation.” She was thirty years old when she entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy as a postulant. Her years of excellent schooling, practical training and spiritual growth would be refined by the discipline of the religious life. She now began to deepen her contemplative spirit. Her own writings and those who knew her attest to the fact that Katharine never fell prey to the heresy of “Americanism.” This error, which was spreading across our country at the time, divided the active from the passive virtues and overemphasized the active life — good works and activities — to the detriment of the meditative prayer life. She had the deep realization that the apostolic life must spring forth from the spirit of contemplative prayer life or it would never produce good fruits. Love of the Blessed Sacrament and the desire to share this love with others was the source of her missionary zeal.
Prior to her becoming a religious, Katharine and her sisters were major financial supporters of the Indian missions. As knowledgeable Catholics are aware, since the Revolutionary War, the United States Government has been in the hands of the Protestants. The policy towards the Indians was one of continual displacement. When the Indians rebelled and uprisings occurred, they were subdued and moved. In 1870, President Grant made an attempt to rectify the injustices perpetrated by the government and initiated his “Peace Policy.” He assigned the Indian agencies to the religious groups who had established prior missions in the various tribes and groups.
Although Grant’s intention was good, things did not work out well in practice. Of the total seventy-two Indian missions, thirty-eight were originally Catholic. Under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the government gave over to Protestant control thirty of the Catholic missions, containing eighty thousand Catholic Indians. This was a direct violation of President Grant’s official policy statement, which had specified that the missions were to remain under the control of the missionaries who instituted them. Without money and missionaries many of the Indians were in grave danger of losing their Faith and drifting into various forms of heresy or apostasy. They also suffered many injustices at the hands of their new Protestant masters. The religious and Indian representatives wrote strong letters to the Secretary of the Interior to protest this direct violation of the policy. Their letters were never answered.
In addition to the failure of Grant’s well-intentioned program, in 1881, Garfield was elected and was openly opposed to the Peace Plan. Garfield’s assassination soon after his election proved no reprieve either, for Vice President Arthur appointed Henry M. Teller — a man hostile to Grant’s policy — as the new Secretary of the Interior. Teller terminated the arrangement whereby religious associations selected Indian bureau agents. He simply ignored all appeals and requests to correct the many injustices replying, “I do not know what you mean by the Peace Policy of the Government.”
In 1885, following the collapse of Grant’s Plan and prior to Katharine’s entrance into the religious life, two of the most intrepid Catholic missionaries traveled across the country to seek a meeting with Katharine and her sisters, Elizabeth and Louise. The two were Bishop Martin Marty, O.S.B., Vicar Apostolic of Northern Minnesota, and Reverend Joseph Stephan, Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. Both were zealous, experienced missionaries who were deeply concerned over the preservation of the Faith of the Indians in the formerly Catholic territories. They appealed for help to educate the Indians. Schools were desperately needed. They described the abject poverty and horrible conditions and explained that the salvation of many souls hung in the balance. With the assistance of the Drexels, many Indians could be preserved in the Faith. Katharine and her sisters were deeply moved by their appeal and generously responded. By 1907 they had donated over 1.5 million dollars to the Indian Missions in addition to all of their other works of Charity.
The association with Father Stephan would last until the end of his life. He and other selfless missionaries would open Katharine’s eyes to the need for qualified religious to teach and work among the Indians. Money was not enough; workers were desperately needed as well. The priests, along with their bishops, sent appeals for aid to the Drexel sisters so that these souls would remain Catholic. Eventually, her deep realization of the need for qualified, selfless and stable religious became the germ of the new order she was to found — The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Negroes. The goal of the order would be education, both in the Faith and in the trades that would be most useful for solid employment and conducting family life. Schools were to be built and staffed. Tabernacles would be established and the Blessed Sacrament adored where it had never been worshiped before.
Bishop O’Connor guided her through these years of decision and the formation of the new order. His influence was such that she referred to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament as Bishop O’Connor’s order. He had helped her prudently to fund and care for various Indian missions. He was a keen observer of human nature and realized that, if Katharine were seen as a source of limitless funds, other donors would not step forward. He advised her to donate as secretly as possible, to fund only the start of a new program, and immediately to locate other donors once it had been established.
In 1890, just a year before the official establishment of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop O’Connor passed to his eternal reward. Katharine was devastated and began to despair of her ability to carry on with the founding of the new religious order. She felt completely abandoned. The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Patrick Ryan, who had been an intimate friend of Bishop O’Connor, wrote her a letter in which he promised to visit after he had celebrated the Requiem High Mass for Bishop O’Connor. She had met him on a number of occasions since his installation as Archbishop in 1884, and they were on very friendly terms. In the past, he had written her a number of letters with spiritual advice and had, on several occasions, celebrated Mass in the Drexel home. During the promised meeting, she confided her profound distress and sense of inadequacy. He replied, “If I share the burden with you, if I help you, can you go on?” This was the beginning of a long and fruitful spiritual relationship — one that would last for the next twenty years. He truly became her father in God. Archbishop Ryan knew the minds of Bishop O’Connor and Katharine as well as the needs of the Catholic missions in America. His guidance proved most providential for the Catholics in this country and for the growth in personal sanctity of our saint.
Shortly after this meeting, in one of Archbishop Ryan’s first letters to Katharine, he advised her to acquire a deep interior spirit and warned her that the success of her future activities would depend on that spirit. Katharine took his words very much to heart. She had received similar advice from Bishop O’Connor and had already begun to cultivate a life of reflection and prayer from which she would draw the strength to live a very active religious life. This growth in her spiritual life was one of the remarkable traits which distinguished her from the “social activists” of the day. The Paulists and other contemporaneous American Catholics were stressing the active virtues to the exclusion of the contemplative. In his letter, Testem Benevolentiae , Pope Leo XIII condemned the idea as part of a heresy named “Americanism.” Katharine was neither a theological nor a practical Americanist.
Reaping the Harvest
Finally, on February 12, 1891, Katharine made her profession as the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. The initial vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were for five years, to which she added another vow: “To be the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races according to the rule of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; and not to undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian and Colored races.” She desired to unite herself with the great missionaries of the age — to continue and enhance their work of converting the nation.
Although Katharine was willing to give up everything completely, Archbishop Ryan made it clear that her vow of poverty was not to include a complete renunciation of her inheritance. He advised her, “As to the mode of holding the property, this should be only until the Motherhouse is completed and you have entered it. Afterwards , the property should be in the name of yourself and a few of the sisters, as in the case of the Good Shepherd and other institutions. But there is time enough for this consideration.” In other words, it was necessary that she retain control of the finances of her new order, while maintaining her spirit of poverty. Fortunately, she was most obedient to her spiritual advisor. As a result, her personal poverty was a virtue that continued to grow until it was one that she practiced to a heroic degree.
The Drexel’s summer home, which the family had named “St. Michael’s,” was remodeled to become the first novitiate for the new order. It was located in Torresdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The new home of the order housed ten novices and three postulants. Immediately, they set about forming a school for the area residents, both white and Colored. Having discussed the purpose of the order and the people who would be the focus of its missionary efforts, we deem a slight diversion necessary.
In recent years St. Katharine has been portrayed as some sort of saint of “Social Justice” — as one who campaigned for the “rights” of the Colored and Indian peoples. Nothing could be further from the truth. Closely akin to her concern for her own personal sanctity was her burning desire for the salvation of souls through conversion to the Catholic Faith. When her efforts in this endeavor were undermined or openly opposed, she worked to overcome these obstacles. She was not intimidated by anyone who attempted to impede the salvation of souls. She discovered the intense prejudice against Negroes and Indians — a particularly evil manifestation of Protestantism in America. In several instances, similar to today’s Traditional Catholics, she was forced to use more discreet means to secure property for her schools for the Negro children in the South. In more than one instance, she purchased a property through an intermediary. In Nashville, for instance, when the former owner discovered who had purchased the property and that it would be used as a school for Negro children, he organized the neighbors in an attempt to thwart the project. He even attempted to resurrect a long abandoned proposal to build a road through the property — all for naught.
Such bigotry was not limited to the South. In 1891, her ancestral home of St. Michael’s in Torresdale, Pennsylvania was to be remodeled to serve as the new order’s Motherhouse. Just before Archbishop Ryan was to conduct the formal ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new Motherhouse, they had a terrible fright. A stick of dynamite was found in the very spot marked for the cornerstone. There were rumors that all the Catholics on the platform attending the ceremony would be blown to bits. When Archbishop Ryan was apprised of the situation, he requested a dozen plainclothes policemen to be present during the ceremony. The architect of the building project had a clever idea of his own. He bought a dozen broomsticks and placed them into a wooden box, which he nailed shut and labeled, “HANDS OFF, DO NOT TOUCH, HIGH EXPLOSIVE, NITROGLYCERINE.” He had one of the workmen guard the box. His idea was to force the perpetrators to reconsider their nefarious plot. The plan was a resounding success. Word went through the local community that no one was to go near the platform or the guests. The ceremony was concluded without incident. Thus, from the very beginnings of her new order, Sr. Katharine was confronted by the bigotry that was to be her constant adversary throughout her lifetime of missionary activity.
Through the intercession of Archbishop Ryan, Katharine’s new order was saved from a different type of disaster. When she entered the religious life, Katharine had already been providing financial aid to St. Stephen’s Cheyenne mission in Wyoming. She received some urgent letters from the local ordinary, Bishop Burke, concerning the plight of the mission from a lack of qualified religious to assist the priest. She and some of her new sisters received permission from Archbishop Ryan to visit the mission. She found it to be in a deplorable state because of the lack of qualified religious. She met with Bishop Burke and promised support, intimating that she would supply sisters to take over the school. When she returned to the Motherhouse in Torresdale, Archbishop Ryan enjoined her from sending anyone to the mission. The young sisters, who were still postulants and novices, had not completed their formation. The rigors of a frontier mission would overwhelm them, despite their youthful enthusiasm. Although her disappointment was intense, she obeyed his directive, later admitting the imprudence of her original decision. Archbishop Ryan wisely determined that the sisters should not leave the Motherhouse until they were steeped in religious principles and well formed in holiness. Only after several more years of preparation did he give permission for the sisters to begin to operate in the Indian missions.
Katharine soon discovered that scarcity of religious personnel was the problem that dogged all Catholic missions in the United States. Not only did the Indian missions in the West desperately need assistance, the Negro missions of the South needed it as much or even more. Eventually, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament would not only send sisters to Wyoming, but to Santa Fe, New Mexico; San Jose, California; Old Laguna, New Mexico; and many other places. While she was improving and staffing these missions she was busy near home as well. With the assistance of her two natural sisters, Elizabeth and Louise, she built St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural Institute near Richmond, Virginia. It was a trade school for Negro students. Its purpose was to prepare the students to make an honorable living for themselves and their future families.
The Navajos had been subdued by the United States Army and placed on a reservation in Arizona. Through the efforts of Sr. Katharine’s friend, Fr. Stephan, land was purchased, and a Navajo mission was established. At first she supported the operation only financially. The Navajo language was extremely difficult to master, and there were many obstacles to establishing a mission. However, Father Stephan located three Franciscan priests who accepted the challenge and painstakingly set about to teach themselves the language and write a book of translation. With the establishment of a Catholic Navajo mission, Sr. Katharine built a boarding school, St. Michael’s, which was accomplished only after many setbacks and difficulties. The happy result was that the Navajos eventually became among the most devout and enthusiastic of all the Indian Catholics.
The growth of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was gradual, but in 1904, fifteen years after the order was founded, there were 104 sisters functioning in the Motherhouse, in Santa Fe, Rock Castle and St. Michael’s in Arizona. Special mention should be made of Xavier University in New Orleans. Begun in 1917 as a two-year Normal School, it became a full-fledged university by 1925. It was the first university in the country that admitted Negroes. It soon attracted students from around the country and such far off places as the Caribbean and Africa.
In 1955, the order held 51 convents from which were conducted 49 elementary schools, 12 high schools, Xavier University in New Orleans, 3 houses of social service and a house of studies in Washington, D.C. At that time, the number of sisters exceeded five hundred, although by 2000, the year of St. Katharine’s canonization, that number had dwindled to a little over two hundred. (Such are the “fruits” of Vatican Council II, which minimized the importance of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus . If salvation can be found outside of the Catholic Church, there is certainly no need for missionaries.)
A Contemplative at Last
In her initial consideration of a religious vocation, St. Katharine was inclined to become a contemplative. This dream would not be fulfilled through her new order, which was involved in missionary activity, but rather by God’s providence. In 1935, when she was seventy-seven years old, she suffered her first major heart attack during a visit to the missions. She was returned to the Motherhouse in Torresdale. There, her doctor confirmed the serious nature of her illness, and she was advised to reduce radically her level of activity. When she tried to minimize the problem by saying, “Nobody is necessary for God’s work. God can do the work without any of His creatures,” her doctor replied simply, “Certainly, Mother, I agree with you, but ordinarily He does not.” The point was made. After years of submitting her will to God’s, her docility was complete, and she consented to live the life of an invalid until her death in 1955.
For the first several years following her heart attack, St. Katharine was involved in the decisions and plans involving the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. However, she slowly became more enfeebled. Eventually, she did not leave her little room, which was located on the second floor of the Motherhouse. She spent her days and nights in prayer. Her growth in profound sanctity is documented, for she filled notebooks with the results of her meditations and middle-of-the-night adorations. She willingly accepted her role as a suffering soul for the success of her order and the conversion of the Indians and Colored People. Finally, on March 3, 1955, she quietly and peacefully gave up her soul to her Divine Bridegroom.
The Saint of “Social Justice”?
Even when she was alive, there were those who attached themselves to St. Katharine or ingratiated themselves with her for their own ends, including the liberal Jesuit Father LaFarge, the indifferentist Cardinal Cushing of Boston, and even one extremely devout-looking priest who was not a priest at all! These associations have led some to the conclusion that St. Katharine was sort of a Catholic Martin Luther King, Jr. This conclusion is supported by much of the available literature on her. As is common these days, the research for this article was begun on the Internet. Reading a number of the articles that appear on various web sites — including that of St. Katharine’s own order — one may begin to wonder if St. Katharine’s canonization was purely an act of “political correctness.” Even though it should not be possible, did the Pope err when he canonized her? Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, all of the Internet sources referred to her as a sort of “Saint of Social Justice for Minorities and/or Women.” Now the Church has traditionally canonized someone because he or she exhibited one or more virtues to an heroic degree. But what sort of virtue is “Social Justice,” and how can it be practiced to an heroic degree? Was her canonization simply one more post-Vatican II novelty?
“The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20). Our Lord told His Apostles to remember these words, and Catholics today should keep them in mind, too. Jesus has been so historically revised as to be made everything from a “nominal Jew” to a tree-hugging pantheist, to a “Witness of Jehovah,” and more. Certainly Katherine, His servant, is also susceptible to revisionism. A read through the older books about St. Katharine and, especially, of her own writings, will make clear that the story of her life of virtue, like so many things, has been distorted by the Modernists. One very interesting example of this is a pair of books written by Ellen Tarry, a Negro woman and a former pupil in one of Sr. Katharine’s schools. In 1958, she wrote a book that was part of the “Vision Books” series entitled Katharine Drexel, Friend of the Neglected. It was a straightforward account, written with great empathy. She properly referred to Negroes as “Negroes” and Indians as “Indians” and Colored People as “Colored People.” That is the way Katharine referred to them and included them in the official name of her order — “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Negroes.” St. Katharine later modified this to “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People” because she did not want her missionary activities limited to those two groups. She wanted to include all Colored People.
In 2000, Pauline Books and Media of Boston republished this same book under the title, Saint Katharine Drexel, Friend of the Oppressed. From the title, you may already begin to get the picture. Since the publication of the first edition, Ellen Tarry has become a well-known worker for “social justice.” She prides herself on being a member of “the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, the New York Chapter of the National Association of Media Women, the Schomberg Corporation, Commission Emeritus of the Office of Black Ministry, Archdiocese of New York and has served as a non-governmental observer at the United Nations.” She spent many years working in the New York office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a “relocations advisor and then as an equal opportunity officer.” In the latest edition of her book, St. Katharine has become a woman whose “generous heart was also moved by the deprivations and injustices suffered by many African Americans.” Negroes have become “African Americans” and Indians have become “Native Americans.” Even though the story of Katharine’s life prior to the establishment of her order remains basically the same, the entire focus of the book has changed. Suddenly, from a story about a woman growing in holiness and dedicated to the salvation of souls, it has been changed to that of a woman who is a campaigner for the “civil rights” of the peoples.” The emphasis is entirely topsy-turvy.
The question remains: What virtues did St. Katharine practice heroically — virtues that should be imitated by the Faithful? For Americans, in particular, St. Katharine provides us with a challenging example of heroic poverty of spirit and charity. Katharine was born into one of the richest families in America. She had all of the advantages such a background would provide — luxurious accommodations, the finest food, a marvelous education, an unlimited ability to travel, excellent social connections and a proper introduction to high society as a debutante and all that goes with it. In short, she had everything that could have turned her into a wealthy, high-society, spoiled brat. Yet, her life was one that exemplified true poverty of spirit.
As described by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., in his book Divine Intimacy , “Poverty of spirit includes detachment not only from material goods, but also from moral and even spiritual goods. Whoever tries to assert his own personality, seeking the esteem and regard of creatures, who remains attached to his own will and ideas, or is too fond of his independence, is not poor in spirit, but is rich in himself, in his self-love and his pride.” As we have seen, throughout her life Katharine was entirely docile to the counsels and advice of her spiritual director. She felt herself to be an entirely inadequate instrument of God. In practice, she treated herself as the humblest of servants. She always took the meanest of accommodations, ate the simplest foods and gave all personal belongings away. From her last years we have the following touching example of her poverty. After she had become enfeebled and was bedridden, her primary source of visible consolation was a small holy card with a picture of Pope St. Pius X. She held it in her hands for hours every day while she prayed. Once, when a longtime acquaintance, Father William Markoe, came to call, she saw in his face something that troubled her. When he was leaving, she gave him her most precious possession — her little picture of St. Pius X. Such was Katharine’s spirit of poverty. Her entire life was a sacrifice for others; she held nothing back for herself.
Aside from her personal growth in sanctity, St. Katharine’s primary concern was the salvation of souls. Everything else was only a means to this end. She burned with the desire to provide the opportunity for all Americans to love the Blessed Sacrament as much as she did. Her true Charity was intense. An old Indian who had been educated by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and who was a close friend of St. Katharine for many decades until her death in 1955 said, “She never mixed two religions together. She always stressed the Catholic.” At her canonization, when there was much talk about Katharine being a “saint of the oppressed” and “advocate for social justice,” an elderly sister, who had taken care of St. Katharine during her last years, made this wise observation, “Her greatest accomplishment was her sanctity.”
St. Mary Katharine Drexel, pray for us!