March 2, 2016

March 3rd: Optional Memorial of St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine DrexelToday the dioceses of the United States celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Katharine Drexel. Born November 26, 1858, into a prominent Philadelphia family, Katharine was the second child of Hannah and Francis Anthony Drexel. Hannah died five weeks after giving birth. From the beginning, Katharine was imbued with love for God and neighbor. She took a special interest in the well-being of African and Native Americans. Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, opening mission schools in the West and South. From the age of 33 until her death in 1955, she dedicated her life and a fortune of 20 million dollars to this work.

In 1915, Mother Katharine founded Xavier University in New Orleans. Throughout her life, requests for help and advice reached Mother Katharine from across the United States. At her death on March 10, 1955, 500 of her sisters were teaching in 63 schools. Because of her lifelong dedication to her faith and her selfless service to the poor and oppressed, Saint John Paul II canonized her on October 1, 2000. St. Katharine Drexel is the second recognized American-born saint.

The Life of St. Katharine Drexel

Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia in 1858. She had an excellent education and traveled widely. As a rich girl, she had a grand debut into society. But when she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death, and her life took a profound turn.

She had always been interested in the plight of the Indians, having been appalled by reading Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor. While on a European tour, she met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming for her friend Bishop James O'Connor. The pope replied, "Why don't you become a missionary?" His answer shocked her into considering new possibilities.

Back home, she visited the Dakotas, met the Sioux leader Red Cloud and began her systematic aid to Native American missions.

She could easily have married. But after much discussion with Bishop O'Connor, she wrote in 1889, "The feast of Saint Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored." Newspaper headlines screamed "Gives Up Seven Million!"

After three and a half years of training, she and her first band of nuns (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored) opened a boarding school in Santa Fe. A string of foundations followed. By 1942 she had a system of African American Catholic schools in thirteen states, plus forty mission centers and twenty-three rural schools. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. In all, she established fifty missions for Native Americans in sixteen states.

Two saints met when she was advised by Mother Cabrini about the "politics" of getting her order's rule approved in Rome. Her crowning achievement was the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first university in the United States for African Americans.

At seventy-seven, she suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire. Apparently her life was over. But now came almost twenty years of quiet, intense prayer from a small room overlooking the sanctuary. Small notebooks and slips of paper record her various prayers, ceaseless aspirations and meditation. She died at 96 and was canonized in 2000.

The Vatican cited fourfold aspects of Drexel's legacy in regard to her canonization:
  • a love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples;
  • courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities - one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
  • her belief in quality education for all and efforts to achieve it;
  • and selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.
Adapted excerpt from Saint of the Day, Leonard Foley, O.F.M.

Collect Prayer

God of love, you called Saint Katharine Drexel to teach the message of the Gospel and to bring the life of the Eucharist to the Native American and African American peoples; by her prayers and example, enable us to work for justice among the poor and the oppressed, and keep us undivided in love in the Eucharistic community of your Church. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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