March 2, 2017

Saint Katharine Drexel, Missionary and Foundress

Saint Katharine Drexel
March 3rd, dioceses in the United States celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Katharine Drexel (1858–1955), the 20th century sister, missionary and educator who ministered to the marginalized in the United States, especially the Native American and African American communities. In 1891, she, and a small cadre of her fellow nuns established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. The Order operated mission schools in the West and the South.

Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia, to a family of immense wealth. Francis Drexel, her father, was a business partner of J.P. Morgan. He was known for his generous philanthropy. Her mother, Hannah Drexel, died less than a month after Drexel's birth. In 1860, her father would remarry. As a daughter of great privilege, Drexel was privately schooled by the best tutors, widely travelled and raised to be a high society heiress. Drexel's sense of compassion and natural empathy were attuned to the needs of others from a very early age. One experience proved seminal in her spiritual formation.

While still a teenager. Drexel nursed her mother-in-law during a difficult three year terminal illness. The experience taught Katherine that affluence and position did not protect one from suffering and misfortune. After witnessing the plight of Indian and Black communities through her travels, she resolved to serve the least of her brothers and sisters in God's family. Drexel set out to champion people at the margins of society, the poor, the forgotten and those facing discrimination.

After reading Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor, a book detailing the maltreatment of Indians, Drexel's zeal to redress their suffering grew. While touring Europe, 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?" This compelled her to pursue a religious vocation.

Drexel entered religious life as a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in 1889. Two years later, she took her final vows. Together with fifteen other sisters, Mother Drexel founded the  the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, later known as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1894, the Order established its first school for Native Americans in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Other schools followed in the South and Southwest, including a high school for African Americans in New Orleans. In 1925, that school became Xavier University, the first Catholic university in the U. S. intended expressly for African Americans.

Katharine Drexel was advised by Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (Mother Cabrini) about getting the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament official Church approval. At 77, Mother Drexel suffered a heart attack and stepped down from leading her Order. For the remaining two decades of her life, she consigned herself to prayer, contemplation and correspondence. She died at the age of 96, on March 3, 1955. Over the course of her life she gave some 20 million dollars to those in need. Mother Drexel was canonized on October 1, 2000, by Saint John Paul II. 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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