Katharine Drexel: Saying ‘yes’
Katharine Drexel knew what money could do. From the time she was very young, she and her two sisters had helped her beloved stepmother Emma minister to Philadelphia’s needy, opening the family’s home three times a week to people who needed money, clothes, or food. She noted her wealthy father’s charitable giving — and practice of praying 30 minutes per day.
But if she had any question about what money couldn’t do, she learned when she was 21. Emma was diagnosed with cancer, and Katharine devoted herself to caregiving until Emma’s death in January 1883. Just two years later, her father died suddenly. He specified that his estate would go to charities and any future grandchildren — and that his daughters would receive the interest, a not inconsiderable gift. They each selected a focus for their philanthropy, with Katharine choosing Native Americans and African Americans.
Katharine provided funds, but she knew the communities needed more — more priests to provide pastoral care and more missionaries to provide service and friendship. Who better to ask for help than the pope himself? And so, on Jan. 27, 1887, in a private audience with Pope Leo XIII in Rome (she was, after all, a Drexel), Katharine made her pitch. But rather than a simple yes, no, or maybe, the pope challenged her with these words: “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?”
Who better to ask for help than the pope himself?
Imagine how taken aback Katharine must have been! While it was true that she had considered a vocation as a contemplative nun, she had decided against that path, writing in her journal, “I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries.”
But how do you not consider such a challenge from the Holy Father? Katharine prayed and discerned, and discerned and prayed. She was 30 when she entered the novitiate; nearly two years later, she professed her final vows and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Katharine was present for the opening of the sisters’ first school for Native Americans in 1894 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. All told, nearly 60 schools and missions, primarily in the West, Southwest, and South would open under her leadership, including what would become New Orleans’ Xavier University, the only Catholic historically black college and university. In some cases, the sisters were met with threats of violence, but they soldiered on.
Katharine prayed and discerned.
In 1935, Katharine suffered a serious heart attack. A new superior general was selected in 1937. Katharine’s health declined as the years passed, and eventually she became bedridden. She was 96 when she died, having offered up what could have been a life of wealth and privilege for direct service to underserved communities.
“Katharine Drexel is an excellent example of that practical charity and generous solidarity with the less fortunate which has long been the distinguishing mark of American Catholics,” St. John Paul II said in his homily at her canonization Mass.
We likely aren’t as wealthy as the Drexels, and few of us will ever have a private audience with a pope. Still, it can be tempting when we see a need to wonder why someone isn’t doing something about it. Maybe we complain about the parish’s landscaping that’s full of weeds, or wonder why no one’s praying in front of the abortion clinic we often drive by.
Katharine’s example reminds us that God is counting on each and every one of us to step up when we see a need, not excuse ourselves from service because we don’t think we have the skills. When we step out of our comfort zones, we learn that God delights when we offer all we have — not just what we think we’re good at — to bring souls to his kingdom.
St. Katharine Drexel, I ask your help in saying “Yes,” not, “Who? Me?” to what the Lord desires of me.
Born: Nov. 26, 1858
Died: March 3, 1955
Canonized: Oct. 1, 2000, by St. John Paul II
Feast day: March 3
TO LEARN MORE:
- Visit the website for the Saint Katharine Drexel Shrine (SaintKatharineDrexelShrine.com) at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Philadelphia. St. Katharine Drexel’s tomb is located there. You’ll find a video, photos, and more.
- Read Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Life Story of an American Catholic Saint (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014) by Cheryl C.D. Hughes, which Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput called “perfect reading for the hungry soul.”
- St. Katharine Drexel’s uncle — Anthony Joseph Drexel Sr. — was the founder of Drexel University. Learn more about university holdings on the family and its place in U.S. history at Drexel Family Collection (CDmag.net/2nDU3yJ). Katharine’s mother died shortly after her birth, and Katharine and her sister lived with Anthony and his wife for two years before her father remarried.