Learning from a Heroic Servant of Marginal People
Today we continue our regular series called “Learning from the Saints.” Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the Saints, Saints at Heart, and Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
Today, Bert profiles St. Katharine Drexel, the patron saint of racial justice and philanthropy.
Contemplation and generosity vied for first place in Katharine Drexel’s life. The Philadelphia heiress wanted most to withdraw to a cloister, but her circumstances and gifts pulled her to Christian service.
Francis A. Drexel, a world-renowned banker and a man of faith, provided his family a life of ease. And Emma Bouvier, her stepmother, trained Katharine and her two sisters in generous giving. Mrs. Drexel believed God gave wealth to the family to aid others, and regularly involved her daughters in distributing food, medicine, clothing and rent money to the poor. The experience shaped Katharine’s future.
Both parents died by 1885, leaving Katharine and her sisters to share the annual income from a 14-million-dollar estate. Right away Katharine began to donate thousands of dollars to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions for the construction and staffing of schools for Native American children, which became her life’s passion.
At this time, however, Katharine’s spirit was in turmoil. Bishop James O’Connor, her spiritual director, thought she should remain a single woman serving in the world. But she wished to become a contemplative nun. She wrote him in 1886:
“My heart is very sorrowful because like the little girl who wept when she found that her doll was stuffed with sawdust and her drum was hollow, I, too, have made a horrifying discovery and my discovery like hers is true. I have ripped both the doll and the drum open ands the fact lies plainly and in all its glaring reality before me: All, all, all (there is no exception) is passing away and will pass away.
“European travel brings vividly before the mind how cities have risen and fallen, and risen and fallen; and the same of empires and kingdoms and nations. And the billions and billions who lived their common every day life in these nations and kingdoms and empires and cities, where are they? The ashes of the kings and mighty of this earth are mingled with the dust of the meanest slave.
“Day succeeds day and, as Byron so beautifully expresses it, when the heavens grow red in the western sky, “The day joins the past eternity.” How long will the sun and moon, the stars continue to give forth light? Who can tell? Of one thing alone we are sure. In God’s own time—then shall come the Son of Man in great power and majesty to render to each according to his works.”
“The question alone important, the solution of which depends upon how I have spent my life, is the state of my soul at the moment of death. Infinite misery or infinite happiness! There is no half and half, either one or the other. And this question for me is to be decided at most in seventy years, seventy short years compared with eternity.”
In 1891, Katharine resolved the tension by founding a new religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, that combined prayer and social action. By 1904, 104 sisters had joined her. Katharine established 145 Catholic missions and 12 schools for Native Americans and 50 schools for Blacks. During her lifetime she gave away about twenty million dollars, mostly for these causes.
In 1935, Katharine suffered a severe heart attack. Two years later she retired and got her heart’s desire—18 years of quiet contemplation before she died in 1955 at age 97.
Katharine’s vast inheritance was distributed among her father’s 29 favorite charities. Not a penny went to her own community. She wanted her sisters to live by faith, trusting God—not money—for everything.
Read more from Bert at his website www.BertGhezzi.com, or check out his many books on Amazon.