KATHARINE DREXEL (1858-1955)
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America, on November 26, 1858, Katharine Drexel was the second daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. Her father was a well known banker and philanthropist. Both parents instilled in their daughters the idea that their wealth was simply loaned to them and was to be shared with others.
When the family took a trip to the Western part of the United States, Katharine, as a young woman, saw the plight and destitution of the native Indian-Americans. This experience aroused her desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition. This was the beginning of her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. The first school she established was St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1887).
Later, when visiting Pope Leo XIII in Rome, and asking him for missionaries to staff some of the Indian missions that she as a lay person was financing, she was surprised to hear the Pope suggest that she become a missionary herself. After consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor, she made the decision to give herself totally to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans.
Her wealth was now transformed into a poverty of spirit that became a daily constant in a life supported only by the bare necessities. On February 12, 1891, she professed her first vows as a religious, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament whose dedication would be to share the message of the Gospel and the life of the Eucharist among American Indians and Afro-Americans.
Always a woman of intense prayer, Katharine found in the Eucharist the source of her love for the poor and oppressed and of her concern to reach out to combat the effects of racism. Knowing that many Afro-Americans were far from free, still living in substandard conditions as sharecroppers or underpaid menials, denied education and constitutional rights enjoyed by others, she felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.
The plantation at that time was an entrenched social institutionin which the coloured people continued to be victims of oppression. This was a deep affront to Katharine's sense of justice. The need for quality education loomed before her, and she discussed this need with some who shared her concern about the inequality of education for Afro-Americans in the cities. Restrictions of the law also prevented them in the rural South from obtaining a basic education.
Founding and staffing schools for both Native Americans and Afro-Americans throughout the country became a priority for Katharine and her congregation. During her lifetime, she opened, staffed and directly supported nearly 60 schools and missions, especially in the West and Southwest United States. Her crowning educational focus was the establishment in 1925 of Xavier University of Louisiana, the only predominantly Afro-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. Religious education, social service, visiting in homes, in hospitals and in prisons were also included in the ministries of Katharine and the Sisters.
In her quiet way, Katharine combined prayerful and total dependence on Divine Providence with determined activism. Her joyous incisiveness, attuned to the Holy Spirit, penetrated obstacles and facilitated her advances for social justice. Through the prophetic witness of Katharine Drexel's initiative, the Church in the United States was enabled to become aware of the grave domestic need for an apostolate among Native Americans and Afro-Americans. She did not hesitate to speak out against injustice, taking a public stance when racial discrimination was in evidence.
For the last 18 years of her life she was rendered almost completely immobile because of a serious illness. During these years she gave herself to a life of adoration and contemplation as she had desired from early childhood. She died on March 3, 1955.
Katharine left a four-fold dynamic legacy to her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who continue her apostolate today, and indeed to all peoples:
her love for the Eucharist, her spirit of prayer, and her Eucharistic perspective on the unity of all peoples;
her undaunted spirit of courageous initiative in addressing social iniquities among minorities one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
her belief in the importance of quality education for all, and her efforts to achieve it;
her total giving of self, of her inheritance and all material goods in selfless service of the victims of injustice.
Katharine Drexel was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 20, 1980.