She Gave More Than Her Millions
BY Joseph Pronechen
February 28-March 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/28/99 at 1:00 PM
If “your treasure is where your heart lies,” then the only fortune stored up by a multimillionaire heiress during her long life was put in a heavenly savings account and audited in 1988, when Pope John Paul II beatified her as Blessed Katharine Drexel.
She began as a 19th-century socialite, a member of a prominent Philadelphia banking family. But she used her worldly riches to promote and spread spiritual, educational, and charitable treasures among Native Americans and African Americans — and gave herself to God in the religious life, and gave a new order of nuns to the Church.
The shrine dedicated to her in the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament is worth a visit by anyone interested in American history, including the history of the racial and social problems that continue to tear at the national fabric. More importantly, her shrine in Bensalem, just over the Philadelphia city line, is a place to pray for the intercession of a woman who knew how to solve those problems.
Named St. Elizabeth's Convent, the motherhouse and later buildings were done in a Spanish-monastic style. They were built by Blessed Katharine for the congregation she founded Feb. 12, 1891, when she was the first of 14 sisters to take vows as a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. She and her community stayed that first year at St. Michel, her family's summer home in Torresdale, near Bensalem (then called Cornwell Heights).
A School of Charity
At St. Michel the teen-age Katharine and her older sister Elizabeth had started a Sunday school. They also helped their stepmother (Katharine was 5 weeks old when her natural mother died) carry out charitable work among the poor three days a week. The family never let their prominent place in Philadelphia society take precedence over this chosen work.
When the director of the Bureau of Indian Missions told her about the sufferings of the Native Americans out west, Katharine decided to investigate. After seeing their plight firsthand, she expanded her charitable horizons, and in the 1880s, began building schools and establishing missions on the reservations. She responded with the same generosity after learning about the suffering endured by blacks in the South and the East. The foreign missions were next to receive her aid.
After her parents died, she and her siblings inherited the income from a trust fund set up by their father. Katharine spent her share — estimated at $20 million in the days when a loaf of bread cost only 3 cents — on charitable works over the course of 65 years, before and after becoming a religious foundress.
Katharine's spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor of Omaha, Neb., discouraged her interest in a religious vocation because of the good she could do as a woman of means in the world. But upon hearing of Katharine's willingness to go ahead with a vocation, Bishop O'Connor relented and even proposed that she found a congregation for the benefit of blacks and Indians, who had already become the objects of so much of her apostolic interest.
“She worked tirelessly to make them feel welcome in the Catholic Church,” observed Sister Ruth Catherine SBS, director of the Blessed Katharine Drexel Guild, which works for its namesake's canonization.
Blessed Katharine led her congregation for 44 years, until 1935, when she suffered a major heart attack. For the next two decades, until her death at age 96 on March 3, 1955, she remained confined to the mother-house where she devoted herself to prayer. Mass was celebrated in her room on the small altar before which she had made her first communion and confirmation.
“That same altar was used at St. Michel, the summer house, when the order first started out,” explained Sister Ruth, “and then in her room the last 20 years of her life when she was unable to come down for Mass.” The altar has recently joined the displays in the shrine.
Artifacts of a Dedicated Life
One area of the shrine contains personal effects, from her childhood desk to the office desk and chair used by Mother Katharine as foundress of the congregation. Her prie-dieu is also on hand.
Shrine visitors can also view a video that tells the story of her life and the work of her congregation. The gift shop contains many related items.
Another part of the shrine offers a fine display of crafts, artifacts, and items native to the peoples served by the congregation. Among the displays are ebony, ivory, and wood carvings from Haiti, Mali, and Kenya, and kinte cloth from Ghana.
Native American items include a Navajo rug, Sioux moccasins, and Pueblo pottery and terra cotta. A Native American cradleboard on prominent display happens to be one that was used in infancy by a current member of the order, Sister Rosita.
The shrine's focal point is the crypt tomb of Blessed Katharine, below the chapel of the motherhouse. Within the light-shaded stonework behind the raised vault is a niche with colorful angels depicted adoring the Blessed Sacrament. A plaque pays tribute to her as foundress and first superior general of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
During the time the shrine is open, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily, visitors can also pray in the nuns' large chapel, where there is daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. They can also attend Masses Mondays through Fridays at 7:30 a.m., Saturday at 9 a.m., and Sunday at 11 a.m.
The impressive chapel, with high wood vault and lines of choir stalls, has a resplendent wooden altar intricately hand-carved in Belgium. Above the altar is a magnificent crucifix. The life-sized corpus, finely carved in France by an American artist, was donated by Katharine's sister Elizabeth, who originally commissioned it for a chapel she was building in her parents' memory.
“The family very much supported each other,” said Sister Ruth. Elizabeth died in her first childbirth. Half sister Louise married but had no children. When Blessed Katharine died, the estate was divided according to their father's will among 27 charities — schools, hospitals, orphanages, and churches.
In the decade since her beatification, ever-larger crowds have flocked to the shrine for Mass on her feast day, March 3. To handle this year's attendance, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia, will celebrate a special noon Mass at the city's downtown Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.
The shrine will be open after Mass for pilgrims to honor a religious sister and foundress who filled a heavenly treasury by lovingly using her worldly fortune to lavish spiritual and educational wealth on the unfortunate.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
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