A Daughter of Wealth Became ‘Mother’ to Millions
“Gives Up Seven Million!” So the newspa-pers reported when wealthy, young Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia said Yes to the novitiate and “No more” to the world — or, at least, to the worldly pleasures and comforts that come with big money and elevated status.
To the casual news consumer of the day, the lady must have seemed rather foolish. What socialite in her right mind would give up so much to get “so little” in return?
One whose folly in the world’s eyes is wisdom in God’s: Mother Drexel went on to become a canonized saint.
For those who knew her best, the decision was not so shocking. Born in Philadelphia in 1858, well-educated and well-traveled during her youth and early adulthood, Katharine learned early on that money cannot buy the things that really matter. She grew up with this awareness, as her mother died just a month after giving birth to her. (And her beloved stepmother died of cancer when Katharine was 25.)
Katharine’s father was a successful banker who supplied his family with every available comfort. But he was also a pious and generous man, making sure the family devoted time every evening to prayer. And three days each week, her stepmother opened the family’s home to the destitute, never allowing anyone to leave hungry.
Young Katharine would take what she saw in her home and expand it. She became a great advocate for American Indians, going so far as to contact Pope Leo XIII with a request for missionaries to be sent to Wyoming. To this the Pope responded, “Why don’t you become a missionary?”
Two Mothers Met
On such invitations are lives — and the world — changed. Katharine visited the Dakotas and met Chief Red Cloud. So began her mission to the American Indians. Her religious response would not be far behind.
Nor, in Church time, would the Church’s recognition of her sacrifice be long in coming. Pope John Paul II canonized her in 2000, a short 45 years after her death. The Church now celebrates her feast each March 3.
On March 17, 1889, St. Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Her first group of nuns opened a boarding school in Santa Fe, N.M.
With that, her work had begun. By 1942 her order had set up 50 Indian missions in 16 states, schools for black Americans in 13 states and 23 rural schools. She also established Xavier University in New Orleans, the first college for black Americans in the country.
Not everyone appreciated the good works she and her sisters accomplished. Segregationists burned one of the saint’s schools in Pennsylvania and harassed her work elsewhere.
Through four and a half decades, Mother Drexel’s boundless energy drove many projects from concept through completion. Countless lives were improved thanks to her hard work and unflagging dedication. But life still had another curveball to toss her. In 1935, when she was in her mid-70s and in relatively good health, Mother Drexel suffered a debilitating heart attack.
So it was that, after spending herself in tireless service to the poorest of the poor, St. Katharine would be granted an extended period of quiet, contemplative prayer. This would last some 20 years, until her death on March 3, 1955.
I have a great fondness for the saints who spent time in New York City. Maybe it’s because I’m the son of immigrants. In any case, I am awed by the role models of the faith who dedicated themselves to foreigners and other outsiders in my home city.
I was especially intrigued when I found out that St. Katharine sought guidance from one of my favorites, St. Frances Cabrini. Apparently, Mother Cabrini counseled St. Katharine as to the where-tos and how-tos of establishing a religious community.
When I heard about this relationship of great Christian disciples, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the St. Katharine Drexel Shrine and Chapel in Bensalem, Pa., to pray at her tomb.
Hidden within a pristine 100-acre forest, St. Katharine’s Shrine and Chapel is a few miles away from Trenton, N.J., on a map. But it’s light years removed from any sort of city tumult.
Built in 1949, the humble stone structure blends in beautifully with its simple, natural setting. The shrine contains a fascinating collection of artifacts the saint used, including her wheelchair. Navajo rugs given to St. Katharine by the Indians who loved her drape the shrine’s walls.
In the center of this holy space is the crypt containing Mother Drexel’s earthly remains. An Apache “burden basket” is kept alongside to collect pilgrims’ intentions. A short video offers a primer on Mother Drexel’s eventful exterior life.
After wandering in the woods around the compound, I returned for Mass at St. Elizabeth Chapel. Built in 1891, the century-old building has very obvious French and Spanish monastic influences. Every church should be beautiful in its own way, and so many are treasures in their own rights. And indeed, that day, this humble chapel in a serene setting proved perfect for contemplating God’s plans for me.
I hope I never forget the smell of fresh air that permeated the space. It mixed with the delightful aroma of the wooden structure and the natural scents of the forest. I lingered in the church after everyone had gone. This is one of my favorite things to do, resting in the serenity permeating every inch of a church after Mass.
Mother Drexel, like many modern saints, worked for social justice for the downtrodden before “social justice” became popular. She looked around her and saw only suffering, especially in the black and American Indian communities. With a pope’s gentle prompting, she turned away from her life of privilege — and totally gave herself to God through a life of deep prayer and loving service.
In the end, St. Katharine gave up $7 million. And she gained 70 times seven million ways to enjoy the beatific vision for all eternity.
Angelo Stagnaro lives
in New York City.
- February 25- March 03, 2007