Of all the speeches Pope Francis recently delivered in America, among the most inspiring was one highlighting the life of Katharine Drexel, delivered to an overflowing crowd in her own Philadelphia:
Most of you know the story of Saint Katharine Drexel, one of the great saints raised up by the local Church. When she spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope . . . asked her pointedly: “What about you?’ What are you going to do?”
Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church.
Katharine was born in Philadelphia in 1858, into enormous wealth, though her family soon learned that their fortune couldn’t protect them from the tragedies of life. Five weeks after Katharine’s birth, her mother, Hannah, died, and Katharine and her sister Elizabeth were cared for by their aunt and uncle. Several years later, however, they were reunited with their father, Francis, after he married Emma Bouvier. Katharine was soon blessed with a new sister, Louisa, and the three girls grew up in privileged surroundings, but not without a sense of obligation. Each week, the Drexels distributed food and goods to indigent families from their Philadelphia estate, and if they heard of disadvantaged people too shy or proud to ask for assistance, they sought them out, and helped them discreetly.
The Drexels’ wealth allowed them to travel widely, but with an aim toward sharpening their social conscience. During a visit to America’s northwest territories in 1884, Katharine saw the abject poverty many Native Americans lived in, and was shaken by it. She was equally scandalized by the racist oppression suffered by African-Americans and vowed to do something to help them, even though few others at the time shared her desire for social justice.
After their father’s death in 1885, the three Drexel sisters inherited the family fortune—they continued his philanthropic work by using the money to support a wide variety of charitable acts.
But it was at this point that Katharine’s life took on a new dimension. For years, she had taken spiritual direction from Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later became a bishop. When Katharine shared her desire to consider religious life, Bishop O’Connor was impressed, but counseled her to pray and discern if that was her true calling, as it would mean a radical break from her present life.
She received her answer a short time later. When Katharine traveled to Europe with her sisters in 1887, they were granted a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. It was then that she had the famous conversation Pope Francis referred to in his recent speech. Katharine asked the Pope if he could assist the missions the Drexel sisters were financing. The Pope was more than happy to do so, but also replied with his own question: “Why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”
Overcome with emotion, she broke down in tears, and knew what her new mission in life must be.
Returning home, Katharine decided to enter the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh—a decision vigorously opposed by Katharine’s uncle, and one that shocked Philadelphia Society. Few had ever seen, or heard, of an heiress giving up a life of splendor for an austere religious life. Rumors began that “Miss Drexel” had made an impetuous decision, and would eventually return to high society life. She never did.
With the approval of the Church, and a dozen other sisters, Mother Katharine, as she became known, established a new congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They helped anyone in need, but especially Native and African Americans whom Katharine had so long wanted to rescue from persecution and despair. After several years of careful planning and training, financed by her estate, Katharine and her fellow nuns set up a boarding school for Native Americans in New Mexico. That was followed by a new mission for the Navajos in Arizona, on a huge tract of land she had purchased years earlier for that purpose. Working with many priests to educate the Native Americans, Mother Katharine financed a special Catechism for them, in their original language, and in English. The process was continued, until she had established an astonishing fifty missions for Native Americans in sixteen states.
Equally devoted to African-Americans, Mother Katharine built schools and trained teachers for them, culminating in the 1915 founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first such institution for black students in America.
That Mother Katharine and her followers accomplished all this at a time of rampant racism—and anti-Catholic sentiment—is a testament to her fortitude and faith. Not a few of her establishments were vandalized by criminals, and openly threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. The Georgia legislature even tried to pass a law that would have prevented Mother Katharine’s Order from teaching black students, but it was beaten back. The Order succeeded in creating a network of schools for African Americans in over a dozen states.
Over the course of her life, St. Katharine is estimated to have spent over 20 million dollars building churches, missions and schools, and paying the salaries of all those who worked at them. She never flagged in her efforts, and even after she suffered a heart attack in 1935, and had to relinquish many of her responsibilities, she continued to finance the Order’s work until her death in 1955. Her final years were spent largely in Eucharistic Adoration, fulfilling her life-long desire to become a contemplative.
In devoting herself to God, the poor and oppressed, and in utilizing all her riches for the benefit of others, St. Katharine Drexel embodied all the virtues Francis has championed since becoming pope: poverty, humility, compassion and an all-consuming love for Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Let us all now ask ourselves the question that spurred St. Katharine on to begin her particular, unrepeatable work for God: “What about you? What are you going to do?”
And Lord, give us the grace and the courage to answer it.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.