In my bilingual Catholic parish, the nativist undercurrent of the campaign season looms loudly over the Latinos while the whites discuss the latest battle over religious liberty in hushed shock. This campaign season has people fearing the end of something, be it a way of life, a political party, or a sense of decency. It has me thinking of another young Catholic woman from the urban, affluent East Coast, who faced an even more turbulent age. In Katharine Drexel’s lifetime, the end of slavery gave way to lynching and segregation, while world wars came and went, and she responded to her country’s fear with unfailing generosity at every turn.
Katharine Drexel was raised in Philadelphia by her father Francis and her stepmother Emma, whose strong faith and inclination toward charity helped instill the same in her. Emma died of cancer in 1883, followed shortly by Francis, leaving the girls devastated—and incredibly wealthy, as they stood to inherit millions from the family’s banking fortune. The situation put pressure on Katharine to choose a path in life, which, combined with the loss of her parents, left her in utter crisis. During this time she wrote to her spiritual director, Bishop James O’Connor of Omaha:
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 and 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 . . . I am disgusted with the world. God in His mercy has opened my eyes to the fact of vanitas vanitatis, and as He has made me see the vile stark emptiness of this earth I look to Him—the God of Love—in hope.
That hope led Katharine to continue her parents’ charitable works, funding missions among Native Americans. She had once visited Rome to ask the Pope for missionaries in the American West. “To my astonishment,” Katharine later recounted, “His Holiness responded ‘Why not, my child, become yourself a missionary?’” It took her intense experience of suffering and interior conversion for her to realize the wisdom of the Pope’s words. She became a missionary to her own country when it was in desperate need—and a missionary to black and Native Americans in particular when such work was perilous. “The responsibility of such a call almost crushes me,” she wrote to Bishop O’Connor, “because I am so infinitely poor in the virtues necessary.” But that was not the only cause she had for fear.
Father Augustus Tolton, the first black priest in the United States, wrote to Katharine from Chicago in 1891:
So you, Mother Catherine [sic], stand alone as the first one to make such a sacrifice for the cause of a downtrodden race, hence, the South is looking on with an angry eye; the North in many places is criticizing every act, just as it is watching every move I make. . . . They watch us just the same as the Pharisees did Our Lord, they watched Him.
Katharine handled that pressure with marvelous grace. In 1905, her order made a discreet purchase of property in a predominantly white Nashville neighborhood for a school for black girls. When the original owner, banker Samuel J. Keith, discovered the purchaser’s identity and intention, he attempted to revoke the contract and even offered the bishop money to open the school in another neighborhood. Several women neighbors joined his petition: “We highly appreciate and cordially commend your worthy enterprise,” they wrote to Katharine, “so long as it takes place somewhere else.” A black girls’ school was, after all, a “property-destroyer.”
Katharine’s letter in response to Keith was remarkably diplomatic. She promised that the students would be “orderly,” and noted that black families already lived in the neighborhood. Then she continued:
I can fully realize, I think, how you feel about your old revered home, around which so many attachments of the past—the sweet relations of home life—hover. I acknowledge I feel the same with regard to mine, and confess that some time ago, when passing it in the trolley cars, when I saw a bill of sale on it, a whole crowd of fond recollections of father, mother, sisters, etc., came vividly to my imagination. Then I more than ever realized how all things temporal pass away, and that there is but one home, strictly speaking, that eternal home where we all hope to meet our own, and where there will be no separation any more. And so temporal things, after all, are only to be valued, inasmuch as they bring us and many others—as many as possible—to the same eternal joy for which we were created.
Katharine had every right to assert her legal ownership, to call out Keith’s racism, to shun the white neighbors who wanted her students gone. Instead, she recognized that their hostility, however discriminatory its effects, came from somewhere they thought was respectable. She did her best to meet him on his terms, and did so civilly without compromising either her principles or her goals. This was a woman who taught her sisters, “Have a cordial respect for others in heart and mind; if there is any prejudice in the mind we must uproot it, or it will pull us down.” And so she chose to see his pain instead of his anger.
Despite continued public protestations, the sisters quietly opened their school, and the situation eventually diffused. This episode was among the milder of Katharine’s clashes. Members of her order found dynamite at their motherhouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Klan tarred and feathered her supporters in Beaumont, Texas. A building on the order’s property in Powhatan, Virginia—later turned into a school—was vandalized and torched. Throughout, Katharine remained both firm in her resolve and tranquil in its pursuit.
Our country’s pain these days isn’t necessarily on the same scale, but it rhymes with Katharine’s America in a way that is instructive. Like her, we face a situation that it would be very easy to withdraw from. She, too, lived in a time of immigration, economic turmoil, fraught borders, gang violence, and epic war. She lived in a particularly restless America, one without much innocence to go around, one that was made to grow up quick. It is hard not to imagine that feeling like the end of things. Her generous response to that atmosphere is a wise model.
None of what Katharine did would have been possible if she stayed in her comfortable bubble, vaguely aware of her neighbors’ struggles as societal problems but personally ignorant of the faces and stories that went with them. She could have easily chosen not to see people’s pain, let alone commune with them in it. Instead, she made it her life.
But how do you start down that path? Katharine’s sisters asked the same question, and she responded with fantastic simplicity.
“How do we get accustomed to seeing God in the neighbor? By repeated acts.”
Catherine Addington is a writer from Alexandria, Virginia and an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.