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Remembering St. Drexel

This week marks the feast day of St. Drexel, who had a lifelong dedication to the poor and oppressed,
This week marks the feast day of St. Drexel, who had a lifelong dedication to the poor and oppressed,

Chicago Catholics, are you familiar with St. Katharine Drexel? If not, now is a good time to learn about her, because her Feast Day is this week (namely, March 3rd) She is a fairly new saint. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000, becoming only the second universally recognized American saint. What's so special about St. Katharine Drexel? Read on and find out.

Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Marie Drexel in 1858, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family. Her family owned a considerable fortune, and her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was the founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia. She had many suitors seeking her out, since she was a wealthy and beautiful young woman when she made her social debut in 1879. But when Catherine traveled through the Western states in 1884, she saw the plight and destitution of many dirt poor native Americans. In January 1887, Katharine and her sisters received a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. She requested that he send missionaries to staff some of the charities she had been financing to help American Indians. Pope Leo had a different idea in mind: he suggested that Catherine become a missionary herself.

She followed his advise, and took her first vows on February 12, 1891, taking the name “Mother Katharine”. She soon established a religious congregation: The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. A few months later, Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of a meeting house for the sisters that was under construction in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Because of her outspoken advocacy for the poor, she had made many enemies, and a stick of dynamite was discovered near the site. After three and a half years of training, she and her band of nuns opened up their first boarding school for American Indians in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She dedicated the rest of her life to helping American Indians, blacks, and other ethnic groups that were struggling in the United States.

Throughout her life, Drexel established 50 missions for Native Americans in 16 states. Drexel also fought against Jim Crow laws and anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature moved to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers from teaching black students, because they opposed the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament educating black students in Georgia. Later, when Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open a school in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window. She pressed forward with her plans, and Xavier University opened in New Orleans in 1915 – the first Catholic university for black students in the Untied States. Segregationists and Klansman continued to oppose her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. However, by 1942, Drexel and her order had established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. She spent around $20 million of her private fortune building schools and churches throughout her life, as well as paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians. Mother Katherine lived a long life but eventually passed away on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96.

Because of her lifelong dedication to her faith and her selfless service to the oppressed, Pope John Paul II opted to canonize her a saint. She is remembered today as an American heiress, philanthropist, religious sister, educator, and foundress. The Vatican cited four major aspects of Drexel's legacy at the time of her canonization:

  • A love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples.

  • Courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities – 100 years before such concern aroused public interest in the U.S.

  • Belief in quality education for all and efforts to achieve it.

  • Selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.

In short, St. Drexel contributed an enormous amount of opportunities and support for minority groups in the United States, long before it was popular to do so. It comes as no surprise that many schools, churches, and centers are named in her honor today, including Saint Katharine Drexel parish at 8S055 Dugan Road (Church) Sugar Grove, Illinois. Many people, especially politicians, talk about helping poor and oppressed people in the United States. Katharine Drexel didn't talk about it, she did so.

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