March 2, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Katharine Drexel dedicated her religious life to minorities

John F. FinkMarch is Women’s History Month, so declared by Congress in 1987. Last month, I wrote about black Catholics in U.S. history for Black History Month, so this month I’ll write about some Catholic women in U.S. history you should know about.

I’ll start with St. Katharine Drexel because her feast day is on March 3. She is the only native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized. Sts. Kateri Tekakwitha and Elizabeth Ann Seton were born in what is now the United States, but they were born before the United States became a separate country. All the others were born overseas.

Katharine was born on Nov. 26, 1858, the second daughter of Francis Drexel and his wife Hannah. The Drexels were among the wealthiest families in the United States. When Francis died in 1885, Katharine and her two sisters inherited an enormous estate.

They were interested in the evangelization of Native Americans, and began to finance the construction and support of mission schools in the West. They also tried to recruit priests and religious sisters for the Indian missions. In 1887, during an audience with Pope Leo XIII, Katharine asked him to send more missionaries to the Indians. He replied, “Why don’t you become a missionary?”

Katharine had long confided in Bishop James O’Connor of Omaha about her wish to become a religious sister. When she wrote to him that she had decided to do so, he replied, “You have decided to become a religious. The next thing for you to determine is whether you shall establish a new order for the Indian and Colored people.”

That was not what Katharine had in mind, and she told Bishop O’Connor so in several other letters. But the bishop became ever more insistent until he said that it was no longer an invitation; it was an order. Katharine capitulated.

Bishop O’Connor asked the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh to train her for religious life while, at the same time, she started her own order. Katharine professed her vows as the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People in 1891. She and 13 companions moved into the Drexel summer home while the community’s motherhouse was being built. Then Mother Katharine directed her community for the next 44 years, traveling almost constantly in the south and southwest.

By 1942, using her inheritance, she had established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, with 30 convents, 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools in which 15,000 children came under the care of her sisters. She also established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states.

She also founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first U.S. Catholic institution of higher learning for blacks. Last week, I wrote about Norman Francis, who was president of that university for 47 years.

In 1935, when she was 77, she suffered a severe heart attack. She relinquished control of her community, but for almost 20 more years she spent her days in constant prayer. She died on March 3, 1955.

(I wrote much more about St. Katharine in my book American Saints.) †

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