Who is Saint Katharine Drexel ?

Saint Katharine Drexel (1858 – 1955)

The Feast Day of Saint Katharine Drexel, patroness of our region, is observed on March 3rd. She was canonized in Rome by the Holy Father Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000.

A recent Forbes magazine article offers wealthy readers ways to avoid ruining their children: make them do unpaid chores, say “no” to expensive gifts such as cars, and steer them to summer jobs that open their eyes as to how poorer folk live.

Good advice — but rich, late-nineteenth century American Catholics Francis and Emma (Bouvier) Drexel took a different approach with their kids. (Francis had infant and toddler daughters at his first wife’s death and a third girl with Emma, his second wife, who reared the other children as her own.)

The three Drexel sisters were raised with every advantage, from grand private European “tours” to formal “coming out” parties. But if they did not deprive their girls, the deeply devout parents also modeled a clear philosophy of the purpose and place of money by their own lives.

Three afternoons a week, the Drexel daughters saw the doors of their splendid Philadelphia home open to anyone in need. On behalf of the family, as they grew older the girls helped Emma distribute huge sums each year in clothing, medicine or rent money. They saw their mother was no dupe, investigating to weed out con artists while she wholeheartedly — and personally — assisted the truly needy.

Seven days a week it was God, not money, the girls saw as the object of their parent’s devotion. When Emma designed the family mansion she included a beautiful little chapel — for use, not show. Nightly, the Drexels gathered for prayer, and the Rosary was part of each day.

Francis Drexel’s family knew, too, that despite his immersion in the world of finance, when the powerful one-time partner of J. Pierpont Morgan came home each night, it was not money that occupied his mind. As soon as he had greeted his loved ones, Francis secluded himself for half an hour’s prayer.

When Emma died in 1883 after painful cancer, her daughters did not read in obituaries of their mother’s society galas or chic lifestyle. Instead, the press reported Emma’s “cheering visits” to “the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the dying” and noted that “few women ever secured so many jobs” for the unemployed.

One paper said, “The families she . . . aided can be numbered in the hundreds, some of them supported entirely by her in time of need.” Emma’s girls saw, too, the stream of poor who passed by her coffin, weeping for one who had done them so much good.

Two years later, in 1885, their father died. Francis left $15 million, one-tenth to go at once to charity and the rest to be distributed to the same worthy institutions after his girls’ deaths, leaving them only the (admittedly ample) interest income to divide among them during their lives.

The Drexel girls did not rush to lawyers to get at more of the money. Instead, they concentrated on using what they had to follow their parents in service to others.

Elizabeth, the oldest, helped many orphans and founded St. Francis de Sales’ Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where orphans could learn a trade before facing life on their own. The youngest, Louise, began charities to black Americans that culminated in her establishment of St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where young black men could combine liberal arts studies with vocational schooling.

Best known of the three heiresses is the middle girl, Katharine. Katharine spent all of her money on works for America’s Indians and blacks. But for her, even giving her wealth was not enough; she also gave herself, becoming a nun — foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Katharine died at age ninety-six in 1955. For ten years she had been the lone income beneficiary of her father’s will. Although her own foundations — Xavier University for blacks in New Orleans, Indian schools in the West and her order’s uncompleted mother-house — needed money as much or more than the charities named long years before in her dad’s will, she never sought to break that document. On her death those groups took all, leaving Katharine’s works to the providence of God. But the middle Drexel girl had long faced that prospect serenely. After all, it was in God, not money, her parents had raised their children to trust.

Ever loving God, You called Saint Katharine Drexel to share
the message of the Gospel and the life of the Eucharist with the poor and oppressed among Native and African American peoples. Through her intercession, may we grow in the faith and love that will enable us to be united as brothers and sisters in You. We pray this through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

To report a favor received, or to get more information, contact:

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
1663 Bristol Pike
Bensalem, PA 19020-8502

Phone 215-244-9900
E-mail: sbs@libertynet.org
Web site: http://www.katharinedrexel.org/