If it were reported by news outlets today, the headline would read, “Heiress Gives Up Two Hundred Million.”
In 1889, after years of wrestling with a desire to enter the religious life, St. Katharine Drexel decided to give it all away, trading her fine gowns and linens for the black and white habit and exchanging elaborate socials and frivolous adventures abroad for the community life of the convent, and vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The $7 million inheritance (equivalent to about $200 million today) from her father, international banker Francis Anthony Drexel, was used to found and fund the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In her thirty-five years of ministry, she founded 145 missions, 50 schools for African Americans, and 12 schools for Native Americans. Her crowning achievement may be the founding of Xavier University in Louisiana, which is still the United States’ only Catholic HBCU (historically black college and university).
It wasn’t only the exchange of a life of wealth for a life of poverty that had the public gasping. Katharine faced the greatest ridicule for her life’s mission, which can be found in her vows and the vows of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament:
I, Katharine Drexel, called in religion Sister Mary Katharine . . . do vow and promise to God . . . Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, and to be the Mother and Servant of the Indian and Negro Races . . . nor shall I undertake any work which may lead to the neglect and abandonment of the Indian and Colored Races.
Her biological sisters supported her decision, but many in her family and social circles questioned why her missionary work must require such a drastic change in her lifestyle. Couldn’t she support an end to racism, and education for the brown and black communities, through financial means instead of abandoning her affluent life for the same mission? But Katharine saw a deeper call than this.
On the advice of her friend and spiritual director Bishop James O’Connor (vicar apostolic of Nebraska), Katharine had spent many years waiting and praying about how to reconcile the dual longings in her heart—a desire to continue the accustomed life of luxury, and an even stronger desire to abandon it all for the religious life and the work she felt called to carry out. Prior to revealing these desires to her family at large, she had devised a means of outreach to Native American communities that could be set into motion by her sisters once she had begun her postulancy with the Sisters of Mercy, at age 31.
But, O’Connor urged her otherwise. He wrote, “I was never so quietly sure of any vocation, not even my own, as I am of yours.” and he encouraged her to take her wealth and use it to establish an order with the particular charism to which Katharine felt called. O’Connor even traveled to Chicago to speak about the matter with Archbishop John Ireland who proclaimed, “Miss Drexel is just the person to do it, and if she does not undertake it, it will remain undone.”
The world around her was changing. The rapid economic growth of the Gilded Age, the suffrage movement, the unrest of the Native American tribal nations, and growing racial tensions had left Americans in a simultaneous state of apprehension and desire for peaceful progression. When Katharine arranged to celebrate the placing of the cornerstone for St. Elizabeth’s House—a convent named after her sister’s patron saint—she faced the beginnings of vitriol and bigotry. For her dedication to opposing all forms of prejudice, racism, and oppression, she faced denunciations, and the threat of violence as well. Should that ceremony proceed, she was warned, a lighted stick of dynamite would be thrown into the middle of the congregation in order to maim or kill as many people as possible.
Undaunted, Katharine did not change her plans, and the threat proved empty.
Throughout her ministry, schools and buildings were burned to the ground as bigots attempted to stop her outreach to the Native American and black communities. The Ku Klux Klan even demanded that ministry at an integrated parish must cease. On March 21, 1922, a note from the Klan was posted on the door of the parish in Beaumont, Texas: “We give you one week to suppress [services at the parish] or a flogging and tar and feathering will follow.”
The week was filled with fear for the sisters and the children in their care, but then a miracle occurred. A tornado ravaged the area, tearing apart buildings and completely destroying two known Klan meeting spots on the outskirts of town. The threats never stopped, and the Klan continued to grow in number, but the school remained open and the ministry went on.
In New York, in 1927, Katharine sat for an interview with the manager of the Associated Press, where she argued against the mistreatment of African Americans. She objected to the common practice of referring to black law-breakers by race, something not reported of white offenders. In one meeting with the press, she called for an absolute end to the social stigmatization of an entire population.
In 1934, following the torture and lynching of Claude Neal, in Florida, Mother Drexel, as she was called, sought to re-ignite interest in the failed Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill by campaigning against the heinous practice. The superior from each Blessed Sacrament convent implored President Franklin D. Roosevelt to revisit the bill, which he failed to do. (It is worth mentioning that anti-lynching bills repeatedly failed to pass and lynching was not deemed a federal hate crime until last year.)
Katharine continued her ministry for more than 20 years after this. It is hard to imagine a wealthy young girl taking on a task few cared about, or a status quo few thought to change, and making such a huge difference. Her impassioned work continues through the order that she founded. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, though reduced in number, continue to be a beacon of light, even as the nation still struggles to achieve racial equality and justice.
St. Katharine Drexel survived the racism and social unrest of the Gilded Age; the 1918 Influenza pandemic; the wearying, continued threats from enemies to her mission; and breast cancer and an invasive mastectomy. She seemed unstoppable, but in the end, it was her heart that couldn’t keep up. After suffering a severe heart attack, she was left bedridden for about twenty years, which she devoted to prayer for her order. She died on March 3, 1955.
Mother Drexel understood that the dignity of the human person mattered, in accordance with Christ’s teachings and the Church, and all those years ago, she saw the mistreatment of human beings based on the color of their skin as grievous sin in need of immediate correction. Sadly, due to the lingering reality of racism, and the insult and pain it brings with it, this need continues.
Katharine’s tenacious desire to pursue peace and racial equality stirred great apprehension in many around her, and that apprehension was rooted in not only the sin of racism but her challenges to social norms. When schools for the children of the Native American and black communities were erected, residents were forced to confront their own attitudes about race, human rights, equality, and education. Such confrontations with conscience (and the recognition that yes, racism still exists in the nation) are still necessary and ongoing in our times.
It seems appropriate that St. Katharine’s feast day arrives just after Black History Month which, more often than not, falls within the season of Lent—a time for self-abnegation, interior reflection, prayer and, hopefully, self-correction and growth. May all of us be inspired by St. Katharine Drexel—who gave away everything for the sake of love—to deny and rectify any desire to pre-judge our neighbors, which is an act of prejudice. For, as Jesus made plain, “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matt. 7:2) Let us reflect on how to serve humanity, rather than hold back—especially remembering those left on the margins or unable to speak for themselves.
And let us pray and fast for an end to all attacks upon the dignity of the human person, taking our inspiration from the words of this great saint: “Why don’t you get into the habit of seeing God in the soul of [each person] you deal with. . . . Rid yourself of self by not thinking of yourself. In this thought, this desire, this act, is there anything of God’s service, God’s glory? If so, think it, desire it, speak it, act it.”