Saint Katherine Drexel’s feast day today. Ora pro nobis.
by Suzanne Duque Salvo
“Union with God alone gives us life and abundance of life. We are not sufficient in ourselves.”
The story of Saint Katharine Drexel’s life is a much-needed lesson for American Catholics today. Living as we do in a secularized and sybaritic culture, how can we help our children write their own extraordinary life stories? How do we teach young people to consider the consequences of their actions? How do we learn what it takes to raise children of God and better future citizens? Author Suzanne Duque Salvo argues that we can do this by understanding what a life well-lived entails.
Katharine Drexel was an American princess. Her distinguished surname placed her among the creme-de-la-creme of American high society, illustrious in both the worlds of banking and higher education. But unlike today’s celebrity heiresses, Katharine Drexel did not throw lavish, wild parties, paint the town red or binge-shop in fashion meccas.
This was not because such a lifestyle was unheard of in the 19th century. On the contrary, American robber barons’ offspring lived lives of great self-indulgence — such as Alice Silverthorne, scion to the Armour meat processing moguls.
Consider this: Katharine Drexel’s share in the Trust Estate her father willed to his three daughters would amount to over a hundred million dollars today. And Katharine Drexel chose to give away all of her money and live in poverty. The beneficiaries of her compassion were those she believed were most in need because “she saw their agony.” For Katharine sought out the poorest Native American Indians and African-Americans, seeking to provide what they needed to know God, and the practical tools necessary to expand their horizons beyond the confines of racism. Now why would an American princess do that?
A Safe, Happy, Spiritual Childhood
Today, we know that strong parental attachments correlate positively with a child’s concept of God and their relationship with religion. This was the case in Katharine’s early life. According to her biographer, Sr Consuela Marie Duffy SBS:
“Every thing that could have been fitted into a human existence to permeate it with joy and happiness was a constituent part of her earliest days. The gift of faith, the deep affection of devoted parents, the love and attention of numerous relatives, a thorough and complete education under competent tutors, travel in this country and abroad, material wealth, a home and family life of peace, tenderness and joy.”
Emma Bouvier, Stepmother
Katharine’s mother Hannah, a Quaker Baptist, died when Katharine was just five weeks old. It was her father Francis and stepmother Emma – a Catholic Bouvier, like Jackie Kennedy – who laid the foundation for Katharine’s great Faith and compassion.
From journals, diaries and letters, we learn how Catholicism was woven into the fabric of the Drexel’s daily lives. In fact, Emma was the key that unlocked Katharine’s fervor. It was Emma who reserved a chapel in the family’s winter and summer homes so that prayer, rosary and contemplation could be incorporated into their daily schedule. Katharine and her sisters grew up seeing their wealthy and powerful father spend his first thirty minutes in the chapel, every night, upon his arrival home.
During summers at their country home, Emma and her older children established a Sunday School for their workers’ children. According to Katherine’s younger sister Louise, “The older children were taught by Elizabeth, the youngest by Katharine. After the lessons were recited, the children were assembled around the piano in the parlor and hymns were sung. After a few years, the number of children increased, so that fifty or more came every Sunday.”
Their Wealth Entrusted by God
Three days a week, Emma welcomed the poor to the Drexel home with food, medication and clothing. When people asked for rent money, the Drexels would first verify the need. This is characteristic of a family who believed their wealth was something God had entrusted to them, not to be wantonly spent. They were merely stewards whose job was to allocate and distribute their wealth where necessary. Their socio-economic status was not entitlement, but rather fiscal responsibility. Francis Drexel, after all, was a banker. More importantly, the family ethic was that claiming the gift of Catholic faith meant living their religion – not with an outward manifestation of piety but a genuine compassion and concern for the poor and an active and sincere practice of both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
And with these responsibilities, spiritual guidance was imperative. At age 14, three years after Katharine received her First Communion, she already had a spiritual director. Fast forward to Katharine at age 33 – the same age as our modern heiresses Paris and Kim today – and her journals show a wisdom gleaned from habitual reflection, guidance and discernment:
“Manifest yourself. You have no time to occupy your thoughts with that complacency or consideration of what others will think. Your business is simply, ‘What will my father in heaven think.’”
A Missionary’s Life
Such words help us understand Katharine’s drive to live her missionary calling. She was an incessant traveler to remote and rugged places where her missions lay, or to reconnoiter for new projects and assess real need. She literally spent most of her time traveling by carriage, mule, ship, trains and even on foot, from her missions to her motherhouse in Pennsylvania, where she laid out plans and logistics. Katharine treated her missions as if they were her children — giving each hope, her attention, love and dedication. She had an astounding 258 such ‘children’: 132 missions for African Americans in 24 states; 50 missions for Native American Indians in 16 states; 25 abroad plus 52 others. This was before she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
A Supernatural Sense of Justice
In his book, The Priority of Christ, Fr. Robert Barron SJ highlights four female saints who ‘participated in a new life in Christ…[and] the peculiar transformation that occurs when a natural virtue is elevated by contact with grace’ to showcase examples of an iconic christological ethic. One of these female saints is Katharine. Barron says St Katharine Drexel personified ‘elevated justice,’ implying that her sense of justice was supernatural Ironically, she never spoke about justice; yet she lived it. She did not merely give to the other what was due, but gave in excess. Her decision to be a missionary and to establish a new religious order had everything to do with giving of herself totally in order to best assure the physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being of her spiritual children.
Thirty-three years after her death, Katharine Drexel was canonized; interestingly, her canonization miracles both involved healing deafness. The Vice Postulator of her Cause summed it up: “I think it’s almost as though God is saying to us through Katherine Drexel, ‘Open your ears, the ears of your heart!’” To this writer, such parental words are familiar. All of a sudden, I’m hearing my mom’s and dad’s voices, telling me to listen.