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Catholic Heroes… St. Katharine Drexel

October 19, 2021 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

Picture this: You grew up in a loving, Catholic household. You never knew your mother, who died just weeks after your birth. But you saw your father devote half an hour every evening to prayer in the house chapel. Your stepmother was devout and loving as well, and she was in your life since you were age two. Weekly, she threw open the doors to the poor and, with your father, gave food, clothing, and other help to those in need. Yours was a privileged home, which knew how to share what you had with those less fortunate. (This wasn’t socialism; it’s a corporal work of mercy.)
As a young lady, at age 21 you made your social debut in Philadelphia. Your stepmother’s maiden name was Bouvier; yes, socialite Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy will be a distant future relative by marriage to you. But this would not mean much, given that your mind is on higher things. You will devote yourself especially to minorities in the United States, founding the only black Catholic university, and establishing 12 mission schools for Native American Indians and 50 for African Americans, in 16 states.
You were born Emilie Drexel Biddle (1858-1955), to Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. Emma Bouvier is your stepmother and you are the heiress to a fortune of millions. Today you are known as St. Katharine Drexel, only the second U.S.-born canonized saint, after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Should you become the victim of fortune hunters, your father protected you and your two sisters the best that he could: He made you a lifetime beneficiary of his $387 million, which you may use during your lifetime, or any progeny during theirs. And should you have no heirs, the charities that benefit instead will be the Jesuits, the Christian Brothers, a Lutheran hospital, and the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Your father and your uncle Anthony, for whom Drexel University is named, made these millions as financiers and investment bankers working in tandem with Junius and J.P. Morgan in the early days of the railroads and the building of American industry.

A Visit With Pope Leo XIII

St. Katharine Drexel’s parents saw that she was well educated, first in the faith. She had private tutors, and in travels, at age 26 she visited the western states, which was a seminal moment for her. She was singularly impressed especially by the needs of Native Americans.
After their stepmother spent three years dying of cancer, and then when their father passed away, in 1887 the Drexel sisters had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, seeking Indian missions to which they might give monetary assistance. The Pope suggested Katharine herself become that person. Two years later she gave her up her secular life, and entered her postulancy at the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh.
In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Sr. Katharine would take a fourth vow: “To be a mother and a servant of the Indian and Negro races.”
Six years ago, Katharine’s cousin would write a book about her famous relative, stating that it was through Katharine’s servants and not the family that she heard loving tales of her relative. The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Cordelia Biddle on April 29, 2015:
“The people who revered her the most when I was a child were the people who worked for my grandmother, the cooks and the maids who were all of them Irish Catholic and who felt she was an amazing woman. It wasn’t always easy for her relatives because she chose a path that was so different. I think they felt a little threatened.” Cordelia is the great-great granddaughter of Katharine’s dear cousin, also named Emilie.
She may have had a vocation as young as 14, but was discouraged by her family, who wished her to marry and have children. Her own relatives would not have perhaps understood her vow of poverty, one where she could use millions — but only for the good of others, never for herself.
At a time when segregation existed in the South, there was none at any Blessed Sacrament institution. Instead of being forced to sit in the back, there were arranged seats for blacks, with two long pews, front to back, for blacks to sit next to whites. This allowed Katharine to skirt the segregation laws in favor of God’s laws. She stood up to the KKK, bomb threats, and smashed windows in her schools. When she founded Xavier University in New Orleans with a grant from her fortune of $750,000 in 1915, her only request was that her name not be mentioned. She sat in a back row during the ceremonies, unmentioned, during the dedication (Notre Dame Magazine).
Pope St. John Paul II presided over both her beatification ceremony in 1988 and her canonization ceremony in 2000. The first miracle attributed to her intercession involved the miraculous restoration of hearing to Bob Gutherman, then a 14-year-old boy who had lost his hearing due to an infection. He told the National Catholic Register about his healing:
“The doctor told us that there were three bones in the ear that you needed to be able to hear, and two of mine in the right ear had been destroyed by the infection. He said I’d never hear in my right ear again. A few days later, I told my mother that I could hear fine out of both my ears. The doctor gave me a hearing test and confirmed it.”
The second miracle attributed to St. Katharine also involved a miraculous healing of deafness, that of an infant. Baby Amy Wall had incurable deafness due to nerve damage. Both Bucks County, Pa., residents have met: Bob attended both the beatification and canonization ceremonies and Amy the latter. Both were very moved by the events and also meeting by the Pope, whom Amy fondly remembers kissing the top of her head when she was in Rome for the ceremony at only eight years of age.
Seventeen years before her death, in 1938, a stroke nearly immobilized the now Mother Superior Katharine. (This reminds one of Mother Angelica, who was struck with one, then two strokes, forcing her off the air at EWTN.)
Perhaps during this time Katharine gave the most to God, for she offered her up her partial paralysis till the age of 96, when she passed away. We may use her words to help us embrace our own daily cross:
“I did most earnestly pray in my Mass and at Holy Communion to implore grace to imitate our Lord and to return Him love for love. I tried to offer Him what St. Margaret Mary desired — not to be left without suffering. I absolutely have not reached her desire. Naturally, I hate suffering. I did try, however….Thank God for everything that makes me die to self — die to sin. My whole life henceforth must be a conscious dying. Thank God for everything that makes me die, as now” (Fifteen Days of Prayer, New York Press).
In 2018, St. Katharine’s remains were moved and re-entombed at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, near the Drexel family altar that her family had donated in the 1880s. The society girl, originally buried in Bensalem, Pa., at the motherhouse of the order she founded, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, came back to her roots. It’s only her earthly home, though.
Her feast day is March 3.

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