The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 23, 2001 Issue
Saint of the Day

A saint who shared the wealth

Katherine Drexel used her inheritance for the most dispossessed in our nation

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Saints usually seem like people who lived centuries ago in faraway lands.

While that describes many saints, it's not true of St. Katherine Drexel. She not only died less than 50 years ago, but she lived in the United States. She even visited Wisconsin and helped fund schools here - including St. Joseph in Oneida - to educate Native Americans.

St. Katherine Drexel was born in 1858 in Philadelphia to one of the country's wealthiest families. Her father was a successful banker. Her mother died five weeks after Katherine's birth.

A year later, her father married Emma Bouvier, who helped in the religious formation of Katherine and her two sisters. She had a well-used prayer room added to the house and regularly had her daughters give food, medicine, clothes and rent money to the poor.

Katherine's father left his three daughters a $14 million trust, which they promised to use to serve others, as their parents had.

This was a time when European Catholics were immigrating to the U.S. The church responded by building churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions to meet needs.

Katherine was more interested in serving Native Americans and blacks - people outside the church and society - continuing work the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore asked the family to do.

At a papal audience in 1878 with Leo XIII, she asked him to send priests to serve Indians. "Why not become a missionary yourself?" he asked. Intrigued, she began looking for a religious order that shared her commitment, but found none. So she decided to start her own, which she did with the backing of her bishop.

In 1891, after two years preparation with the Sisters of Mercy, she started the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Within a year, 10 other women had joined her.

Katherine continued using her share of the trust - $400,000 a year - to support projects that served blacks and Indians. Her order depended on alms to support itself.

Eventually, Katherine gave $1 million to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission and $100,000 a year to support mission schools on reservations. In 1915, she gave $750,000 to found Xavier University in New Orleans - the nation's first Catholic college for blacks.

She started 145 Catholics missions, 12 schools for Indians - among them St. Mary's Indian School in Odanah, eight miles east of Ashland - and 50 schools for blacks - $12 million in all for these ministries. Nor did her work go without criticism. Segregationists harassed her and even burned one of her schools in Pennsylvania.

Nearly 20 years after she suffered a heart attack and retired, Katherine died in 1955 on March 3, the day we celebrate her feast. She was 96. Pope John Paul beatified her in 1988 and canonized her on Oct. 1, 2000.

Her generosity provides a fine example all year, but it seems most appropriate to ponder during Lent.

Sources: All Saints, Saint of the Day, Saints for Our Time, 365 Saints and Voices of the Saints

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