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
Saints usually seem like people who lived centuries ago in
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
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
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
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
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