“One thing I do know: it took the Catholic Church 100 years here in America to show forth such a person as yourself.”
Father Augustine Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States, wrote these words to a wealthy benefactress in 1891, explaining why so many black Catholics were imploring her assistance. Tolton would know: He had firsthand experience of the racism pervasive in American society, including within Catholicism. But the Church was slowly coming around, and Tolton’s rich correspondent was an important catalyst in that development. She was Katharine Drexel, and in the same year she received Tolton’s letter, she founded a religious congregation dedicated to the aid and advancement of the most neglected Americans.
Katharine’s grandfather was an Austrian immigrant who married into a venerable Philadelphia Catholic family and started a brokerage firm that would enable his son to acquire a fortune and catapult him into the ranks of high society. Katharine’s mother, a Quaker, died shortly after Katharine’s birth in 1858, but her father made a happy second marriage and her home life was materially comfortable, emotionally warm, and devoutly religious. Her parents were role models for their children. Francis Drexel, the busy banker, made time every day to pray, and Emma Bouvier Drexel distributed goods and money to the city’s needy.
Unlike some beneficiaries of privilege—and surely due to the humility and generosity of her parents—Katharine’s response to her good fortune was not guilt-induced angst but gratitude and fraternal charity. “I love my country with all my heart,” she wrote at age 16, “the people, the habits, the cities, everything!” Her diaries reveal a child who was exuberant, precocious, and somewhat mischievous. Yet, from an early age, she was also serious about her spiritual life. As much as she loved the country under whose flag her family had so richly benefited, she was also acutely sensitive to the injustices that marred it. Her concern for those left behind—in particular, Native Americans and African-Americans—would fire her life’s apostolate.
She knew that she would dedicate her fortune to this cause, but she wasn’t at first certain about just how God wanted her to do so. Her spiritual director, Fr. James O’Connor (later bishop of Omaha), thought he knew: She was to remain “in the world,” continuing to evangelize American culture through her position as a socialite and philanthropist. She made her debut in Philadelphia society in 1879. Six years later, both her stepmother and her father were dead, leaving the three Drexel sisters as stewards of an inheritance of fourteen million dollars (the equivalent of more than $300 million today).
As Katharine and Fr. O’Connor continued to exchange letters, it became clear that she was not at peace with the calling the priest had chosen for her. Another spiritual advisor encouraged her to undertake an exercise borrowed from St. Ignatius of Loyola: to write out the “reasons for” and “objections to” consecrated religious life and reflect on those notes. The result, preserved among the abundant correspondence of Katharine’s long life, displays a combination of profound spiritual maturity and not-so-laudable yet endearingly human tendencies. Among her reasons for avoiding religious life were the adolescent—“I hate community life. I should think it maddening to come in constant contact with so many old maidish dispositions”; the defiant—“I should hate to owe submission to a woman whom I felt to be stupid”; and the admirably self-aware—“I do not know how I could bear the privations and poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries.”
Such objections wilted in the heat of her “reasons for.” She wrote: “In religious life we return Our Lord love for love by a constant voluntary sacrifice of our feelings, our inclinations, our appetites. Against all of which nature powerfully rebels but it is by conquering the flesh that the soul lives.” In sum, “When all shadows have passed away I shall rejoice if I have given an entire heart to God.”
Finally convinced of Katharine’s sincere desire for the religious life, O’Connor suddenly relented and gave his blessing to her vocation. But when it came to selecting a religious order, the spiritual director was unbending in the face of her protests: She must found a new one.
Katharine’s novitiate took place under the guidance of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. On February 12, 1891, she made her profession, becoming the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Her family’s estate in northeast Philadelphia became the first motherhouse for Katharine and her thirteen novices and postulants.
For forty-six years Katharine served as superior of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, her leadership a case study in grace building on nature. She brought to the order all of the discipline, social dexterity, and business savvy that had been instilled by her upbringing.
Substantial resources were helpful, but they did not automatically remove the sizable obstacles that arose in the course of the challenging apostolate she had chosen. A sometimes-violent anti-Catholicism still reigned in some quarters, and the sisters were fortunate to escape injury when a stick of dynamite was planted under the dais before the ceremony to break ground for a new motherhouse.
Negotiations to purchase an estate in Nashville had to be conducted with the utmost discretion because of potential opposition. After the deal was sealed and the buyer became known, the previous owner and others agitated with public demonstrations and legal attacks. Introducing Catholics into the neighborhood was bad enough, they complained, but a school for black children run by Catholic sisters was unconscionable! If white opposition wasn’t enough, black Protestant ministers also objected; they didn’t want non-Catholic students exposed to a false religion.
Katharine’s diplomatic skills were needed for relations within the Church as well. In 1906, as she was struggling to gain Vatican approval for her congregation’s rule, she benefited from some expert advice. Frances Cabrini, who had founded the Missionaries Sisters of the Sacred Heart, visited the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament motherhouse and explained to Katharine how things worked in Rome. Because of the extraordinary number of duties carried out by the small Vatican staff, she told the younger superior, “things get shelved even when they are important. If you want to get your Rule approved, you go yourself to Rome and take it with you.” Katharine did so, and by July 1907 Pope Pius X had granted approval to the new congregation.
Katharine met these and every challenge with the aplomb expected of a Philadelphia socialite; she was gracious but unyielding. Nor was there a hint of hypocrisy in her life as a consecrated religious. Though she controlled vast sums of money, she lived in true poverty and wouldn’t permit others to coddle her. During her novitiate, the Sisters of Mercy, hesitant to impose on their celebrity recruit the rigors of a convent diet, brought her a bowl of strawberries each day. As soon as Katharine discovered that this was not standard fare for the other aspirants, she put an end to it. On her many travels across the country to oversee new foundations and the endeavors that had benefited from her funds, she traveled coach class and packed meals to save money.
In 1937, suffering from poor health, Katharine finally resigned as head of the congregation she founded. She would spend the next eighteen years withdrawn from the world and its affairs, devoted to prayerful contemplation. On March 3, 1955, at the age of 97, Mother Katharine died. She was, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston later wrote, “the greatest benefactor of the Home Missions of the Catholic Church in the United States.” The list of beneficiaries of her largesse is too long to enumerate, but among the most prominent and lasting stands Xavier University of New Orleans, the first Catholic college for black students.
Katharine’s legacy, Cushing rightly observed, was not merely a function of her great wealth; she had also given herself—“adorned by prayer and sacrifices with virtues found only in those whose memory has been perpetuated in the calendars and on the altars of the Catholic Church as saints.” When the cardinal wrote that in 1965, no one but God knew that the instrument He would use to glorify Katharine was at the time a healthy, 5-year old boy growing up in Philadelphia. A few years later the boy contracted an infection that destroyed the hearing in one ear, and the family prayed for the intercession of the holy woman who had made such an impact on their city. The restoration of hearing to Robert Gutherman was the first authenticated miracle in Katharine’s cause for sainthood. A second healing was confirmed in 2000, and Pope John Paul II canonized Katharine Drexel in October of that year.