From Our Pastors
The Catholic Church has a rich and beautiful tradition of Saints; those who lived lives with “heroic virtue”. St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory, was particularly fond of relating the lives of the saints in his personal and communal prayer. He believed their stories would inspire us to live with generosity and purpose.
This Wednesday we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, but the saint we want to highlight is one whose feast day was earlier this month, Katherine Drexel. Her feast day is March 3. This local saint is someone worth looking at, not only because it is Women’s History Month, but because St Katherine Drexel’s story can inspire us to push through faithfully with the remaining days of this Lent.
Katherine was born in Philadelphia in 1858 into an immensely wealthy banking family. Drexel University was founded by her uncle. Katherine’s family were Catholic, and faith inspired her mother to open their home three times a week, distributing medicine, clothing, blankets and other necessities. Throughout his life her father devoted a half hour every evening to prayer. As she grew older, Katherine traveled with her family out west, which exposed her to the desperate conditions of Native Americans.
A life changing series of events occurred when her stepmother was dying from a long terminal illness. Katherine took on her care. Like Siddhartha Gautama, she saw that despite her wealth she could not spare her mother from three years of pain that ended in death.
After reading Helen Hunt Jackson’s “A Century of Dishonor” she was determined to help better the lives of Native Americans by deploying her considerable resources. In pursuit of that intention, she traveled to Rome in 1887, and secured a meeting with Pope Leo XII where she asked him to send missionaries to Wyoming. The Pope famously replied to her request: “Why don’t you become a missionary?”
Two years later she became a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, and in 1891 took her final vows. Newspapers carried the headline at the time: “Katherine Drexel gives up seven million”. (The equivalent of about $200 million today.) Katherine then established a new religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to supporting Native and African Americans.
At the age of 77 Katherine suffered a heart attack which left her extremely incapacitated. For almost 20 years till her death at 96, Mother Drexel lived a quiet life of prayer in a room overlooking the convent chapel. Small notebooks and slips of paper are extent recording her prayers and reflections, revealing her deep inner spiritual life. After a life devoted to prayer, racial justice and service she was canonized the second US-born saint in 2000.
By her death, her sisters had established 49 elementary schools and 12 high schools, and founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic University in the US established for African Americans. Segregationists harassed her work, one time burning down a school in Pennsylvania. When she died in 1955 there were over 500 sisters in 51 convents working in 50 missions in 16 states.
Our Lenten observance may not make us saints with an official feast day but it is surely meant to push us in that direction. Saint Katherine Drexel, pray for us
Fr. Mark Lane, c.o. and Fr. Michael Callaghan, c.o.