Occupied by Grace: Katharine Drexel’s Gift

Occupied by Grace: Katharine Drexel’s Gift March 3, 2012

I looked up in wonder at God’s wonderful ways and thought how little we imagine what may be the result of listening and acting on a desire He puts into the heart. Nourish before Him great desires.
~ Mother Katharine Drexel

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of philanthropy, a woman with whom I have almost nothing in common beyond our shared American origins and a tendency to wield a sharp tongue on occasion. (I am certain her occasions were far fewer than mine, and in much holier causes.) Katharine Drexel was born with an entire formal dinner service of silver spoons in her mouth, the daughter of a Philadelphia financier who was J. P. Morgan’s partner in bringing the railroads into being, and whose family went on to be the Drexels of Drexel Burnham. Katharine’s mother died five weeks after giving birth to her, and her father remarried when she was a toddler. Emma Bouvier Drexel, Katharine’s stepmother, was wealthy in her own right, a member of the family from whom Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis descended. The Drexel family was devoutly Catholic and deeply committed to charity–not just the typical endowment of charitable institutions common in the 19th century, but up-close-and-personal ministration to Christ’s least ones.

Katharine’s first clear memory was of her beloved stepmother’s hands distributing food and clothing to people in need. Three times a week, Emma Drexel opened the family’s Main Line mansion to the poor of the city, and Katharine and her sisters began helping as soon as they were old enough. As a child, Katharine expressed a wish–not uncommon among daughters of devout Catholic families–to become a contemplative nun, but her family discouraged her. They wanted her to have the joy of marriage and her own family, and arranged a lavish debut into society. Katharine herself soon came to believe that she was too spoiled and fond of the comforts of her life to make a good religious, though the seed of vocation stayed with her.

Emma Drexel died of cancer when Katharine was still a young woman. Nursing her stepmother through three painful years, Katharine–like Prince Siddhartha before her–saw that no amount of money could exempt a person from human suffering and death. She decided to carry on Emma’s example of serving others. Katharine was especially drawn to the plight of Native Americans, whose poverty she had witnessed from the train window on family trips West in their private railroad car, and of African Americans suffering under segregation. She began to use her social contacts to raise money for domestic missions to serve these populations who were neglected not only by American society, but unfortunately in many cases also by the Church. On a visit to Europe, Katharine had an audience with Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send missionaries to the United States to serve Native Americans and African Americans. The pope stunned Katharine by asking her, “What if you are the missionary God is sending?”

In 1889, after a time of prayer and consultation with her family–and a phalanx of lawyers and money managers–Katharine entered religious life, doing her novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy before founding her own active community of religious women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (the title reflecting Katharine’s lifelong devotion to the Eucharist, and the language of her times). HEIRESS GIVES UP 7 MILLION! the headlines shouted. But she didn’t give it up–she gave it away. Over the course of her active life, Mother Katharine founded schools and institutions across the American West and the deep South, paying for them out of her inheritance. From her first foundation, St Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the flagship of her work, Xavier University in New Orleans, Katharine battled institutional racism and poverty with as much passion and humor and charm as she had ever brought to the ballrooms of Philadelphia society. By emphasizing the education of teachers, government leaders, and other professionals, Katharine’s schools gave marginalized peoples the tools to change society from within.

Still active at 77, Mother Katharine was stricken with a heart condition that rendered her nearly immobile and forced her into seclusion, in a small room adjacent to the convent chapel’s sanctuary, for the last 18 years of her life. During that time, she supported the work of her community with prayer and spiritual writing, coming at last into the contemplative vocation she had longed for from the beginning. She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2000.

I first came to know about Katharine Drexel, and to be drawn to her very different life, in the 1980s when I was working as a producer for Franciscan Communications. We were contracted by Mother Katharine’s community to produce a dramatic biography on film to assist in advancing her cause for sainthood. The Gift of Katharine Drexel, introduced by actress Jane Wyatt, is very dated now, but Katharine’s story couldn’t be more pertinent.

She was the epitome of the 1%, but she allowed herself to be occupied by grace, and so became the advocate of the 99. She allowed no artificial distinctions between her faith and her social activism. She stood up to bishops, to the Ku Klux Klan, and to TIME Magazine reporters with equal aplomb. She was an American (only the second U.S. born saint) and a Catholic in the best and fullest senses of both those identities, and she proved that they need not conflict. She was a woman of immense power and influence who disappeared into the anonymity of the habit and the humility of prayer. She did not break the unjust laws of segregation, but she challenged them with faith, and empowered those who helped overturn them.

The kind of philanthropy–literally, love of humankind–that Katharine learned from Emma seems passe and even patronizing in our day, but it was rooted in a notion that deserves reclaiming: that we are all equal before God, all members of the Body of Christ, all parts of American society for whose common weal (good, health, the root word of wealth) we are equally responsible.

On this day, it seems especially appropriate to ask the intercession of St Katharine on her country and her Church (in particular, the sorely troubled Church of her native Philadelphia). When the economic inequalities between the richest and the rest are as exaggerated as they have been at any time since Katharine’s childhood, and segregation has reemerged on religious rather than racial grounds, and injustice persists, we might find ourselves asking God to send us more missionaries. Katharine, instead, reminds us to listen to the great desire God has placed in our hearts, to heal and to transform, for the love of humanity and the love of God. “What if you are the missionary God is sending?” she asks. What if?

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