As regular readers of this blog will note, I have written several articles during the last several weeks expounding the virtue of charity. Today, however, I would like to tell you about a saint who had profound impact on my local area.St. Katharine Drexel is well known as the foundress of the Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Long before she founded the sisters, Mother Katharine was renowned for her charity and love of the poor and disadvantaged. From early childhood, the virtues had been taught to her by her father and stepmother. Yet they weren’t merely talked about in the millionaire’s house, but practiced to the fullest extent possible.
When St. Katharine began her work among the Native Americans and African Americans, she did this out of a pressing need for better education and catechetics. When St. Katharine, then an eligible young woman, toured a school for Native American children in the Dakotas, she was absolutely appalled by what she saw. Almost immediately, she began thinking of ways in which her fortune could make the lives of those less fortunate persons better.
For the rest of her long life, St. Katharine Drexel would direct her energies towards the establishment of schools and convents. She eagerly sought to help those Americans that were the most disadvantaged and in areas, where racism and bigotry were the most harmful. St. Katharine led the way when others looked away and forged a path, where none was previously to be found.
In the state of Washington, St. Katharine was instrumental in helping to maintain St. Mary’s Mission. This small mission church had been established by the Jesuits in the Okanogan Valley. While many different priests had come and gone, funds were always lacking as were teachers. With great selflessness and love for the Okanogan Indians, St. Katharine began to send funds and sisters to the mission. From 1905 to 1936, St. Katharine devoted her energies to the welfare to this as well as the numerous others that were maintained with funds from her fortune. In 1936, St. Katharine asked that new sisters be brought to the Okanogan Valley to work with the Native Americans. TO this end, Mother Bonaventura and the Poor School Sisters of St. Dominic from Speyer, Germany, were brought to continue the work that St. Katharine had started and continue her mission.
The one thing that stands out in my mind about St. Katharine is her selflessness and willingness to give. Many contemporary philanthropists such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates talk a great deal about giving to the right causes and making their funding available to the poor through foundations. Yet St. Katharine gave to the best possible cause: God’s.
From the moment that St. Katharine began to discern her vocation, she knew that she would be serving others. In a way, she was afraid that if she became a religious that her fragile health would not be able to bear the tremendous exertions of the religious life. Yet God blessed St. Katharine with a lengthy life (98 years) during which she was see how much had been accomplished by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and all of those others who staffed the missions and schools that she had helped to build.
Like St. Aloysius Gonzaga centuries before, St. Katharine was able to divest herself of her fortune and name by becoming a religious. While she most certainly must have struggled to know what God’s will was for her life, she followed it resolutely to the end of her days. She knew that her apostolate was to care for those in our country that needed her help and that was she did. Day after day, month after month, year after year, she worked quietly for the Native Americans and African Americans that wanted an education from her sisters and the ministrations of the Roman Catholic Church. Had it not been for St. Katharine’s tenacity things may have been much, much worse.
In following God’s will and doing what she was called to do, St. Katharine was able to live out those famous words of Our Lord: “To him to whom much is given, much will be expected.” She had been given a tremendous fortune by God and yet St. Katharine knew that she was a steward. The fortune was not hers to spend in whatever way she wanted, but in the ways that God saw fit that she spend it. By founding schools, hospitals, and missions, St. Katharine was able to give the Drexel name a luster greater than anything that her father could have accomplished as a banker.
Like Mother Alphonsa Lathrop, the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne and another great modern saint, St. Katharine’s life was filled with sorrows that shaped her outlook on life and God’s will. When her step-mother was dying of cancer, St. Katharine unyieldingly nursed her at her bedside. When her father died and left her his fortune, St. Katharine saw God’s will. Although she did not lose a child or husband like Mother Alphonsa, sorrow had also built a bridge for St. Katharine Drexel. Though these deaths devastated her, she was able to see that they were all part of God’s divine plan for her and her plan.
St. Katharine Drexel bore a great cross during the last twenty years of her life. Due to a massive heart attack, St. Katharine was ordered to resign as mother general of the Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Since she had always been in the front lines leading her sisters forward, I’m sure that this trial was a great for one for such a strong willed woman. Yet St. Katharine resigned joyfully and spent the rest of her days in the infirmary, where she prayed for those that most needed her intercessions.
In a life of such tremendous activity and a childhood of privilege, it may be difficult for us to know how we are to imitate St. Katharine Drexel. To me, the lesson of her life is that we must constantly try to understand God’s will and to conform ourselves to it. Not only this, but we must learn that charity is something that we must teach our children and those others that have need of it. AS the old saying goes, “Charity begins at home.” Like St. Katharine’s father, we must teach our children stewardship and the proper usage of the graces and talents that He has given them. This is also our mission now in whatever path we find ourselves, we must pray to God daily and unceasingly that He will conform us to His will and that we have the confidence to accept whatever He may like He did for St. Katharine Drexel.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Katharine Drexel, pray for us!