The genius of my sister: St. Katharine Drexel

This is the latest installment of the series, “The genius of my sister.” Read other articles in the series to learn more about Catholic women throughout history and how they can inspire us today.

When we truly encounter Christ, we cannot help but be radically changed. We see this pattern repeated throughout history. St. Matthew, the tax collector, turns from his corrupt life and becomes a disciple of Jesus. The woman at the well leaves behind her life of lustful, broken relationships and thirsts only for living water. Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times as much to anyone he had cheated. The same radical change was true for the St. Katharine Drexel.

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Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 26, 1858, Katharine was welcomed into a philanthropic, affluent, devout Catholic family. The Drexels were one of the wealthiest families in the entire country at the time (her great-grandfather founded the firm that eventually became Drexel Burnham Lambert, and her grandfather, who partnered with J. P. Morgan, founded Drexel, Morgan & Co., later renamed J. P. Morgan). Though Katharine lived a life of luxury, from a young age she experienced a desire to live as a religious sister. However, her parents and Father — later Bishop — James O’Connor advised against it as they did not believe Katharine would be capable of adjusting to a life of simplicity. And in a sense, Katharine agreed, as she confessed in her journal: “I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries.” Years passed, full of European trips, rigorous education, galas, the admiration of countless suitors (Kitty, as she was affectionately called, was the prettiest of all her sisters), and fine food and clothes. Still, this deep longing for a life that consisted of something more substantial, more meaningful, than what she was surrounded by, did not dissipate.

Katharine Drexel
(CNS photo courtesy Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament)

When her father, Frank, died in 1885, Katharine and her three sisters inherited his exorbitant fortune (worth over $500 million dollars today). It was at this point that Katharine was faced with the opportunity to continue the life she had always known or to answer the call of Jesus, to give up her possessions and follow him. She chose the latter, much to the dismay of her family and friends. At the age of 31, Katharine joined the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. Several years later in 1891, she and 15 other women founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Their order focused on serving African American and Native American people as well as fighting racism and other injustices through education and social services.

As a recipient of elite education, Drexel recognized the importance of providing access to quality education for underserved communities. She established many schools for Native American and Black children. Additionally, she established Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. By the time of her death in 1955, Drexel’s order had established 145 mission schools, 49 elementary schools and 12 high schools.

On Oct. 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized Katharine Drexel, making her the second American-born saint. He prayed, “May her example help young people in particular to appreciate that no greater treasure can be found in this world than in following Christ with an undivided heart and in using generously the gifts we have received for the service of others and for the building of a more just and fraternal world.”

Lessons from the life of St. Katharine Drexel

1. “Ours is the spirit of the Eucharist, the total gift of self.”

For St. Katharine, the Eucharist was the source of their joy and strength, the ultimate example of sacrificial love. Her devotion to the Eucharist is a reminder that before we can go out into the world to serve the Body of Christ, we must first be nourished by the Bread of Life.

2. “If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to him and them. Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”

More than a social or political issue, fighting racism and injustice is a theological issue. St. Katharine comprehended this as she recognized that one’s heart must be opened to every single person and that we are called to live a life of joyful service to others. The diabolical evils of racism detract from our mission to love our neighbor well. If we wish to answer the call to love one another as Christ loves us, we must courageously challenge social norms that promote injustice.

3. “Holiness consists in one thing: to do God’s will, as he wills it, because he wills it.”

At any point in her life, it would have been easy for Katharine to give into the will of societal expectations, the will of her family, the will of her friends. But instead, St. Katharine persevered in listening and following the will of God, even when others in her life did not understand her decisions. May we, like St. Katharine, pursue holiness with such conviction.

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