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St. Katharine Drexel shows how spiritual poverty and submission to Providence go hand in hand

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 01, 2015

After St. Katharine Drexel founded her religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, everyone around her urged her to set aside some of her annual income to set up a fund which would endow the order’s works after her death. It would have been easy for her to do so, and certainly the order would never have wanted for resources for a long time – for Mother Katharine was a millionaire who shared with her one living sister an annual income of about $750,000 from their father’s will.

Yet Katharine refused, opting rather to provide for present needs – to spend the money founding new schools and missions for Native Americans and African-Americans, and even to support other orders than her own in doing similar work. In a letter to one of her financial advisors, Fr. Dominic Pantanella, she wrote:

Now, whilst putting away such a sum as this [$1,020,000], think of the number of souls amongst the Colored and Indian that could be ministered to whilst hoarding up this money for endowment. Each soul that we might have come to rescue might in turn convert another soul & and think of the present good – the souls who may be lost while we are amassing a sum for future support of 4 Institutes containing 507 children. If these four Institutes of ours are good, God will provide for them if we on our part go forth to use all of our intelligence and means to bring the Indian & Colored to know, love & serve Him by all the ways in our power directly or indirectly. I firmly hold that it is the faithful who should be instrumental in maintaining for God His works. … [My] annual income [will] cease at my death. So, if I were to die to-morrow, there would be sufficient to support the Sisters; but as to our schools in Virginia, & the Navajos, God would have to support them or they would have to be sold and close. I feel, however, that if God wants them, He would support them or works in the future; if He does not, why should we?

Mother Katharine’s reasons for not endowing the order went far beyond a practical concern for the present; indeed, this decision, which would to most people both in her day and ours seem irrational and irresponsible, went to the heart of her spirituality. That she was concerned that the work be done, and not with who did it, can be seen from her giving substantial sums to other religious orders than her fledgling Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. (Indeed, she recognized that other orders had numbers enough to perform works of which her own new order was not yet capable.)

This detachment, coupled with radical submission to God’s will, is further demonstrated by her question, “if He does not, why should we?” Many charitable organizations, public and private, end up more concerned with perpetuating themselves than actually doing the work they were created to do. Katharine was aware of this tendency and wanted to curtail it by leaving her order perpetually dependent on God’s will of the present moment. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament would persist solely at God’s good pleasure, and when they were no longer needed, they would be laid aside like any tool.

For Katharine, this was a necessary way of living the religious vow of poverty, not just for each individual member of the order, but for the order as a whole. Practically speaking, if the order failed to live in poverty, then the poor they existed to serve would be less receptive to them, and Christians might assume they had no duty to support the works. This last concern she referred to when she wrote that “it is the faithful who should be instrumental in maintaining for God His works.” That is, as Vatican II later taught, the laity “should make missionary activity their own by giving material or even personal assistance” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 10). In this way, not only missionary orders but the laity as well can share in the spiritual merits of missionary work.

“Charity and Good Business Practices”

For all her seeming lack of future-orientedness, Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) was anything but a naïve heiress with a vast family fortune and no sense in her head about how to dispose of it, as is shown in a new biography by Cheryl C. D. Hughes, Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Story of an American Catholic Saint, published by Eerdmans in 2014. Born in Philadelphia into a wealthy elite family (in Hughes’s words, she is “the only canonized saint and mystic from among America’s socially prominent families”), Katharine learned shrewdness in worldly affairs from an early age. Yet from her devoutly Catholic parents she also learned to put spiritual things first.

Katharine’s father and stepmother were devoted to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, and to charitable activities in the name of God. The letters of Francis Drexel to his wife, Emma, reveal a deep introspection and a concern for spiritual things above all else. Francis gave so much money to charities that when he died, the full extent of his philanthropy was covered with amazement by the secular and religious press alike.

Emma took a more direct and personal approach; three days a week, she welcomed hundreds of the poor into her home, giving them money, food, medicine and clothing. She paid the rent for over 150 families a year, and spent tens of thousands of dollars a year on the poor. These she interacted with personally, getting to know their needs and keeping detailed records, better to assist them on return visits (and so as not to be taken advantage of by the unscrupulous). Her daughters assisted in this work as they grew older. Emma’s generosity was clear-eyed and prudent; Hughes writes that for the Drexel women, “Charity and good business practices went hand in hand.”

This combination of good administrative and financial sense with personal, individual concern for the poor and marginalized served Katharine well in doing her life’s work. As a consecrated religious, she dedicated herself to the evangelization and education of two of the most marginalized groups in American society.

Serving the Native Americans and African-Americans

Though, as Hughes documents, Katharine’s road to vocational discernment was a long and difficult one – her spiritual director was for years convinced that she was not called to the religious life – when she finally became a nun at thirty and founded her order, she held nothing of herself back. All her determination was needed, for her task was triply daunting: because she was a woman, because she was a Catholic nun in the virulently anti-Catholic and anti-nun environment of nineteenth-century America, and most of all, because her mission of serving blacks and Native Americans was one to which most Americans, even most Catholics, were either apathetic or actively hostile.

But because of her skills, her determination, her compassion and her radical surrender to God’s will, Katharine succeeded where others would have not just failed, but not even attempted to begin with. Amidst many challenges, sometimes including legal opposition or threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, she ultimately founded almost sixty missions and schools.

The spiritual and material impact of these works are incalculable, though it is telling to look at the example of Xavier University in New Orleans, originally founded as a teaching college for African-Americans. At one point forty percent of the public school teachers in New Orleans, and an even higher percentage of administrators and principals, were graduates of Xavier. And Katharine took a continued interest in all of her order’s works, visiting each of her missions annually for over forty years.

Hughes has done admirable work not only chronicling the historical facts of St. Katharine’s life, but examining her interior development and the spiritual life which motivated her exterior works. Especially moving is the account of Katharine’s vocational discernment, amply detailed in her prayer journals and her letters to her spiritual director, Fr. (and later Bishop) James O’Connor. Ultimately it was Katharine's heroic self-mortification, and her kenotic (self-emptying) and Eucharistic spirituality, that led Pope St. John Paul II to canonize her in 2000 as the second American-born saint.

One of the author’s aims in writing this new biography was to show what St. John Paul II wanted to teach in canonizing St. Katharine, and in this she has succeeded. Katharine Drexel is a model saint not only for the universal Church, but particularly for America and, because of her wealth and how she used it, for all “over-developed” societies.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 01, 2015 12:21 PM ET USA

    What a novel concept...! Serving the poor with the primary goal of saving their souls! Is anyone noting a certain practical inconsistency in our modern way of addressing "social justice" concerns in our Church today!? Are our leaders blind!? JP