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St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine Drexel by Lewis Williams, OFS

Artist Narrative:

St. Katharine’s legacy was her effort to establish educational facilities for African and Native Americans throughout the United States. She utilized the resources left to her by her Father, Francis Drexel. She was born into one of Philadelphia’s, as well as the United States richest families in 1858. Her parents and step-mother Emma taught her by example that her blessings should be shared with others. Her mother, Hannah, died from complications during Katharine’s birth. She suffered the death of her father and step-mom before age 20. Health problems followed her most of her life, and she was confined by these to the motherhouse her last 20 years. Her own heavy burdens helped her see loads others were carrying. She was moved to act.

She sought an audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1887, and in response to her request for missionaries, he asked why she did not become one. She responded by founding an order of religious women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to serve in this mission.

March 3, 2005 was the 50th anniversary of her death. This painting is offered to the motherhouse in Philadelphia, where her body rests in memorial of this anniversary. It is a gift in her honor from St. Michaels Indian School, founded by her in 1902 on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona. In this depiction, she takes the center-spot in a traditional Navajo dry (sand) painting of Holy Girl. Holy Girl is in this case shown as St. Katharine, in homage to her holiness and her love of the Navajo people. In this dry painting, Talking God, to her right, and xactc'e'oyan, to her left, stand in protection of her. Eagle feathers adorn their head, and they carry talking prayer sticks. They represent the span of pre-dawn to sunset. Their wish is to bring good and healing. This is my wish for the Navajo people and for the teachers following in this saint’s call to act.

Her feast day is March 3.

Williams collection: 
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If your father is an international banker and you ride in a private railroad car, you are not likely to be drawn into a life of voluntary poverty. But if your mother opens your home to the poor three days each week and your father spends half an hour each evening in prayer, it is not impossible that you will devote your life to the poor and give away millions of dollars. Katharine Drexel did that.

She was born in Philadelphia in 1858. She had an excellent education and traveled widely. As a rich girl, she had a grand debut into society. But when she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death, and her life took a profound turn.

She had always been interested in the plight of the Indians, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor. While on a European tour, she met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming for her friend Bishop James O’Connor. The pope replied, “Why don’t you become a missionary?” His answer shocked her into considering new possibilities.

Back home, Katharine visited the Dakotas, met the Sioux leader Red Cloud and began her systematic aid to Indian missions.

She could easily have married. But after much discussion with Bishop O’Connor, she wrote in 1889, “The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored.” Newspaper headlines screamed “Gives Up Seven Million!”

After three and a half years of training, she and her first band of nuns (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored) opened a boarding school in Santa Fe. A string of foundations followed. By 1942 she had a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. In all, she established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states.

Two saints met when Katharine was advised by Mother Cabrini about the “politics” of getting her Order’s Rule approved in Rome. Her crowning achievement was the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university in the United States for African Americans.

At 77, she suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire. Apparently her life was over. But now came almost 20 years of quiet, intense prayer from a small room overlooking the sanctuary. Small notebooks and slips of paper record her various prayers, ceaseless aspirations and meditation. She died at 96 and was canonized in 2000.

Born: November 26, 1858 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Died: March 3, 1955 of natural causes at the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Bristol Pike, Bensalem, Pennsylvania

Beatified: November 20, 1988 by Saint John Paul II

Canonized: October 1, 2000 at Rome by Saint John Paul II