By CAROLE BLANKS, ASBS | Published September 20, 2010
October 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the canonization of St. Katharine Drexel, the second American-born saint, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and a pioneer in fighting social injustice and racism in America.
Born Nov. 26, 1858, in Philadelphia, Katharine Drexel was the second daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel, a wealthy banker and philanthropist, and Hannah Langstroth, who died when Katharine was five weeks old. Two years later, Francis Drexel married Emma Bouvier, and to this marriage a third daughter was born.
The three daughters grew up in a loving family atmosphere permeated by a deep faith. By word and example, both parents taught their daughters that wealth was meant to be shared with those in need. Three afternoons a week, Emma opened their home to serve the needs of the poor. When the girls were old enough, they assisted their mother with this ministry.
As a young woman, Katharine and her two sisters responded to an invitation from a priest to visit American Indian missions in the western United States. They witnessed the destitution, poverty and lack of quality education on the reservations. This experience inspired Katharine to do something to alleviate their condition. In 1887, she established St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, N.M., an event that marked the beginning of her personal and financial support of numerous missions in the United States. The concern of Katharine and her two sisters for the African-American people paralleled their concern for the American Indians, and they began to respond to requests from priests working in the South.
During an audience with Pope Leo XIII in Rome, she asked him for missionaries to staff some of the American Indian missions, and Pope Leo responded by suggesting that she become a missionary herself. After consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O’Connor, she made the decision to give herself totally to God through service to American Indian and African-American people.
Katharine entered the Sisters of Mercy, and on Feb. 12, 1891, she professed her first vows as a religious, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The congregation’s primary focus then was to share the message of the Gospel and the Eucharist among the American Indian and African-American people and to address the social inequities occurring during that time.
Katharine found in the Eucharist the source of her love for the poor and oppressed and her concern to combat the effects of social injustice. She felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.
Founding and staffing schools for both American Indians and African-Americans and providing to them a quality education became a priority for Katharine and her congregation. During her lifetime, she dispensed $20 million of her inheritance to open, staff and directly support over 100 schools and missions. Atlanta’s Our Lady of Lourdes School, founded in 1912, was one of her schools. In 1925, she established Xavier University in New Orleans, the only predominately African-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.
Katharine suffered a severe heart attack in 1935, and for the next 20 years, she lived a life of prayer, adoration and contemplation. She died on March 3, 1955; was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Nov. 20, 1988; and was canonized on Oct. 1, 2000.
Katharine left a fourfold legacy: a love for the Eucharist, a spirit of prayer and a Eucharistic perspective on the unity of all peoples; an undaunted spirit of courageous initiative in addressing social iniquities among minorities; a belief in the importance of quality education for all, and her efforts to achieve it; and a total gift of self, her inheritance and all material goods in selfless service of the victims of social injustice.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament served in ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Atlanta for 61 years and at Maisha House of Prayer for 16 years. Today, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, together with over 400 associates of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament located throughout the United States and Haiti, form a strong, active faith community committed to living out and witnessing to the values, spirituality and mission entrusted to St. Katharine Drexel.
The 10th anniversary of the canonization of St. Katharine Drexel will be remembered during all the Masses this weekend at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 25 Boulevard, NE, Atlanta. The main events commemorating the anniversary will take place Oct. 1-3 at the St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and National Shrine in Bensalem, Pa. Additional information regarding these events can be found at www.katharinedrexel.org. Carole Blanks, ASBS, is the national co-director of the associates of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.