“The world cannot give me peace …”
These are the words St. Katharine Drexel wrote Bishop James O’Connor when she made the decision to enter religious life. They are all the more powerful because Katharine Drexel was leaving behind an immense fortune and a life of luxury and ease which others would have envied.
What would possess a young woman to literally give away millions of dollars, to leave a life where she could have easily been a glittering jewel in the crown of high society? It is obvious: she had found the “pearl of great price.”
Katharine was born on November 26, 1858 in Philadelphia to a wealthy banker. Her mother died soon after her birth, and her father eventually remarried a woman who shared his belief that being blessed with material riches carried a strong responsibility. They raised Katharine and her two sisters to realize that charity was the highest virtue, and their wealth was to be used for good. Her family traveled extensively, and in doing so Katharine visited Native American reservations, where she saw the poverty and often disgraceful conditions in which these people lived. She also became aware of the disparity between black and white communities, and her heart went out to all those oppressed.
On a trip to Rome in 1887 she had a private audience with Pope Leo XIII to ask for nuns to staff her mission schools. The pope surprised her when he inquired in return why she didn’t become a missionary herself, but she took his challenge to heart, and in February, 1891 she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
Once she entered religious life, she dedicated all of her time and personal fortune to opening schools for blacks and Native Americans. “Having taken a vow of poverty, Mother Katharine lived the rest of her life with extreme frugality, wearing a single pair of shoes for 10 years and using her pencils down to the erasers.” (katharinedrexel.org) She worked tirelessly and opened dozens of schools and missions, including Xavier University. She suffered a heart attack when she was 77, but continued to labor behind the scenes in prayer for her beloved children until her death at the age of 96.
Saints and our lives
“The patient endurance of the cross — whatever nature it may be — is the highest work we have to do.” Mother Katharine wrote this to her community of sisters, and its wisdom is easily applied to our own lives. Every human being has times of deep personal struggle which often seem hopeless or without resolution. There is so much sadness and agony in the world which cannot be explained or understood. But it is these times in which we must cling even tighter to our faith — because in this way we reignite the light of Christ for others and for ourselves. Every step we take in darkness depending on God alone is a step to heal our world.
Mother Katharine also wrote to her sisters: “Ours is the Spirit of the Eucharist, the total gift of Self.” This beautiful statement reminds us all of the power of sacrifice. It is the greatest paradox that there can be such strength in the total humility of self-renunciation. When Christ gave Himself as an offering for our sins, He showed us the way to love others. We share in this whenever we receive and live the gift of the Eucharist, and try our best to die to ourselves.
And finally, she wrote: “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.” JOY! It often seems to escape us, but the answer lies in the simple acronym of “Jesus Over You!” When Christ is the focal point of our lives we can attain true joy by the knowledge that He is in control no matter what happens to us. We can let go of fear, as St. Katharine Drexel advises. Today, ask God to give you that joy by turning your life over to Christ.
Taken from “Evangelization and the Lives of the Saints: St. Katharine Drexel” produced by the diocesan Office of New Evangelization. For the complete pamphlet, visit the Office of New Evangelization at www.drvc.org.