The Eye of the Needle: Katharine Drexel

Author: Anthony Walton '82

At the 1975 canonization of Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born saint, Pope Paul VI remarked that the “temporal prosperity” of the United States seems “to obscure and make almost impossible” the renunciation of self and dedication to religion traditionally found in the lives of those canonized by the Catholic church. The material temptations of the “good life” as well as the complex work, social and familial situations of this fast-paced nation seem to leave little space for spiritual cultivation of any kind—let alone of sufficient magnitude to qualify for sainthood. Katharine Drexel, the second native-born American so honored by the church, faced the challenges of “temporal prosperity” to such extremes as to make her canonization perhaps the most unlikely of all.

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints describes Katharine Drexel as a “long-lived American lady . . . often forgotten . . . who devoted her life and considerable fortune to American Indians and African Americans.” Drexel was by turns heroic, complicated and an absolute U.S. original—a woman who was both saintly in the traditional ways of spiritual and religious conviction, and entirely effective within the legal, social and political realities of her time and place. But she seems virtually anonymous in U.S. history and in the day-to-day experience of the American Catholic Church. This may in fact have been her wish, but she is someone everyone in the United States, not just Catholics, should recognize, admire and understand. Our society has yet to resolve the issues to which she chose to dedicate her life and resources, and there is much to learn from her actions and achievements.

Katharine Drexel was born on November 26, 1858, to Francis and Hannah Langstroth Drexel, members of the extraordinarily wealthy Drexel family of Philadelphia. Francis Drexel and his brother Anthony were globally prominent investment bankers and business partners of Junius and J.P. Morgan, the most powerful financiers of the 19th century. The Drexels were involved with the financing of the construction of the railroads, shipping canals and other key components of the U.S. industrial revolution. Katharine was the second daughter and, after the death of her mother when she was 5 weeks old, was raised by a kind and devout stepmother, Emma Bouvier. The Drexels lived in palatial comfort, at the pinnacle of high society. But they were also known for their extensive charity and philanthrophy: The second Mrs. Drexel yearly gave away what today would be more than $11 million, regularly passed out food and clothing to the city’s poor directly from the family mansion, and supported many other charities anonymously, activities that had a lasting effect on the values and world-view of her stepdaughter. As a child Katharine secretly gave away money and was relieved that her father encouraged rather than chastised her when he found out.

At age 14, the young heiress considered joining a convent. She was discouraged by her parents, who wanted her to marry and have children, and by her priest and spiritual adviser, Bishop James O’Connor, who believed that a young woman so accustomed to wealth and freedom would have trouble adjusting to convent life. Katherine herself had doubts—enduring trials of spirit which she set forth in a series of eloquent, unsparingly honest journals and letters. Among her reasons for questioning her fitness, she listed, “I hate community life. . . . I’d hate never to be alone. I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries.”

When Katharine was 21 years old, Emma Bouvier Drexel developed cancer, and in the three years before her death endured excruciating pain. Rather than leading Katharine to question her faith, nursing Mrs. Drexel and witnessing the intense physical hardship seems to have deepened it. Katharine became convinced that suffering was an inescapable part of the human condition and decided that any truth which transcended suffering could be found only through devotion to God. Following Emma’s death, while on a trip out west with her father, Katharine was profoundly disturbed by the appalling conditions she witnessed on the government’s poorly administered Indian reservations. When she inherited money upon her father’s death in 1885, she began donating large sums toward bettering the situation of Native Americans. She had become deeply concerned as well with the plight of the recently freed African Americans, particularly in the Deep South.

Through these interests her spiritual calling grew to outweigh her self-doubts. She would write, “I didn’t think of becoming a religious until years after I’d become interested in missionary work on the Indian reservations. It was long after I’d helped build schools for Indians and Negroes, and endeavored to get priests and nuns to do the work of religious training in those schools. It suddenly seemed one night that something inside of me was saying, ‘Why do you keep sending other people to do this great work for you? Why don’t you do it yourself?’”

In 1891, the same year her uncle Anthony founded the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (now Drexel University), Katherine Drexel took her final religious vows in an order she founded. She called the order the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Though she strongly felt the need for a new order of nuns specifically devoted to African American and Native American populations, she questioned her own fitness for the role of Mother Superior: “The responsibility of such a call almost crushes me,” she wrote to Bishop O’Connor, “because I am so infinitely poor in the virtues necessary.” However, with O’Connor’s encouragement and his faith—after her many years of struggle—in the strength of her calling, she agreed to head her new order.

Today we most likely interpret the actions of someone who dedicates herself to the cause of the betterment of racial minorities as a kind of social worker. We might even disparage such a person as naive, motivated by social pieties and the guilt of privilege. Such simplifications fall away in the case of Drexel, who was, first and foremost, a young woman completely immersed in her relationship with God. She wanted to go as far as she could into that relationship (her initial wish as a young adult had been to join a contemplative and cloistered, rather than active, order), and her missionary and social work grew from a desire to share with others what she had found in her spiritual development.

This is a different motivation from that which is commonly seen in our society’s pursuit of social concerns. Understanding that difference is crucial when studying her life. In Drexel’s view, it was not enough to provide money and material relief. As she understood things, there was to be no peace in life without God, and she believed that the disregarded African and Native American populations could not be fully emancipated and equal members of society until they knew religion—until they had fully experienced for themselves God’s love and liberation, just as she had. And to know religion, she reasoned, they had to be educated.

Drexel was a revolutionary—but a quiet one. She and her initial group of 15 nuns founded an Indian school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1893 and founded several others in the years that followed. She faced bitter opposition from within and outside the Catholic church. Inside the church of that time, as Father Joseph Martino—the priest assigned by the Vatican to write the positio arguing for her canonization—noted, “most Catholic priests abhorred working with Blacks because of racial prejudice.” Martino summarizes at length a letter written to the Holy See by a Belgian missionary to the American South in the early 1900s, stating that “Black girls were denied admission to convents, and there were also girls who had been expelled from religious communities, even years after, once it was discovered that they were actually Black.”

Opposition from the outside was even more intense. The main center for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, received a bomb threat when it was under construction. One of the buildings of a school in Rock Castle, Virginia, was destroyed by arson in 1899; in Texas, in 1922, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to burn down another of Drexel’s schools. Countless similar threats were received and summarily ignored as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament persisted in their work.

Operating in the segregated South, Mother Katharine never called directly for the overthrow of the Jim Crow legal system. Instead she followed a hard-headed and pragmatic strategy that was probably the only one, in that social era and context, which had any possibility of working: “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Nominally living within the laws of the jurisdictions where they found themselves, the sisters insisted, in the work and practices of the order, on the equal worth of every individual. It was customary in Catholic churches in the South to make blacks stand or sit in roped-off areas at the rear. Following Drexel’s orders, the churches connected to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament offered two rows of pews running from front to back, one for blacks and one for whites, side by side. This small step in the direction of equality gave segregationist authorities no statutory grounds for closing the churches down. When confronted with intense resistance in certain locales to the opening of schools for African Americans, the sisters quietly put in practice another of Christ’s maxims, “Be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.” They utilized shell corporations and other legal maneuvering to purchase land anonymously and circumvent opposition.

The simultaneous delicacy of spirit and iron force of will evinced in Drexel’s life and work are stunning. From its modest beginnings of a small number of schools and missions, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were able to train teachers from the disadvantaged groups who then went out to found new schools and teach others. Drexel’s insight in setting in motion a process of teachers creating teachers and community leaders in an ever-expanding pool of educated men and women amounts to a kind of genius. It is one of the most long-lasting and solid foundations that has been built in the attempt to provide assistance to African and Native Americans. The order was ultimately responsible for founding 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans and 50 schools for African Americans.

Katharine Drexel, who died in 1955 at age 96, did not wish to be considered for canonization. Canonization requires significant amounts of money for research and documentation, and she, according to Making Saints by Kenneth L. Woodward ‘57, believed “the money required for the process would be better spent on helping Indians and blacks.” Her cause, however, had such enormous support, including from many of those who had been educated at her schools, that the process was set in motion. Canonization requires extensive documentation of miracles performed through prayer to the individual in question; in Drexel’s case, two deaf individuals regained their hearing in ways inexplicable to doctors. But by far the greatest miracle, as Pope John Paul II emphasized in his homily at her canonization Mass in 2000, lay in what she accomplished during her life.

Xavier University in New Orleans stands as perhaps the most notable testament to the force of Katharine Drexel’s vision. Xavier was founded in 1915 through an initial grant of $750,000 from Drexel. The only historically black and Catholic college in the United States, Xavier was—according to nuns of her order—one of the projects closest to Drexel’s heart. Xavier began with a small collection of buildings on the grounds of what had previously been a high school; today it has grown to house more than 3,800 students. The New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges describes Xavier as “a school where achievement has been the rule and beating the odds against success a routine occurrence.”

Xavier currently places more African Americans into medical schools than any other college in the nation. It awards more degrees than does any other college to African Americans in biology and the life sciences, in the physical sciences, and in physics. Its prominent graduates have included Alvin Boutte, class of 1951, founder and CEO of Indecorp hotels; Louis Castenall, class of ‘68, dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Education, praised by The New York Times and The Washington Post for his innovations in teacher education; and Alexis Herman, class of ‘69, the first black U.S. secretary of labor. With its stated mission of preparing students “to assume roles of leadership and service in society,” Xavier has graduated countless others who have led in smaller but deeply significant ways in their local communities, among them physician Regina Benjamin, class of ’79, who returned to her home region of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, to found a health clinic dedicated to serving people who lacked the money to afford health care. She financed the clinic herself for over a decade by moonlighting in the ERs of local hospitals.

Drexel’s emphasis on the central importance of equal education holds key lessons for a society that is—as Pope John Paul II stated at her canonization Mass—still torn apart in many ways by issues of race. The ripple effects of Drexel’s work can never precisely be measured or calculated, but it is hard to imagine that even she could have predicted these effects. Then again, given the central mystery of a life of faith in any age, particularly ours, perhaps it is not so hard. She once wrote of her mission, “I looked up in wonder at God’s wonderful ways and thought, How little we imagine what may be the result of listening and acting on a desire He puts into the heart. He will bless it, if we try to act upon it.”

She made one request at Xavier University’s dedication ceremony: that her own name not be mentioned. She watched, unmentioned and unremarked, from a seat at the back of the auditorium.

Anthony Walton is the co-author, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes. He teaches at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.