I grew up in the working class Philadelphia suburb of Darby. One Sunday in the late fifties some Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament spoke at Mass, appealing for aid for their community’s work and asking us to pray for a miracle for the canonization of their founder, Mother Katherine Drexel. In 2000, she was proclaimed a saint.
Then I didn’t know much about her life and her community. I wish I had, because her concerns in some aspects mirrored what I was beginning to sense about poverty and racism in the late 1950s.
Mother Drexel was a remarkable woman who reached out in love to those at the margin of US society during her lifetime – Native Americans and African Americans.
She grew up in a wealthy Philadelphia family, but her father and step-mother imbued in her a sense of philanthropy. She also was influenced by Father James O’Connor who was pastor of the church where she spent her summers as a young woman. He was remarkable for his concern for justice for the native Americans. He saw the violence of the native Americans as something that was almost forced upon them by broken treaties and the takeover of their lands by white settlers. He later became a bishop in Nebraska.
After her father died, Katherine and her two sisters inherited a significant fortune. All three had a sense of their responsibility to share their fortune with those in need. Katherine, though, looked outside the needs of the Church and began to assist native American missions in the west and southwest. She even traveled to visit them.
But a visit to the pope who told her, “Why not become a missionary yourself?” led her to seek the formation of a new religious order devoted to Afro-Americans and native Americans, at that time called “the colored and the Indians.”
She still had her inheritance which she administered for many years, using it for the peoples for whom she had dedicated her life. Her funding helped the foundation of what became New Orleans’ Xavier University, a Catholic university for Afro-Americans. What I find interesting is that she did not use any of her money for her own congregation. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had to depend on their own efforts for their endeavors.
After a stroke she spent much of her time in contemplation in the suburban Philadelphia motherhouse, returning to what had been her original dream of living the contemplative life.
She died on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96.
Her life, her willingness to give away all for the poor, for those who were the marginalized and discriminated against, and her deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, to Jesus present in the Eucharist can be a great inspiration for us this Lent.
She is a counter-example to the passage from today’s Gospel where Jesus says, “If you love only those who love you, what reward will you have?” (Matthew 5: 46)
May Mother Drexel teach us to love beyond boundaries, united in love with the Eucharistic Jesus who loves us without limits.