Bronze casting of Saint Katharine Drexel by Sondra L. Jonson, Cambridge, Nebraska. Image by permission of the artist.
The Catholic Church in Philadelphia today celebrates one of its own Saint Katharine Drexel on the anniversary of her death. The familial name of Drexel is most prominent in Philadelphia because of the presence of Drexel University as a center for educational learning. However, Katharine Drexel’s life and legacy provides another chapter to Philadelphia history.
While Katharine Drexel was born into a financially and socially prominent family in the City of Brotherly Love it did not deter her from aspiring to a missionary life. Particular to Katharine Drexel’s attention was the apostolate to Native American Indians and African Americans. One needs to remember that during the lifetime of St.Katharine, there was little attention paid to the spiritual or temporal welfare of either one of these groups. More often than not, charitable efforts towards these groups were met with open hostility and anger, even in gentile Philadelphia society. It was not uncommon to hear racial slurs and even the proverbial, “N” word when people made reference to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the community of religious founded by Drexel. Regardless of any obstacles placed in her way, Katharine Drexel established missionary outposts throughout the frontier areas of the American South West and even in the Deep South. Her Sisters were directed by Katharine Drexel from their Motherhouse in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, where a physically incapacitated Drexel conducted the missionary symphony.
It is of particular interest that after her travels to the Southwest and the Deep South, Mother Katharine Drexel exercised a missionary leader’s role, while confined to the motherhouse outside of Philadelphia. Her example of evangelization through here personal correspondence and the distribution of her family’s wealth ensured missionary roots were established even though she could no longer travel to the remote regions of the United States.
An apostolate directed towards educating and promoting the welfare of Native American and African American peoples was met with resistance by fellow Catholics and even Bishops of Katharine Drexel’s day. However, with perseverance and hard work her community brought the Catholic faith and educational knowledge to the poorest and most remote locations in the country. The American Presidential election of 2008 and the political success of President Obama are honestly related in some part to the zeal and activities of Saint Katharine Drexel and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
The interracial apostolate in which Saint Katharine Drexel engaged in the 19th and 20th centuries is a remarkable story of an enlightened vision by someone of Drexel’s pedigree. Most importantly however, her community of religious continues their missionary activities even in 2009 in the midst of racial and ethnic tensions that still strongly exist in our American Society.
Saint Katharine Drexel, a striking example of faith in action despite the scorn of society.

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that writes on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes daily at: & &

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