Last year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I finally had the chance to visit, after years of wanting to, the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel, the great Philadelphia heiress-turned-foundress.  The shrine in Bensalem, Pa., located a few miles from my family's home, is also the home of the mother house of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order the St. Katharine founded to aid African-Americans and Native Americans.  That day I spent an hour praying in the sisters' beautiful chapel, walking through the small but surprisingly moving museum (St. Katharine's habit, her desk, her wheelchair are all there), wandering through the sisters' cemetery, and praying before the saint's tomb, which is located underneath the chapel.  At one point an elderly woman in a small chair sitting quietly before the tomb asked me if she would like her to pray for me.  "Of course," I said.  (That's a question you always say yes to!)  She pulled out a small notebook and wrote down my name.  It turned out that she had known "Mother Katharine" as a novice, many years ago.  (Katharine died in 1955.)  "What was she like?" I asked.  "Oh," she said.  "Very strict...but very funny."  She told me while that Mother Katharine was a stickler for details (she once measured the space between this woman's eyebrows and her veil, with a ruler, to ensure that it was the proper distance), that she was also kind and goodhearted. 

Today is St. Katharine's feast day.  A few resources: Here is an article written by Dennis M. Linehan, S.J., a Philadelphian, from America in 2000 on the frankly incredible life of this frankly incredible woman.  Here is the colorful cover art from that issue of America, by Michael O'Neill McGrath, another Philadelphian, now available at Trinity Stores.)  Here is the website of the shrine in Bensalem.   And above is my favorite image of the saint, the woman who told her sisters who were teaching children, "We must attract them by joy."

James Martin, SJ

Comments

Anonymous | 3/3/2011 - 2:31pm
Thanks, Father. The history of the US seems inextricably tied to the Catholic Church, doesn't it? Father Barron has an excerpt from his book, The Priority of Christ, posted at his blog called 'Word on Fire', in which he discusses what he refers to as St. Katharine Drexel's  sense of 'elevated justice'. Go to:

www.wordonfire.org  

You will see the excerpt on your right.
Mary Elizabeth Sperry | 3/3/2011 - 12:52pm
Both Rose Hawthore Lathrop (Mother Alphonsa) and Saint Katharine Drexel are profiled in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults.  Mother Alphonsa in Chapter 6 and Saint Katharine in Chapter 13.
Boreta Singleton | 3/3/2011 - 10:48am
Thanks, Jim; what a wonderful woman whose openness to the Spirit enables, even today, so many  Native and African American youth to get an education!  She faced many obstacles and persevered with her vision to give God's children of color the spiritual and educational support they deserve.   Many of the churches and schools she built are still open. I'm happy to claim Philadelphia as my birthplace, too! My Mom was baptized at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church ( formerly in North Philadelphia), and often spoke of the wonderful spiritual and educational opportunities Mother Katharine gave to African and Native Americans. My Dad was from Louisiana, and also talked about Mother Katharine's work there to establish Xavier University in New Orleans as well as many smaller schols and parishes in the bayous of the state.  May St. Katharine's  spirit continue to inspire teachers to be aware of the gifts and potential of our youth!
Anonymous | 3/3/2011 - 10:37am
My mother used to mention Katherine Drexel all the time when I was growing up in Philadelphia.  She was proud that a Philadelphia woman gave up so much to do what she did.  I never knew much more about her than my mother's frequent mention and that she cared for the poor and was once rich.  Drexel University was founded by her uncle and was a well known name in Philadelphia.
 
Another woman from a famous family that deserves more recognition is Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  She founded the Dominican sisters of Hawthorne located in Hawthorne, NY, just 45 minutes north of downtown Manhattan.  Rose and her associates were essentially the first persons to systematically care for cancer patients.  At the time little was known about cancer and they were shunned as many thought it was contagious like leprosy.
 
They have homes to take care of the incurable and impoverished cancer patients in Hawthorne, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Kenya.  Their website is
 
http://www.hawthorne-dominicans.org/s000.htm
 
It is women like Katherine Drexel and Rose Hawthorne that make me proud to be a Catholic.  Too much time is focused on what is wrong and too little is focused on what the Church has inspired over 2000 years.