I don’t normally speak about Catholic saints in this column, but we celebrated the memorial of one on March 3 who was a saint connected with our area and thus might be of interest to many in the area: St. Katherine Drexel.
Katherine was born in 1858 into a prominent Philadelphia family, and her father and stepmother (her mother died only five weeks after Katherine’s birth) imbued early within her and her sisters a love of God and her fellow Man, especially of the poor and downtrodden. She took special interest in the material and spiritual well-being of black and Native Americans—first by donations, but soon she realized that more “hands on” work was needed.
Katherine sought the assistance of missionaries in Europe, but during an audience in which she expressed her desire, Pope Leo XIII suggested that she herself become a missionary. She soon entered the Sisters of Charity and later founded a religious order called Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament whose mission was—and remains—to work with these poor and disadvantaged groups to help them to improve their lives.
From the age of 33 until her death (just in 1955) she dedicated her life and inherited fortune to this work, apparently remembering Jesus’ teaching: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21) and, because she was wealthy, perhaps remembering Jesus’ directive to the rich young man: “…sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
Our local connection arises in 1894 when “Mother Drexel” helped open the first mission school for Native Americans here in New Mexico—the St. Catherine Indian School, which operated until lack of funds closed it in 1998 … just down the road in Santa Fe. By the way, just to clarify, the school was named after St. Catherine of Siena, not after Katherine Drexel. A Native American saint was also named after St. Catherine of Siena: Kateri (KAT-er-ee) Tekakwitha, memorialized also in Santa Fe with a rather stylized statue in front of St. Francis Cathedral Basilica downtown.
Even today you can go to the rear of either the National Cemetery or Rosario Catholic Cemetery, you can still see remnants of the old Indian school. It is dilapidated and fenced off the last time I looked; some unresolved bureaucratic labyrinth between city, state and owners, it seems.
And yet … it’s still quite humbling especially for us Catholics to go there and know that a canonized saint used to walk that very ground, and very well may have visited many places near us like Pojoaque, Nambé, San Idelfonso, Santa Clara, Española and Taos. It’s doubtful she wandered up here to the Los Alamos/White Rock area, of course; not much up here on the plateau at the beginning of the 1900s.
Mother Drexel went on to found organizations primarily for Native Americans west of the Mississippi River, and for blacks in the southern United States, founding Xavier University in New Orleans in 1915—the first Catholic university in the U.S. for African-Americans.
Indicative of the need for—and recognition of—her work, at St. Katherine’s death in 1955 at age 97, her order included more than 500 Sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the U.S. She was canonized (proclaimed, after much investigation, as having lived a holy life) in 2000, the second canonized American-born saint … the first, interestingly enough, being St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity in which St. Katherine would later begin her own charitable career.
St. Katherine was ahead of her time in seeking to improve the lot of often downtrodden and oppressed minorities here in the U.S., no doubt having to battle prejudice and resistance to her work. In our time of increased racial tensions, our society could certainly use some of her wisdom and come together as one people … transcending the ultimately irrelevant divisions of race, nationality, etc., in recognition of the equal dignity of all peoples, as all are made in God’s image. Because, as we read of St. John’s vision of Heaven, there will be: “…a great multitude which no man could number, from EVERY nation, from ALL tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches [of victory] in their hands…” (Revelation 7:9) If God will make no distinction, it seems foolish that we would do so.
We Christians are supposed to—with God’s grace—work toward the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven through devotion to God and charity/love toward neighbor. And so, wouldn’t it be wonderful to “get ahead of the game”, reject no human being who comes into our lives … and thus bring the fulfillment of that long-desired Kingdom of peace just a little bit closer.
(Information of St. Katherine Drexel was obtained from www.catholic.org)