St. Katharine Drexel

April 16th, 2014 by Brand Llama

The Heart of a Woman, the Strength of a Saint

Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, the second child of Hannah and Francis Anthony Drexel. Hannah died five weeks after her baby’s birth. For two years Katharine and her sister, Elizabeth, were cared for by their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel. When Francis married Emma Bouvier in 1860 he brought his two daughters home. A third daughter, Louise, was born in 1863. The children grew up in a loving family atmosphere permeated by deep faith.

The girls were educated at home by tutors. They had the added advantage of touring parts of the United States and Europe with their parents. By word and example Emma and Francis taught their daughters that wealth was meant to be shared with those in need. Three afternoons a week Emma opened the doors of their home to serve the needs of the poor. When the girls were old enough, they assisted their mother.

When Francis purchased a summer home in Torresdale, Pa., Katharine and Elizabeth taught Sunday school classes for the children of employees and neighbors. The local pastor, Rev. James O’Connor (who later became bishop of Omaha), became a family friend and Katharine’s spiritual director.

Katharine Drexel & Communications

Katharine Drexel was a prodigious writer. She constantly wrote letters — from her desk, on a train, while she was visiting a mission. Our SBS Archives have a rich collection of her correspondence.

Young Katharine felt called to the contemplative life. Bishop O’Connor, her spiritual director, finally agreed she had a religious vocation, but almost commanded her to found a new order serving the Indians and Colored People. Katharine was appalled at the thought. She did not think she was virtuous enough. She wrote back…

“I know the privations, the trials, the temptations, and I ask myself, could I go through all these things in a manner suitable for edifying the religious of my order?”

Shortly Before Entering ConventBishop O’Connor replied, “I was never so sure of any vocation, not even my own, as I am of yours. If you do not establish the order in question, you will allow to pass an opportunity of doing immense service to the Church which may not occur again.”

Towards the end of his letter, her director writes, “Even as a foundress, you will have your faults, but God not you will do the work. He often makes use of very weak instruments. The question is not will you be all you should be, but does God will you to be his instrument.…”

Katharine made a private retreat on the feast of St. Joseph. “I had a lovely retreat. It was only this morning,” she wrote on March 19, 1889, “that I could promise Our Lord to please Him by entering fully into your plan of founding an order. As long as I look on self, I cannot. Our Lord gives and will give me the grace always to look at Him.”

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