St. Katherine Drexel

Written by Sr. Rosemary Finnegan, O.P.

In our Gospel, Jesus helps us in our Lenten practice of prayer by giving us words to use when we pray, words which capture the essence of speaking to God with our heart.

Words of praise:

  • Hallowed be thy name

Words of contrition:

  • Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

and words of petition:

  • Give us this day our daily bread

We call these words the Our Father.

Jesus is encouraging us to be women and men of prayer. Today’s reading is another invitation to take some time this Lent to think about our own prayer life.

And the saint whom we celebrate today, St. Katherine Drexel, is a wonderful example of such a prayerful person. Katherine was born in 1858 into a very wealthy family in Philadelphia. Her father was a prominent banker, but unfortunately, when she was 5 weeks old, her mother died. Later, her father married Emma Bouvier who was a devout Catholic. Although Katherine was privileged by having the best education, traveling the world, and enjoying all the finer things that money provides, it was her stepmother Emma who instilled in her a great love of charity to others less fortunate. Emma and Katherine distributed food, medicine, clothing and money to the poor 3 days a week.

In time, her stepmother became terminally ill, and Katherine nursed her for 3 years.  It was then that she saw that all their money couldn’t buy safety from illness or death, and she had a profound conversion of heart.

When her father died, he left Katherine millions of dollars which she wanted to use to help the needy, especially the Native American Indians and black people whom she had seen living so desperately and being treated so poorly while she was traveling.  When she met Pope Leo XIII on a trip to Rome, she asked him to send missionaries to Wyoming to help these people.  The Pope looked at her and said: “Why don’t you become a missionary?”  She was shocked at his reply, but it got her thinking seriously about it.

Eventually, she became a Catholic Sister and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  She was able to use her inherited family wealth to start aiding specifically the Native Americans and black people. In the ensuing years, the Sisters established 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans, and 50 schools for Afro Americans, including  Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Roman Catholic college in the US.

In 1935 Katherine suffered a severe heart attack, but lived the next 20 years in quiet, prayer-filled retirement. Upon her death in 1955, the remainder of her estate was given to charity.  She was canonized in 2000.

May this prayer of hers to God be our prayer:

“Teach me to know your Son intimately, To love him ardently, and to follow Him closely.”