St. Katharine Drexel shows us how to overcome Obstacles

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Overcoming Obstacles: St. Katharine Drexel Shows Us How: Saint Katharine Drexel Shows us How from Letters from the Saints Blog with an image of Saint Katharine Drexel writing at her desk

It has been said that if you are not being opposed in some way that you are probably not doing what you should be doing. The reason for this, unfortunately, is that it is not very likely that everyone is ever going to be in favor of doing the right thing. There will always be people who are against the right path to be pursued.

Consider Our Lord who was opposed throughout His entire life on earth. Before He was even born, there was no room in the inn in Bethlehem for Him to be born. Then soon after His birth, His life was threatened by Herod, and the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt until it was safe to return to Israel. Later, during His public ministry, the religious leaders of the day, who should have known better, were certain that not only was Jesus not the promised Messiah, He was an extremely dangerous threat to the nation. They constantly attempted to catch Him in His words in order to discredit Him and discourage anyone from following Him. And, of course, they plotted His death for months until they found the opportune time to accomplish their goal.

As Jesus noted, first, we are called to take up our cross daily and follow Him (Lk 9:23). And second, He said that if the world persecuted Him, it would persecute His disciples (Jn 15:20). Let's look at a saint who knew opposition and shows us how to deal with it.

A Wealthy Young Heiress

You might have heard of St. Katharine Drexel. She was born in 1858 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the second oldest daughter of Francis and Hannah Drexel. Francis and his two younger brothers ran Drexel and Company which was a very successful investment bank. Their bank had been responsible for helping to finance the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, the Union Army during the Civil War, and many businesses during the Industrial Revolution. With the bank's success, Francis had become a very wealthy man. However, he took his Catholic faith very seriously, and he knew that money could not buy true happiness. It was a lesson that was clearly taught to his children in word and deed.

Sadly, St. Katharine's mother died only five weeks after her birth. Her father married Emma Bouvier two years later, and a third daughter, Louise, was born to Francis. Both Francis and Emma taught all three girls to be responsible with the wealth which they had and to be generous to those in need. They demonstrated this through their philanthropy toward numerous Catholic charities and through giving directly to the poor. Up to three times per week, people would come to their home and receive food, clothing, and rent assistance which Emma and her girls distributed. For those who might be uncomfortable coming to the house, they would try to find discreet ways to provide them assistance.

By 1886, St. Katharine and her sisters Elizabeth and Louise had lost both of their parents. At the death of their father, his estate was valued at approximately $15 million. Francis Drexel left ten percent of his estate to charities, and the remainder of the estate was put in trust for the three girls. Interestingly, the will stipulated that the girls could not touch the principal, but they could use the earnings of their trust funds. All three girls continued their parents' charitable work. St. Katharine, in particular, had taken an interest in helping African Americans and Native Americans, and she began to user her monies to support missions for them.

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Discerning the Religious Life

For many years, St. Katharine had contemplated a call to become a religious. Partly because of that, she had already turned down one marriage proposal. However, she was not certain of her calling or to what order she would apply. Her heart was drawn toward the contemplative life, and she needed help to discern the will of God. She turned to a family friend, Fr. James O’Connor, who served as her spiritual director.

It was during a trip to Europe in 1887 with her two sisters that her vocation began to take a more concrete form. The sites of Europe reminded her that great civilizations have come and gone and will continue to do so. Thus, she wondered what she might do which would have lasting value. When they visited the Vatican, they, as part of a larger group, were granted a private audience with Pope Leo XIII.

St. Katharine shared with the Holy Father her desire to be a contemplative nun and her support of missions work. Hoping to get assistance from other religious orders for the missions for African Americans and Native Americans, she asked the Holy Father, if he could send missionaries to the United States to help. Instead, the pope suggested to her that perhaps she become a missionary herself in order to meet her request.

Initially, these words from the pope troubled St. Katharine. However, eventually she took them to heart and, St. Katharine soon became convinced that she was called to an active religious life.

Under the guidance of the now Bishop O'Connor, St. Katharine began her religious life with the Sisters of Charity in Philadelphia. It had been arranged that she would go through her novitiate and learn how to lead a community before starting her own congregation. Bishop O'Connor had first suggested the idea of an order dedicated to the missionary work for African Americans and Native Americans, and after some hesitation, St. Katharine agreed. The order was named the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and by 1897, St. Katharine along with 13 other sisters had begun their first work by starting a boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Answering the Bishop's Request

Beginning in 1900, the bishop of Nashville, Tennessee Thomas Byrne had asked St. Katharine to establish a school for African Americans. She had been unable to help with that request, and instead, sent him a check for $2,997 which paid for a third of the building costs for a church for African Americans.

However, the bishop was not one to be put off even with her generous donation. Instead, when he was traveling out west in 1904 he met St. Katharine and was able to convince her to start the Immaculate Mother Academy.

Assessing the situation, St. Katharine knew that there would be resistance to the project. The first order of business was to find a suitable property in Nashville. The search was done as clandestinely as possible. Eventually, a large house was found and determined to be suitable although the assessment of the property had to be done from an enclosed carriage in order to not draw attention to the project.

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Opposition to the School

The house was purchased for $25,000 in February 1905 by a lawyer named Thomas Tyne who signed over the deed to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. A few days later, the transactions were reported in the local newspaper along with the plans for establishing a school, and that is when the trouble began because the home was in a predominately white neighborhood and prejudice was rampant.

Immediately, the former owner of the home, Samuel Keith, tried to negate the sale. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the transaction and the sale stood. Then he offered to buy back the home.

In a peaceful effort, St. Katharine wrote Mr. Keith an empathetic letter noting her own feelings about seeing her home in Philadelphia sold and trying to answer any concerns about the impact that the school would have on the neighborhood.

Keith was in no way assuaged by her letter and instead offered the bishop $2,500 to be given to any charity if the bishop prevented the school from being started. Bishop Byrne, of course, did not agree to this proposal.

Then, Keith took the matter to the press by publishing St. Katharine's letter in the paper. It was hurtful to St. Katharine to see her private correspondence made public.

Next, the women of the neighborhood got organized and began to write St. Katharine letters in which they praised the goal of starting a school for African American girls as long as it was not in their neighborhood. Wisely, St. Katharine did not write a reply lest it also be published in the newspaper. Then the community threatened that an injunction be filed to prevent the school.

Staying the Course

However, in writing to her own sisters to explain the situation, St. Katharine noted that the aversion to the school should be understood in light of how the Lord was treated. First, she noted her plan to no longer respond and instead to forge ahead while letting the opposition die down over time. Then she wrote:

It is encouraging to meet some opposition in your work...It is appropriate for a Convent of the Blessed Sacrament - Christ dwelling within us - and the School of the Immaculate Mother, to have people of the city to have no room for our precious Charge. They say, "There is another place on the City's outskirts," for our educational work. How truly was the Cave of Bethlehem the great educator of the World! This was indeed the School of the Immaculate Mother.

After extensive renovations and advertising for the new school, it opened on September 5, 1905 with a mass held in the chapel built in the home and celebrated by Bishop Byrne. There were 54 students and seven sisters, six of whom were teachers, and one for keeping up the school building. Unlike the previous schools which the order had started, this was not a boarding school, but a day school.

However, that was not the end of the resistance to the school. Although the bishop had envisioned that the school would be for Catholic children, St. Katharine had been able to convince him that her order's mission was to all African Americans and Native Americans. Thus, the school would be solidly Catholic in its teaching but open to students of all religious backgrounds. That did not sit well with some of the local black Protestant pastors who preached anti-Catholic sermons and labeled the sisters as sheep stealers. They warned their congregations to steer clear of the school.

However, the people of the ministers' congregation voted with their enrollments as the school grew from year to year with 150 students in the second year, and the need for a new building by 1907. By this time, as St. Katharine had hoped the opposition to the school had disappeared.

The school remained open until 1954 when the students were transferred to another Catholic school as part of the efforts to implement integration.

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Learn More About St. Katharine Drexel

If you would like to learn more about St. Katharine Drexel, the biography by Cheryl Hughes is a great place to start. It is an excellent biography that helps you to understand the personal, intellectual, and religious motivations that helped her become a saint.

Click on the book image or the link for more information about the book.

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