In a time when socialite heiresses are more inclined to provide reality-TV entertainment and shill sneakers, we gratefully receive the reminder and legacy of Saint Katharine Drexel, a wealthy heiress who denied her massive inheritance when she realized she was called to the religious life.
Born in Philadelphia in 1858, Saint Katharine Drexel was one of three sisters who stood to inherit millions from their father's fortune. Raised by devout Catholic parents who instilled in their children the impulse and desire to serve the poor in the kindest way possible, Saint Katharine is an example of the old Serran adage: "Vocations begin at home."
After seeing firsthand the plight of the poor in her own community and then traveling to witness the deplorable living conditions of African-Americans and displaced Native Americans, she plucked up the courage to ask Pope Leo XIII to send missionaries to staff some Indian missions she and her sisters had been financing. The Holy Father didn't miss the opportunity to sniff out a religious vocation and replied, "Why don't you become a missionary yourself?"
Initially shocked and disturbed by the suggestion, through prayer Saint Katharine realized he was right - she did have a missionary calling. She did as Jesus commanded when he himself identified vocations throughout his ministry: She left it all behind - her home, her inheritance, her suitors, her possessions - and followed him. After spending a few years as a Sister of Mercy, she established her own congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. She dedicated her life and her order's mission to social justice for Native Americans and African-Americans mainly in the West, establishing missions and schools in New Mexico and Arizona, before expanding to the rest of the United States.
Saint Katharine Drexel died on this day in 1955 at the age of 96. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 1, 2000, and is the only canonized saint ever to be born a United States citizen.*
*DuPage County, IL, Serran Joan Mowry writes: As a native of Drexel Hill, PA who also happened to be in Rome on Oct. 1, 2000, I was happy to see St. Katharine Drexel featured in your Serra e-newsletter today. However, the article on her life ends with a huge error. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was born in New York City in 1774 and was canonized in 1975, was the first US citizen ever to be declared a saint. St. Katharine Drexel is the second. Please correct your article and give the heroic Mother Seton her due!
Our article highlights a distinction between St. Katharine Drexel and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: St. Katharine was born a citizen of the United States while St. Elizabeth became a citizen following the United States gaining independence. Thanks for helping us clarify the point, Mrs. Mowry!