February 12,1891 was the Foundation Day for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament - a Community dedicated to justice for all peoples, especially for Indians, Colored Peoples, and all the oppressed.St. Katharine Drexel, the foundress of the Community, was a daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia banker, Francis Anthony Drexel. She and her whole family became philanthropists because they believed that their wealth was a gift to be shared with the needy.
As a child, Katharine helped her stepmother, Emma Bouvier, to distribute food, clothing, and rent assistance to the needy, especially to the recently emancipated African Americans. Her sisters Elizabeth and Louise also helped.
The three sisters were encouraged to relate to all people as children of our common heavenly Father. They were aware that these former slaves, although very capable, lacked the education to find good jobs. From this experience, Katharine recognized the need for a good education to enable people to improve their lives.
Later, when Katharine became a Religious Sister and foundress of the new Community, she stressed education as a way of improving the lives of the oppressed, especially, but not exclusively, among the Native Americans and African Americans.
When construction began for the convent St. Katharine was building for her new Community in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, people began to make threats. A stick of dynamite was found at the construction site of the Motherhouse. Also, one of her first schools was destroyed by arson. However, St. Katharine had great trust in Divine Providence. Therefore, these incidents did not deter St. Katharine from her work.
One of St. Katharine’s early schools was St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a boarding school built for Native Americans. I was blessed to have it as my first experience working with Native Americans and Hispanic students.
One misconception which I had brought with me from Boston was quickly dispelled. I had never knowingly met a Native American, so my image was the stoic Indian picture representing the Shawmut Bank.
It wasn’t long for me to recognize the great sense of humor that the Natives have. This gift probably has been helpful in dealing with prejudice and hardships.
There were approximately 30 different tribes represented at the school. Hispanic students from Santa Fe attended as day students. A sense of pride in their heritages was fostered in the school. Many became leaders and could interact with one another well because of their experiences at St. Kate’s (nickname for St. Catharine’s School).
On special days when we would have Mass, the students would proudly process into the gym dressed in their traditional garments. At the offertory, the students made prayer requests in their various Native languages. Often at the end of a celebratory service, we would witness an Indian dance by the Eagle Dancers.
Although it was a boarding school, there was a positive, friendly spirit there as evidenced by the many graduates who would return to attend games in the gym.
Also, they would visit the Sisters and staff, many of whom were volunteers from many different areas.
How St. Katharine Drexel Won Against Racism
Taken from an article by Brook Gregory found in EpicPew.com.
Needless to say, St. Katharine was not popular in the South during the early 1900s. Officials in Macon, Georgia, tried to prevent the Sisters from teaching at one of her schools. They simply did not want white women teaching and interacting with black students and their families. St. Katharine fought the law, won, and the school is still open.
Then, St. Katharine purchased a building with the intention of opening a Catholic Institution of Higher Education in New Orleans, Louisiana. When her plans became public knowledge, vandals broke in and smashed all the windows. St. Katharine made little of it and pursued her dream. Today, the Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black Catholic University, is still thriving and providing many professionals for the area and beyond.
A prayer response to a threat from the KKK of the Beaumont, Texas Chapter, is striking. On the door of a parish church, connected with one of her schools, a note was nailed which read, "We want an end to services here. Suppress it in one week or flogging with tar and feathers will follow." A few days later, nature responded in the form of a tornado that completely destroyed the Klan headquarters and killed two of its members. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Beaumont were never bothered again.
St. Katharine outsmarted racist laws by designing the churches she built in the South in a special way. The people had to be segregated if a service was to be held legally. St. Katharine didn't like the idea that the Black people were roped off and relegated to the back of the church. Since St. Katherine couldn't change the laws, she changed the arrangement of the pews. St. Katharine had two front-to-back rows of pews in her churches. The law couldn't attack her or the people. The pews were still technically segregated, but the people of color were not forced to sit behind the white people. They were seated side by side.
St. Katharine advanced the legal protection of Native Americans and people of color through persistent letter-writing campaigns. Also, she was a vocal advocate of early civil rights legislation.
St. Katharine died at age 96 in 1955 on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement that she helped to advance long before its existence was even considered. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, their Associates, Partners, Alumni, and friends carry on her Mission today.
Reflection Question: Ask the Lord to help you to know what He wants you to do to help promote social justice.
CommentsPat Chiaffa, ASBS
The information you shared on Saint Katharine Drexel was really interesting. St. Katharine Drexel’s courage and steadfast faith in the face of so many obstacles encountered in her mission is inspiring. She is a wonderful model of loving God and serving our brothers and sisters in Christ. I particularly enjoyed reading of Mother Katharine’s brilliant creativity in rearranging the pews in her churches to get around the racist law. Those of us fortunate enough to know any of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament get to witness her spirit in the activities, prayers, and stories of these dedicated women.
Sadly, racism continues to plague our society and demoralize our youth. An article in The New York Times, by Amy Horman, on January 20, 2020, told of the experiences of 101 black teenagers in Washington, DC over a two-week period. Their stories were tracked by researchers who reported that the teens encountered more than 5600 instances of racial discrimination, averaging more than 5 instances per day for each teen.
The researchers reported that the magnitude of the discrimination faced by black adolescents affects how they feel, noting symptoms of depression, difficulty sleeping, loneliness, and anxiety. Violence continues to escalate in our cities claiming precious lives and breaking the hearts of families. St. Katharine’s words, “if there is any prejudice in the mind, we must uproot it, or it will tear us down,” are as true today as when she penned them.
Stephanie Morris, Ph.D., ASBS, Historian, Certified archivist emerita
Before we can do anything to promote social justice, we should first have a plan. Where are we in society and what actually can we do?
Unlike St. Katharine, few of us have the ability to open schools. We can, perhaps, contribute a little bit to help our parish school. What kind of fundraisers does your parish church and/or school run? Bingo? Bake-sales? Clothing drives? Bazaars? How can you help?
Few of us are in a position to change society; generally, we are only able to change ourselves. We can pray, and prayer works wonders.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “I have decided to stick with love. ...Hate is too great a burden to bear.” St. Katharine said, “Love is proven by little things.” A phone call to a neighbor who may not get out of her/his home often - does she/he need a ride or some groceries? Little things are love in action.
Today, St. Katharine Drexel is the patroness of Philanthropists and