“The patient and humble endurance of the cross, whatever nature it may be, is the highest work we have to do.” – St. Katherine Drexel
Can social activism and the feminine genius walk hand in hand? What about wealth and compassion? Can someone born into prosperity think outside the box and dedicate her life to serving others, realizing that money is no ultimate solution to the suffering the human condition, but reflecting the love of the Eucharist is? St. Katherine Drexel is an extraordinary missionary evangelizer, who spent her life in missionary service to the underprivileged and vulnerable.
St. Katherine Drexel the Missionary
The daughter of a banker and philanthropist, St. Katherine Drexel was well-educated and enjoyed the opportunity to travel, both in the United States and Europe. However, her mother’s death and stepmother’s terminal illness made her realize at an early age the human reality of suffering and death. With eyes and heart open to God’s love for all people and the role of caritas in responding to suffering, St. Katherine Drexel’s travels made her keenly aware of the struggles and needs of Native Americans and African-Americans. When St. Katherine Drexel inherited a great deal of wealth, she knew precisely what to do with it: Use it to serve the disadvantaged.
Called to More
When St. Katherine Drexel visited Pope Leo XIII to discuss details of financing services for the disadvantaged, he suggested that God might be calling her to more than giving of her material wealth, that he might be calling her to serve the people with her very life. St. Katherine Drexel dared to prayerfully consider, then embrace this possibility; she became a missionary and a religious sister, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
Her congregation would open more than fifty schools during St. Katherine Drexel’s lifetime, expanding from a few followers to more than 500 sisters working as missionaries. “I am only treading in my Master’s steps,” she said. St. Katherine Drexel’s motivation as a missionary was intensely Eucharistic, grounded in personal prayer and adoration; yet her actions powerfully addressed the specific needs of social justice in her time, especially injustices among minorities.
St. Katherine Drexel the Entrepreneur
As an entrepreneur, St. Katherine Drexel lived the need to keep her eyes focused on her goal— following God’s plan for salvation in her life— and not being distracted by what was secondary to that. She knew that focusing on God’s specific plan for us is enough to keep our hands and hearts busy! For St. Katherine Drexel, dedication to her work as a sister meant establishing fifty missions for Native Americans in sixteen states, as well as African American Catholic schools in nearly as many states.
Her words testify to how necessary it is to focus. “Let alone the things that do not concern us,” she said, ““He has other ways for others to follow Him: all do not go by the same path. It is for each of us to learn the path by which He requires us to follow Him and to follow Him in that path.” In other words, St. Katherine Drexel focused boldly on exploring God’s call for her, not getting caught up in complaints or judgments about mistakes others seemed to be making in their evangelical or entrepreneurial efforts.
St. Katherine Drexel was a woman passionate about human dignity and she reminds us that any organization, endeavor, or institution has a human element and ultimately is about human beings. True leaders, like St. Katherine Drexel, realize the fundamental importance of humanness. Business thinkers W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne speak to this same theme in Blue Ocean Shift:
When we feel genuinely understood and appreciated for who we are as whole people, when we feel respected not because we are brilliant, bold, and perfect, but because we have something to contribute and want to make a difference despite our insecurities and vulnerabilities, we stop feeling like imposters with something to hide. We trust other people. We burn with desire to honor the faith that we feel is placed in us by putting in the extra effort to make successes happen.
St. Katherine Drexel affirmed the rights of all human persons, empowering them in turn to live a more human, more fruitful life.
For Us: Called to the Underserved
One of the lessons St. Katherine Drexel’s life reminds us of is that we are called to go to the underserved.
St. Katherine Drexel prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Teach me to know your son intimately, to love Him ardently, and to follow Him closely.” St. Katherine Drexel then lived out this prayer by knowing, loving, and following Christ in those around her, especially those she served. The Church has always witnessed to the reality that Christ has a special love for the poor, the little, the vulnerable, those forgotten or overlooked by the majority of society. It is no surprise, then, that St. Katherine Drexel went to the underserved to find Christ.
As Pope Francis points out in Evangelii Gaudium, material comfort can dull our ability to notice the sufferings of others:
Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own…
St. Katherine Drexel never allowed prosperity to blind her to the solidarity of the human family and to the fact that Christ called her to serve her brothers and sisters in need. As missionary evangelizers, we are called to go to the underserved and vulnerable. Not necessarily those at the other end of the globe, the vulnerable are often the children, the elderly, the sick in our own community.
Who are the needy, the vulnerable, that you are called to serve? The elderly affected by an epidemic of loneliness? Those living on the streets? Those seeking adoption or foster families?
For Us: Money is to be Used, Not Stored Up
St. Katherine Drexel’s parents taught her a valuable lesson that’s worth repeating: It is good to have and to create wealth; it’s good for the purpose of sharing it with others. The universal destination of goods, far from being some sort of communist propaganda, is an integral tenet of Christianity. Christ calls us to solidarity. St. Katherine Drexel’s life can be an inspiration for us to evaluate how we are willing to use our fiscal wealth, but also our gifts and talents, to serve others.
At St. Katherine Drexel’s canonization, St. John Paul II said:
With great courage and confidence in God’s grace, she chose to give not just her fortune but her whole life totally to the Lord…. May her example help young people in particular to appreciate that no greater treasure can be found in this world than in following Christ with an undivided heart and in using generously the gifts we have received for the service of others and for the building of a more just and fraternal world.
St. Katherine Drexel’s Intercession
After she suffered a heart attack, St. Katherine Drexel could no longer continue active apostolate, and devoted the final eighteen years of her life largely to Eucharistic Adoration. In these final years, St. Katherine Drexel turned more wholly to what was always her source of meaning and consolation: a relationship with God in the Eucharist.
St. Katherine Drexel’s legacy is one of prayer and service fused together, of a soul that joyfully followed the Holy Spirit on a journey of social justice. As missionary evangelizers and entrepreneurs, let’s imitate her dependence on the Eucharist and selfless gift of money and service, especially for those most in need of justice and mercy. St. Katherine Drexel, pray for us.