A Saint Among Us

St. Katharine Drexel

This is an ideal spot. We are staying with the nuns here, in the atmosphere of the old Franciscan Mission. Their houses are wonderfully built, with walls at least two feet thick. They knew how to build for this climate. The bright sun is baking hot at 2 p.m., the time I am writing, but inside it is comfortable. One does not think of the weather at all, as one is neither too hot or too cold. There are real Franciscan Fathers in charge of the grand old Church of St. Xavier del Bac, which has been repaired by the Bishop, as in the times of the Friars of three centuries ago.

--Letter from Mother Katharine Drexel, October 21, 1916, to her sister, Louise Drexel Morrell, written at San Xavier del Bac, Arizona.


DREXEL HILL, PENNSYLVANIA, is close in to Philadelphia, a 1920s suburb of solid brick and stone three-story houses. The tree-lined blocks stretch out in a grid from the hill that gives the borough its name, looping around a cemetery that accommodates the graves of early 19th-century German farmers. Before the Germans came here, these were English Quaker lands, granted by William Penn, and before that they were the woods and fields of the Lenni Lenape Indians. But in the latter 19th century the land belonged to the Drexels.

In 1858, Anthony Drexel and his wife Ellen brought home two little nieces to their country house on the high hill. They were orphans whose mother had died weeks after giving birth to her second child, Catherine Mary. For two years the girls lived with the Drexels on the hill, as well as in their city townhouse, until their wealthy father brought home a new wife. The daughters, and a third sister, lived on Drexel Hill again briefly years later, when they were well and truly orphans, having lost mother, stepmother and father.

Later the Drexel land was ceded to the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and a huge towered orphanage supplanted the country house. Generations of orphans, not so well-heeled as the Drexel girls, came there to live in the care of nuns, until orphanages fell out of fashion. The big place then became Archbishop Prendergast High School for Girls, an institution that educated the daughters of the Irish and Italian-Americans now living in the neat blocks of houses nearby. My four sisters and I all went there. In those days, a stone gatehouse was all that remained of the Drexel estate, but we heard tales that it had been the home of Mother Mary Katharine Drexel, the motherless orphan having taken on a matriarchal title. (She reversed the order of her names when she entered religious life, and changed the spelling of Catherine to Katharine.)

Katharine was famous in Philadelphia for a life whose romantic outlines already had given it the shape of myth. She had been a fabulously wealthy heiress who took the veil and gave her fortune to charity. And the order of nuns she founded, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, in a then lily-white Catholic Church ministered to African-Americans and Native Americans. In fact, when she took her religious vows she proclaimed herself "the Mother and Servant of the Indian and Negro Races." The high school girls all knew she was someone different, but it didn't occur to us that when we wandered the campus we were tracing the pathways toddled by a baby saint.

"Our Lord has given me the greatest consolation in the fervor of the Sisters at St. Michael's (Arizona) and St. Catherine's (New Mexico). I did enjoy my visits in both places. We had a picnic in each--amongst the Navajos in a wild canyon, where abrupt rocks rose up in walls 100 or more feet high--at Santa Fe, on a mountain, high up, where Santa Fe looked like a toy, and the expanse of wild mountain ranges were spread out on the distant horizon.

--Letter from Mother Katharine Drexel, early 1900s.


KATHARINE DREXEL BECAME America's newest saint on October 1, only the second native-born American ever to get the honor. (St. Elizabeth Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity and the architect of Catholic parochial schools, is the other.) A whole contingent of Blessed Sacrament nuns, more than 100 strong, flew to Rome for the canonization, including 13 who still labor in Arizona missions founded by Drexel at the turn of the 20th century.

Pope John Paul II has made a point of canonizing more saints than any preceding pope, and his designees tend to be people active in the modern world. Katharine Drexel died only in 1955 at the age of 97, recently enough that scores of people still living can testify to firsthand contact with her. And in a sense her work was worldly. She spent her wealth, by some estimates $20 million, on good works for the poor. She gave money to a host of Catholic Indian schools, including the little school at San Xavier del Bac. She visited Tucson's Bishop Salpointe there in 1894, and pronounced his humble home the "abode of a missionary and a saint." She founded many of her own schools for Indians and blacks, such as the academy that evolved into Xavier University, the first black Catholic university. Her St. Catherine's boarding school in Santa Fe operated for more than 100 years, serving Pueblos and Navajos until it closed for lack of nuns just a few years ago. St. Michael's near Window Rock is still going strong after 98 years, switching from a boarding to a day school, and sending an astonishing 90 percent of its mostly Navajo grads on to college.

These achievements in themselves were not enough for sainthood in the Catholic Church. Katharine had to perform the requisite two miracles before she was ready for canonization. She was credited with restoring hearing to two incurably deaf children. In the ways of the modern church, the inexplicable cures had to be verified by a team of doctors, which deliberately included several Jewish ear-nose-and-throat men, the idea being that non-Catholics are less likely to entertain the idea of miracles. Nevertheless, Katharine's sainthood rests primarily on the perception that she was a civil rights pioneer.

"When a person is canonized, she becomes a model for us to emulate," Sister Kathleen Kajer, principal of St. Michael's elementary school, tells me in her office. "She was for social justice, for the rights of the individual. She wanted every child to have an opportunity for a good education. And she taught that wealth is not for oneself, but for others."

In her own time, Drexel was progressive, even radical. Her contemporary, Rev. Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), America's first black priest, had to study in Rome when he was rejected as a student by every American seminary. Most American nuns ministered to the children of white Catholic immigrants, and in Drexel's own city, Philadelphia, nuns had plenty to do keeping up with the tide of Irish kids. Katharine was different, drawn toward people who until then were largely outside the scope of a racially divided Catholic Church.

But she was a missionary first and foremost, and her highest goal was to win new converts to Catholicism. She was a letter writer as only a well-brought up young lady in the 19th century could be, and her voluminous correspondence reveals her steadfast determination to baptize new souls for Christ. Every year, until she suffered a heart attack at 77, the peripatetic nun journeyed by train and wagon from her motherhouse in suburban Philadelphia to her Indian missions in the West or to her black schools in the South, Midwest and East. On these rigorous trips she wrote letters, and back at home she wrote to her nuns in mission. Always amusing and well written, full of descriptions of the American landscape, the letters testify to her deep faith. While she always speaks affectionately of the children in her mission schools, the language she uses to describe them is painful to a modern ear.

In a letter to the nuns at St. Michael's dated May 2, 1904, she characteristically enthuses about native crafts. "I rejoiced to see the attempts at Navajo blankets (made by students) -- I regard the samples sent as a glorious promise of future results --seeds as it were of beautiful flowers." Then she goes on: "God bless the dear ones who taught the little pagans so patiently."

She admired the Franciscans in Southern Arizona, writing in 1916 that "The Papagoes (sic) went naked when they first came to see them. Now they are clothed, and a thousand pagans became Christian."

Reports back to the motherhouse from sisters in her Arizona mission are full of tales of the slow progress of baptisms, of their efforts to get the Navajos to give up their "pagan" ways.

The Catholics were not alone among Christians in evangelizing Navajos at the turn of the century. Presbyterians, Christian Brethren and Methodists all competed with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indian souls to save. (In fact the Christian Brethren made an official complaint to the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the inroads the Catholics were making at Fort Defiance, Ariz.). In a 1996 article in The Journal of Arizona History, historian Sally J. Southwick writes that the Catholics at St. Michael's were actually more accommodating to local culture than the Protestants were. Their school trained the kids in such traditional Navajo handicrafts as rug weaving, and its vacation calendar accommodated sheepherding families' needs to have their children home at lambing time. Religious instruction was in the native language; the Franciscan fathers Katharine had lured to nearby St. Michael's mission had composed the first Navajo dictionary.

Nevertheless, Southwick concludes that all four religious groups "cooperated in furthering the government's goal of transforming the Navajos by supplanting tribal culture." Many Native Americans prize the education they got at St. Michael's and St. Catherine's. For others, though, even the most benevolent missionary schools were just one more form of white cultural imperialism. Navajo UA prof Irvin Morris, whose mother spent years at both schools, says that she spent the rest of her life "trying to reclaim her childhood" and re-build her Navajo identity.

Drexel's canonization, and her life story, make a fascinating prism for viewing changing ideas about race in America. One generation's progressivism is another's paternalism. And the schools themselves changed. Nowadays, St. Michael's not only celebrates native culture and teaches the Navajo language, it casually accepts students of any religion.

The sun had sunk an hour or more behind the red sandstone cliffs before we reached the Mission. The stillness of the twilight in that ocean of sand stretching far away melting in the distant horizon tinged with the red of the departed sun, was almost palpable. It was easy to say the rosary, one seemed so alone with God, so far away from creatures.

--Letter from Mother Katharine Drexel, October 1902, written at St. Michael's.


IT'S A DAMP, cloudy day at Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation. Gray clouds have marred the blue skies and thrown the big red sandstone cliffs into shadow. The sloping golden meadows, punctuated by low evergreens, take on an autumnal look.

The chill pierces St. Michael Indian School, too, tucked into the hollow of a hill just south of town. Nevertheless, there's an air of excitement around the old brown fieldstone building, constructed by Navajo workers almost 100 years ago. Teenagers are milling about, chattering gleefully. The high school, tucked into a glass wing angled onto the stone building at mid-century, is having its last school day before an unprecedented holiday. Call it canonization vacation.

So many of the school's nuns--and three lucky high school seniors--were attending the Rome festivities that school had to shut down for a week and a half. The teens are shy about giving an opinion on all the hubbub, but Tyrel Eastridge, a sophomore, offers, "I think it's pretty neat that the woman who did this school is getting canonized."

Over in the chapel, a cluster of eighth graders, Navajos all, is practicing a liturgical ceremony they're planning for October 9, after the St. Michael's nuns get back from Rome. As Sister Barbara says, that will be the first time that the school community can speak of their founder as Saint Katharine. The 1926 chapel is a classic European-style church, but Navajo blankets have been wrapped around its plaster Mary and Joseph, and the altar is draped with an embroidered Indian cloth. The kids are in typical teenage duds--jeans and shirts, but tidy, no pictures allowed on T-shirts--but on the day of the event they'll wear traditional Navajo dress: velvet overblouses and broomstick skirts for the girls, headbands, shirts and pants for the boys.

They carry eagle feathers and shells filled with cedar chips, which will be lit to give off incense. They walk slowly down the aisle. Two girls on the altar begin reading the Blessing of the Four Directions. "Oh Creator God, may the rising sun remind us of you," intones one. "Help us to follow your path."

The setting may be Catholic but the ceremony is pure Navajo. Sister Barbara, a sister of St. Agnes who lives with Drexel's Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Michael's Convent, tells the kids she's pleased with their liturgical paces. "You are part of a long tradition at St. Michael's," she reminds them. Along with the Navajo Blessing of the Four Directions, the October 9 celebration will feature readings about helping the poor, keyed into St. Katharine's works. Sister Barbara sees no contradiction between Catholic and Navajo practice.

"This is a Navajo ceremony, and these are native prayers," she says to me later. "It enhances the Catholic liturgy. I find that Navajo prayers mesh very will with the liturgy."

It's an ecumenical idea that might have raised eyebrows in Drexel's time.

The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and Colored.

--Letter from Catherine Drexel, March 19, 1889, to her spiritual advisor, Bishop O'Connor.


ON NOVEMBER 26, 1858, Catherine Mary Drexel was born in Philadelphia into a nexus of wealth and privilege that stretches even to present times. Her family was the wealthiest in the city and when her father, Francis Drexel, died in 1885, his estate of $15.5 million was the largest yet recorded. The son of an Austrian immigrant painter, Drexel was a self-made man, a partner with his two brothers in Drexel and Company, the banking firm their father founded. This high-stakes outfit would survive as Drexel, Burnham, Lambert until the junk bond scandals sent it up in smoke 10 years ago.

Catherine's mother, of German Philadelphia farming stock, died shortly after giving birth to the little girl known as Kate, but the stepmother who would raise her was Emma Bouvier, daughter of a French immigrant cabinetmaker who made his fortune in land speculation. A few generations later another branch of the family would produce Jacqueline Bouvier, future wife of President John F. Kennedy.

Baby Catherine may have been born with a proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but the nation's festering racial woes would shape her life's work. In 1858, the legal enslavement of African-Americans was about to tear the country apart and American Indians were dying in the name of Manifest Destiny. Kate was 3 when the Civil War broke out, and 5 when the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. In 1864, when she was 6, Kit Carson crushed Navajo resistance to white incursions into their Southwest lands, and forced them to take the infamous Long Walk to captivity in New Mexico. At least 5,000 Navajos died there, before winning the right to return four years later to their own lands, where they struggled for years to rebuild their lives.

Tutored at home in a mansion, pampered at the family's summer farm, taken to Europe more than once for the Grand Tour, Kate and her two sisters were insulated from such troubles. But at home the girls ingested a steady diet not only of religion but of the charitable duties of the rich. Emma Bouvier Drexel was a fervent Catholic who opened her home to the city's poor three days a week. She paid rents, bought clothes, sent along groceries, whatever it took to ease the temporal cares of the wretched, particularly the flood of impoverished Irish immigrants who'd washed into the City of Brotherly Love. Their father, Francis, founded an orphanage for boys, and their Uncle Anthony started Drexel Institute, which over the years evolved into a university whose work-study programs still give the city's working class the chance for a higher education.

The girls were exceedingly pious, though their religiosity didn't keep a young Kate from begging her mother for pierced ears in a letter, or having a temper tantrum on a trolley car. The three girls all made extravagant debuts, and Kate, admired for her mane of chestnut hair, turned down at least one suitor. She had other plans. After nursing her stepmother through a ghastly course of cancer, which ended in death in 1883, 25-year-old Kate pledged herself to religious life.

Francis Drexel died two years later, and his sudden death left his three daughters almost unbelievably wealthy. According to the terms of a will meant to ward off fortune hunters, none would ever inherit the principal of his $15.5 million estate, but they were to control equal shares of its considerable interest during their lifetimes. The money gave all three women, in their 20s by this time, the means to embark on charitable careers. They were soon visited by two hopeful priests raising funds for the Bureau of Catholic Missions. Having seen some of the poverty among American Indians on a western trip by private railway car the previous year, Kate persuaded her sisters to put some Drexel money into the project of bringing education and Catholicism to the Indians.

Not long after, on a European tour, she had a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. When she asked him for priests to staff her new Indian missions, he suggested, "Why, my child, don't you, yourself, become a missionary?" Her path became clear.

Her spiritual advisor, Bishop O'Connor, already impressed by her considerable Drexel business acumen, persuaded her to start her own order and thereby control the allocations of her father's millions. She did just that, in 1891. Three years later she would dispatch her first sisters to open St. Catherine's in Santa Fe. Two years after that she would buy 200 hundred acres of land at St. Michael's.

The lay world took shocked note of her decision. The Philadelphia Public Ledger exclaimed, "Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent. Gives Up Seven Million!"

Walk after supper with Mother Ignatius and me in the moonlight, and how bright it is in that rarefied air seven thousand feet or more above sea level! It is full moon and yet the stars twinkle distinctly in the deep blue heavens. We have no need of a lantern, to see the path at the foot of the sandy hill, and even its low bushy evergreen bushes are visible as well as the meadow where seven or eight horses roused by our footfalls lazily saunter or turn their necks toward us to observe who goes by.

--Letter from Mother Katharine Drexel, October 1902, written at St. Michael's.


School secretary Norma Herrera presides in a well-lighted office at St. Michael's High School. She's handled more than one reporter in recent months. The Philadelphia papers have all made the trek to the windy bluff near Window Rock, and so have CNN, the Albuquerque television news and Arizona Highways. Herrera's roots at St. Michael's run a little deeper than the recent media interest does. She's a Navajo Catholic who's in a three-generation St. Michael's family.

"I went here K-12," she says proudly. "I graduated in 1985. I'm second generation. My mother went to school here. My aunts graduated from here. And my three kids are in elementary here. My three sisters all went here. My older sister has her only daughter here, and my other sister met her husband here."

The small private school (the high school this year enrolled 177) provides a better education than a big public school can, she says. "Everybody knows everybody. The teachers take an interest. We have a reputation as being hard, but it's good. A lot go on to college." Herrera herself went to the UA for three years, but came back home to get married and have children.

The mostly white nuns and lay teachers "respect traditional Navajo teachings and ways," she says. She's heard all the stories about the tough old days, when St. Michael's was a boarding school.

"My mother was a boarding student here. I think she graduated around 1964. They were really strict back then. The nuns would spank kids' hands with rulers and pull kids' hair. But she developed good study habits here. My mom went on to nursing school. She always says if it wasn't for the study habits she was taught here, she wouldn't have made it. When it came to her kids, there was no other place but St. Michael's."

Irvin Morris, a professor of English and American Indian Studies at the UA, is less sanguine about his family's experience with St. Michael's. His mother, Angela Morris, was born in the Navajo village of Naschitti in 1928. She went to both St. Michael's and St. Catherine's from the time she was 6 or 8.

"It was the midst of the Depression and everyone was suffering," says Morris, who is considering writing his mother's life story. St. Michael's grew their own produce in those days, putting the boys to work in the fields, and Morris suspects his grandparents consented to send Angela away for economic reasons. She'd get fed, and they'd have one less child at home. The school regularly sent out a wagon to pick her up.

"She was very young. They were made to work in the kitchen. They were punished for speaking their language. One nun was called Lightning. They never knew when she was going to strike."

The manual labor component of the school day was dropped years ago, Sister Kathleen Kajer says. It was originally conceived as an inducement for the Navajos to send their children to the nuns. When Mother Katherine proposed the school to Navajo headmen in 1900, one leader complained that children returned home from the government boarding schools unfit for reservation life. The work afternoons were the solution. Katharine, in keeping with the ideas of the black educator Booker T. Washington, believed that students should get an education that might actually get them jobs and improve their economic lot. That meant mornings devoted to school learning and afternoons to manual labor, the boys in the fields and the girls in the kitchens.

Sister Loyola, a St. Michael's nun who devotes her energies to an early-bird intervention program for preschoolers, sighs when asked about the past.

"We were coming from a different culture," she says in the convent one evening. "Here, things happened, cutting hair, everything was in English. I've heard from the old Indians that part of their day was industrial -- . They were trying to help them make it, just as we are now, teaching them academics -- . It was with good intentions, done in good faith."

Angela Morris' family pulled her out of the mission school after the 10th grade, judging that it was time for her to marry. Her son believes that she spent a lifetime putting back together her Navajo identity.

"When she got older, she re-adapted. She took on a traditional life, and dress and speech. You wouldn't know she'd had that experience."

Angela, who died three years ago, apparently rejected the Catholicism the nuns taught her. She raised her son as a Baptist.

"I've often wondered what my own life would have been like if my mother had grown up traditional," Morris says. "I don't feel grounded."

God bless you all! See what good, your being good has done --it has enabled me to remain and I trust help the Sisters and help the Indian children.

--Letter from Mother Katherine, from somewhere in the West, circa 1918.


Burton Penn, an 84-year-old retired postal worker in Tucson, says he went to a Drexel school for black children back in Cincinnati. His father had abandoned his mother, Bessie Hayes Penn, leaving her to raise their six children and a niece and nephew. She worked as a laundress and hotel maid. Her kids had to make a long walk across town to the segregated public school designated for black children, and they often warded off white bulllies along the way. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament opened up Holy Trinity, a school for black children right across the street from the Penns' home. Asked if she wanted to send her kids there, she replied, "By all means."

Mrs. Penn was so grateful for the changes the school made in her family's life, she converted from the Baptist faith to the Catholic, and her son did too. (He's a member of Tucson's Holy Family parish.) Relief from Catholic Charities helped her and her brood weather the Depression.

Like other graduates of Catholic schools, Penn remembers strict discipline. "They corrected you. If you did something wrong, you'd get whipped on the hands."

As a small child, Penn actually met the future saint on one of her annual perambulations across the country. "She'd sit in the classroom and then go out in the yard," he remembers. "I was with the group in the yard. She came out and sat in the yard and pitched candy to us. She was impressive, stern, but in a nice way."

Burton Penn, now disabled by emphysema, went on to a black Catholic high school. "I thought the education I got was well worthwhile. The sisters encouraged us more so; the public schools might not have encouraged us to succeed."

The segregated schools, public and Catholic, disappeared, at least officially, after the war, but Penn is not so naïve to believe that racism has disappeared even within the church. Still he admires St. Katharine. He prayed to her when his grown son became hooked on drugs, and he credits her with helping his son get clean. Her picture hangs on his wall.

"I think that if anyone deserves to be a saint, she does. Take a person who is in the mainstream, and she takes on the education of blacks and Indians. That's wonderful. There's a lot of pleasure in that."

Margaret Regan wishes to thank Stephanie Morris, Ph.D., archivist of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who provided letters and historic photos. Regan also consulted the books Katharine Drexel: A Biography by Sister Consuela Marie Duffy, S.B.S (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, 1966) and A Call to Sanctity by Lou Baldwin (The Catholic Standard and Times, 1987).

The historic photos were photographed by Bob Bordon, Phanta Corp., Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

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