Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel by Cordelia Frances Biddle
THE LIFE OF SAINT KATHARINE
Acall to the religious life isn’t necessarily experienced in one defining moment. The recipient may feel a persistent, nagging sensation that something special is awaiting them that they don’t quite understand or deserve. Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, struggled for many years with her calling. As a young teen, she kept a diary excoriating herself to be more holy and worthy of God’s love, but the daughter of Philadelphia high society didn’t seriously consider becoming a nun until her mid-twenties, by which time she was known for her beauty, intelligence, and conversational skills — attributes that attracted no shortage of male suitors. At first she wasn’t sure she was meant to enter the novitiate at all, and then later she wrestled with whether to be a contemplative or a missionary nun. Ultimately, she chose the latter and then founded her own order so that she could do God’s work by establishing schools for Native and African-Americans, including Xavier University in New Orleans and St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe.
“As her sense of call developed, she realized she had this pragmatic, driven nature, and that she needed to start these schools, because no one else was doing it,” said her biographer, Cordelia Frances Biddle, author of Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel. Mother Katharine was canonized as a saint in 2000, 45 years after her death, but, Biddle told Pasatiempo, “She wasn’t a saint from the beginning, and it was absolutely necessary to put her in historical context.”
Mother Katharine was born Catherine Drexel in 1858 in Philadelphia, and she was called Kitty while she was growing up during the Civil War. She had an older sister, Elizabeth, and a younger half-sister, Louise, who was born after their father married his second wife, Emma. His first wife, Hannah, died several weeks after Katharine’s birth. Elizabeth and Katharine were raised by their aunt and uncle for the next few years, and returned to their father’s house after he remarried. Katharine didn’t learn that the nervous Emma wasn’t her birth mother until she was thirteen. Katharine’s father, Frank, was the son of Francis Martin Drexel, an Austrian immigrant who was first a painter and then went on to create Drexel & Co., a financial institution that built such
Sentiments against teaching Native and African-Americans to read and write were so strong that many of Mother Katharine’s schools in the southern United States were set on fire in protest.
vast wealth that vestiges of it still exist. Katharine’s cousin, Emilie, married Edward Biddle in 1872, and for generations, many members of these two prominent clans have lived comfortably without much need to work. Emilie’s father, Anthony, who was also Cordelia Biddle’s great-great-grandfather, founded Drexel University in Philadelphia.
A family trust was broken so that when Biddle’s father died, the money reverted to the university instead of to his children. “So instead of inheriting that money,” Biddle said, “I didn’t. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. Certainly we’d all like to be rolling in dough, but I think Drexel University is an extraordinary place.” Biddle is an adjunct instructor there, and she also writes historical mysteries about an heiress in 1840s Philadelphia. She is attracted to the era’s heightened dichotomy between wealth and poverty. Writing about her cousin, Katharine, who dealt with similar themes in her life, was a natural fit. In the elegant and riveting biography, Biddle highlights the stark contrast between Katharine’s vow of poverty — she used her multimillion-dollar inheritance to fund schools, and wore the same pair of shoes for 10 years — and her extended family’s extravagances. Though her sisters were supportive, the cousins of Katharine’s generation considered her hopelessly bohemian and odd. Katharine, after all, chose to educate people whom the populace would have preferred be kept ignorant. Sentiments against teaching Native and African-Americans to read and write were so strong that many of Mother Katharine’s schools in the southern United States were set on fire in protest. She did much of her work during the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The details of the virulent racism that was commonplace at the time provide a harsh lesson in just how much white people hated and feared their former slaves and their progeny. The biography is an important chronicle in the history of education in the United States. It also provides a relevant through-line to the continuing reactions of marginalized peoples to the history of racial oppression in this country.
“White people couldn’t understand how ‘those people,’ who had for centuries been non-people, could suddenly be equals,” Biddle said. Her research introduced her to graphic details of lynchings, which brought out a blood lust in white witnesses that she hadn’t previously grasped. She also came across broadsheets that circulated throughout the South after the war, advertising jobs in the Caribbean for freed slaves. “They were taken on ships to Brazil where they were enslaved again in the gold mines. That just took my breath away,” she said.
St. Catherine’s Indian School, established in Santa Fe in 1887 for the education of Pueblo boys — before Katharine entered the convent — didn’t initially succeed and soon closed. In 1894, once Mother Katharine’s order had a handful of sisters who had professed their final vows, she and Sister Mary Evangelista set out for New Mexico to get the school up and running again. It is important to note that there was no mission of converfor sion the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. “Katharine saw her work as what she believed God was calling her to do, and she saw this only as education,” Biddle said. “She understood that the only way Indians could succeed in the white man’s world was to have an education. She had an ongoing battle with the government. They didn’t want to give Indians an education at all.”
St. Catherine’s was named after St. Catherine of Siena and referred to affectionately by students and locals as St. Kate’s. Located on eighteen acres off Paseo de Peralta, near the Rosario and Santa Fe National cemeteries, it closed due to financial difficulty in 1998 and is now privately owned. There are ongoing legal conflicts regarding what to do with the property, which has fallen into decay and is fenced-off to trespassers. Alumni became tribal leaders, artists, scholars, and respected professionals, and the school is integral to the historical fabric of the Southwest, as is St. Michael’s Indian School in Arizona, which opened in 1902 for students of the Navajo Nation. Mother Katharine made annual trips to both schools throughout her life.
Biddle describes her cousin as never at rest, always hurtling back and forth across the country by train, which was when she indulged her penchant for writing. Katharine was a prolific writer from childhood on. She kept multiple diaries at all times and was an avid correspondent with friends and relatives. Biddle had access to her papers through the archives at the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
“She was a very humble person,” Biddle said. “Even though she was dynamic and driven, she didn’t want anyone to know her story. She didn’t make speeches. There were times when I was writing that I felt like she was stopping me. It wasn’t writer’s block; it was bigger than that. A couple of times I had to say ‘Now listen, Katharine, this story needs to be told. It’s not about you — it’s about history and your mission.’ And then she let me continue. But I think she was right there with me, fretting over it.”
“Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel” by Cordelia Frances Biddle is published by Westholme.
St. Catherine’s School, Rosario Chapel, and National Cemetery, circa 1950, photo Tyler Dingee, Neg. No. 074126; inset, left to right, students in classroom at St. Catherine’s, circa 1945, photo Tyler Dingee, Neg. No. 120234; Cochití Pueblo students at chapel, St. Catherine’s, circa 1945, Neg. No. 120417; students performing dance at St. Catherine’s, circa 1920-1930, photo T. Harmon Parkhurst, Neg. No 031831, all photos this page courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA); opposite page, a formal portrait of Mother Katharine later in life, courtesy and copyright the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
Aerial view of St. Catherine’s Indian School, circa 1975, Neg. No. HP.2014.14.1430, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA); middle, Katharine Drexel at sixteen; top, Mother Mercedes O’Connor (left) and Mother Katharine (right) with Navajos, courtesy and copyright the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament