Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel by Cordelia Frances Biddle


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Jen­nifer Levin The New Mex­i­can

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

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