Spirituality for Today – January 2009 – Volume 13, Issue 6

The Day a Saint Came to Corpus Christi

By Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

She arrived on an ordinary day. And like most ordinary days in Corpus Christi, it must have been hot for a woman draped in a floor-length black habit sitting in a pre-climate controlled car. I have often wondered what St. Katharine Drexel thought about as she rode around Corpus Christi looking for that suitable plot of land that was her latest pet project. Did the Texas sun make her eyes narrow to tiny slits every time she got out of the car? Did someone offer her a cool glass of water? More importantly, did she experience the same insults she and her other sisters often experienced in their years of ministry to Native and Afro-Americans?

A black and white photo of Saint Katharine DrexelSt. Katharine Drexel

Yet this day would in one sense be extra ordinary. This saint in the making crossed into our city limits and with her presence shared her vision of the kingdom of God. Then she gifted us with a visible sign-a new church named Holy Cross; a legacy of compassion that was the hallmark of her calling as a religious. Yet who was she-this one time heiress turned religious? Who was this woman who gave away her vast fortune of 20 million dollars so that thousands of America's forgotten poor might live in their God-given dignity?

Her biography is simple enough. Katharine's mother died shortly after she was born. Francis Drexel, her father remarried and Katharine's stepmother, Emma Bouvier, became part of a family not only of immense wealth but also one of long standing spirituality and charity to the poor. This wealth sent the family on trips that gave Katharine as a child her first painful encounters with Native Americans. Years later, Katharine pleaded with Pope Leo XIII during a private audience to send missionaries to the Indians, only to be told, "But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?" When Father James O'Conner, a long time family friend, counseled Katharine to start her own religious order, Katharine's response would not only impact the American social and political landscape, she would help shape American Catholicism.

Light years before the term "social justice" entered the American mainstream vocabulary, Katharine was touring the country building schools and parishes for the outcastes of our society. Retaliation often came as a result. For example, her sisters who had opened a school in Beaumont were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. However, it seems God would have the last say because a few days later a thunderstorm destroyed the Klan's headquarters.

Schools, important as they are, are still empty buildings without trained teachers. So Katharine set about filling that need by establishing what would become Xavier University.

Impressive as her journey to greatness is, Katharine may also have another lesson to teach us. I found it interesting that the two miracles that led to her beatification and canonization involved young people and both of them were cured of some form of deafness. Perhaps she is reminding us how often young people's needs are not truly being heard.

Katharine Drexel lived a life of heroic generosity. Yet God called her to more than mere monetary giving; her most precious gift was the gift of self in service to others. These others had much to say of her generous heart—not only was she holy; she was happy.