Editor's note: March 3 is St. Katharine Drexel's feast day in the Roman Catholic Church.
We cannot control or shape the place of our birth. It gives us our bounds for understanding ourselves on this earth. It is difficult to grow beyond our background to include others who are different within the scope of our compassion. Most often we are inclined to feel loyalty only to people who are similar to us in critical regards.
But when a young heiress from Philadelphia read the book A Century of Dishonor, which detailed the injustices done to Native Americans through America’s colonization of the west, she felt her heart ignited. Giving money wasn’t enough for Katharine Drexel, however, who was born in 1858 into a wealthy and philanthropic family. Once she grew older, St. Katharine dedicated her life to founding schools to educate African and Native Americans, who were so often excluded from American civic life.
Pain followed the heiress from an early age. St. Katherine’s mother died weeks after her birth, and even though her father remarried, her loving stepmother Emma then died following a three year struggle with cancer — but not before she and Katharine’s father, Francis, had taught Katharine and her sisters important lessons in philanthropy. They distributed food weekly and quietly gave to single mothers and others who were too proud to accept help outwardly. Emma taught her daughters that, “kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”
The death of her mother and stepmother had taught Katharine that no amount of money could offer a person a life free from pain. Over her years of ministry until her death in 1955, St. Katharine spent her $20 million dollar inheritance on aiding and educating historically excluded peoples. She founded The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Black and Native American Peoples and in 1915 she founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first — and to this day the only — historically black and Catholic school in the country. At the time of her death, there were 500 Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament teaching in 63 schools for the underprivileged.
Drexel’s faith in Jesus Christ as the savior of all humanity led her to act on the truth that all persons are made in the image of God and are called to holiness, called to partake in the Church Universal.
Each person’s path is different when it comes to what shakes him or her out of complacency and inspires a sense of kindred among all humanity. For St. Katharine, it was Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor, combined with the deaths of her mother and stepmother whom she loved.
For me, Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty cracked into my consciousness and helped me to see just how much beneficence I was born into when she identified eight different types of resources, only one of which was money:
1. Financial Resources – Having the money to purchase goods and services
2. Emotional Resources – Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices.
3. Mental Resources – Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.
4. Spiritual Resources – Believing in divine purpose and guidance.
5. Physical Resources – Having physical health and mobility
6. Support Systems – Having friends, family, and back-up resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources.
7. Relationships & Role Models: Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior.
8. Knowledge of Hidden Rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group.
Looking at this list, it becomes clear that even without money, many of us share in gifts daily that are all too easy to take for granted.
When we realize the answer to Paul’s question, “What do you have that you did not receive?” any pretense of superiority to others must fall away.
St. Katharine took the knowledge and spiritual inspiration of her shared humanity with others and channeled her family’s accumulated fortune for the good of others. But she did more than just give away a certain dollar amount — she put her convictions into a life of practice, a life of seeing excluded peoples as equals, as fellow sharers in the life of God.
To follow her, we must let truth crack our shell of complacency to see others who are different as equally beloved by God.