Living Catholic Social Teaching: Mother Katharine Drexel

In this week’s Spirit magazine, we read about Father Augustine Tolton, the first full-blooded African-American priest in the United States. When the African American Catholic community in Chicago that Tolton served purchased land to build a new church, Mother Katharine Drexel helped financially. This past fall, a colleague of mine introduced me to the life story of Katharine Drexel, a woman whose own life teaches “profound lessons about the responsibility of privilege and the irresponsibility of prejudice.”*

4403169039_2451f1599e_mKatharine was born in 1858 into wealth and privilege as one of three daughters of Francis Anthony Drexel, owner of the banking firm Drexel & Co. As a young woman, she was able to travel extensively and to socialize with other well-to-do families of the time. When her father died in 1885, she and her two sisters inherited approximately fourteen million dollars of their father’s estate. Having seen their parents’ heavy involvement in charitable work, Katharine and her two sisters founded and supported various charities.

A few years later, Katharine decided that supporting charities monetarily was not enough for her. She became a nun, imposing strict poverty on herself while retaining control of her inheritance. She wanted to keep control of her inheritance so that she could make decisions about which charities and causes to support with it. As it turned out, Katharine ended up becoming a living example of the Catholic social teaching of a preferential option for the poor (before this phrase was coined), giving her money to some of the communities that were most overlooked by other white Americans at the time. She also believed in the dignity of all human beings and their necessary equality as children of God in a time when prejudice was more common than not.

In her many travels, Katharine had become interested in the Native American missions, that is, outreach from the Catholic church to Native American communities. Wishing to support the education of Native American children, Katharine bought land, build and funded schools, and paid tuition for children and salaries for the priest and nuns who worked at the schools. In 1900, Katharine was giving $100,000 a year to support the Native American missions, while all other Catholics in the entire Untied States combined gave less than $75,000.**

At this time in the United States, even less financial support was given to Catholic African American communities by the larger Catholic church and white Catholic parishes and individuals. Here, too, Katharine was moved by a desire that all of God’s children receive an education and have a place to worship God. She established a school in Philadelphia and, as noted above, helped to fund churches and schools in Chicago and up and down the eastern seaboard. She also established Xavier Academy in New Orleans in 1915, the first and only Catholic college for African Americans in the United States. In 1891, Augustine Tolton wrote to Katharine, saying, “One thing I do know and that is it took the Catholic church 100 years here in America to show up such a person as yourself.”***

In addition to funding schools and churches, Katharine also found a creative way to combat the racism embedded in the Catholic church. All of her donations came with a Recapture Clause, which meant that she could reclaim the donated money if it was not being used for the purposes for which it was given. Further, her donations came with stipulations. For instances, if she supported the building of a church, she required the church to reserve whole aisles for African Americans instead of roping off a few pews in the back.

Mother Katharine Drexel was canonized a saint of the Catholic church on October 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II. Mother Katharine’s life speaks to us as Americans, as citizens of the world’s wealthiest nation. Wealth means power, and people can use their power for good or for bad. Katharine chose to use her wealth to work for the good, to help educate those who were least likely to get an education. Further, I think her story is particularly relevant in combination with the story we read about Augustine Tolton in this week’s Spirit magazine, as it helps us to see that overcoming racism is not just a battle for people of color (and overcoming sexism is not just for women, overcoming heterosexism is not just for GLBT individuals, and overcoming ableism is not just for the differently-abled, etc.). Insuring that the dignity of all people is respected is the work of all faithful people. It takes all of us working together to live out Catholic social teaching and to eradicate the forces of hate that still lurk in our world.

What lessons do you take from the lives of Katharine Drexel and Augustine Tolton?

What can you do to use the power you have to work for good? How can you live out Catholic social teaching, as Katharine did?


*Patricia Lipperini, “Privileged to Educate: Katharine Drexel and Catholic Social Teaching: An Embodied Pedagogy,” paper given at the Religious Education Association, November 2012.

** Mary J. Oates, “Mother Mary Katharine Drexel,” in Women Educators in the United States, 1820-1993: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, ed. Maxine Schwartz Seller (Westport CN: Greenwood Press, 1994).

*** Quoted in Cyprian Davis O.S.B., The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: Crossroad, 1990).

Photos courtesy of  A.Currell  via Creative Commons License


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