I shall instruct you and teach you the way to go; I shall not take my eyes off you. Psalm 32:8
You have heard the voice of God.
You may not be aware of it, but God is speaking to you. He is calling you to come to him. He yearns for you and wants to give you the gift of himself. He whispers his desire for you in your heart, and you may sense his voice as a deep-seated, unfulfilled longing. He calls you to respond by giving yourself to him. Because he loves you, he wants you to offer yourself freely, so he does not command or force you. Rather he invites you, speaking to you softly through family, friends, choices, failures, circumstances, desires, and many other initiatives of grace. He speaks especially through your desires because they reflect his desire for you.
Sometimes he calls a person to a specific service, perhaps as a priest, a minister, a religious, or a missionary. But he calls most of us to serve in worldly enterprises where we can make him present in family, jobs, service, politics, and play. He may be asking you to do something for him, possibly to devote more time to prayer and helping others.
God called St. Katharine Drexel to a special work, the founding of a religious community that would serve Native Americans and African-Americans. As you read about the ways that God spoke to her, listen carefully. You may hear him say something to you.
To many twenty-first-century minds that are preoccupied with self and stuff, St. Katharine Drexel is an enigma. An heiress to a huge fortune who could have had anything she desired and done anything she wanted, she preferred poverty to wealth, simplicity to extravagance, praying to partying, and service to self-importance. Once a lovely debutante, a prize for wealthy suitors, an attractive socialite who could have dominated the Philadelphia scene, she instead spent her life and her millions serving the most marginalized people in America. In a real sense Katharine got everything she desired and did everything she wanted, for she had her heart set on loving God, and he called her to give her all for African-Americans and Native Americans (or Indians, which was the name commonly used at the time).
I regard Katharine Drexel as an icon of the appropriate human response to Gods call. My reflection on her spiritual pathway has opened me to listen more attentively for the diverse ways God is speaking to me. Happily married for forty years and the proud father of a large family (with an ever-expanding supply of grandchildren), I dont expect him to reorient my primary vocation. But I suspect God has some things to say to me about being a husband and father, and I want to be sure to pick up his signals. It helps me to watch St. Katharine struggling to figure out what God wanted of her, because I also struggle with discerning where he is leading me. And just as she matched her will to his by considering her desires, circumstances, relationships, and opportunities, I want to do the same.
God first called Katharine through her family. During her childhood, her father, Francis A. Drexel, amassed great wealth in his banking business. We might fairly expect the Drexels to match the stereotype of the nouveaux richesshowy, materialistic, self-absorbed, elitist, and arrogant. But they did not fit this patternfar from it. Kate, as she was called, had been born into a family strongly shaped by Christian values that affluence did not distort or erode.
Amassing millions did not divert Francis Drexel from his sense of Christian purpose. He looked at life through the lens of an eternal perspective. In 1858, for example, upon the loss of his first wife, who died five weeks after Kates birth, he wrote to a friend about his faith: If I know myself I am resigned to the dispensation of the Almighty. His will in all things be done for he ordereth all things wisely and well . I have every assurance that my beloved one has gone to her heavenly home. Francis cultivated his faith with a regimen of spiritual disciplines, including half an hour of private prayer each day when he returned home from the office.
In 1860 Francis married Emma Bouvier, who cared tenderly for Kate and her sister Elizabeth, and later her sister Louise, who was born to Francis and Emma in 1863. When the girls were old enough, Emma often took them to weekday Mass. There, a love for Christ in the Eucharist infected young Kate with a healthy contagion that later became a hallmark of her spirituality. Emma designated a special room in the Drexel home for personal prayer. Francis and Emma gathered there nightly with their daughters to close the day with the rosary. Praying was like breathing, recalled Katharine many years later:
There was no compulsion, no obligation. It was natural to pray . We were usually in bed by eight oclock, when we were children. Then in our little night-dresses we would go to the top of the stairs and call down, Mama! Papa! Then Papa would leave his organ or his paper and Mama her writing, and both at the call of the children would come up and kneel for night prayers in the little oratory.
Francis and Emma regarded themselves as stewards of the wealth God had bestowed on them, and they shared generously with the poor. Several days each week, Emma welcomed needy people at her door, giving them food, clothing, and money. She trained Kate and her sisters for Christian service by having them help with this distribution. And she expected them to contribute their own money to the work. Emma called this her Dorcas ministry, named for the disciple described in the Acts of the Apostles as never tired of doing good or giving to those in need. Like this namesake, Emma was a tireless giver. Every year she distributed to the poor as much as twenty thousand dollars, plus rent for 150 families, which in the early years of the twentieth century was a very large sum of money.
As a teenager Katharine kept notebooks that show how the Drexel family spirituality had captivated her. Like her father, already in her youth she saw eternity gleaming through earthly things. Many teens love God, but few are able to share young Katharines precocious gift for expressing spiritual realities. The mountains before us, she once wrote while traveling, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Clay, Mt. W., and other surrounding peaks, can never be made soft and beautiful by any sunset. They can never melt into the heavens like beautiful Jacobs ladders as some mountains do; but they remind one, in their might, bald grandeur, firmness, and solidity of eternitythe time that was, the time that will be.
At fifteen Kate prayed forty-five minutes a day and adopted little practices of self-denial to overcome what she regarded as pride and vanity. Fr. James OConnor, a local pastor and family friend, took an interest in Kate and gently guided her Christian growth. He became her spiritual director, a role he performed until his death in 1890. In 1876, when OConnor left Pennsylvania to become the bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, he instructed Kate to listen attentively for Gods call. My spiritual father has told me, she wrote, that my predominant passion is scrupulosity. His parting advice to me was always to pray fervently to God each day that He might aid me to know my vocation in life. He dwelt at length on the importance of this prayer. I am to write him in any difficulty whatsoever. Among Katharines daily prayers was the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the powerful invocation of the Holy Spirit that clarified the calling of many other saints.
Cancer struck Emma Drexel late in 1879, and for three years Katharine hovered at her bedside. She wept in anguish over her mothers extreme suffering. Watching her mother slip away and reflecting on her years of heroic generosity, Katharine began to entertain an irrepressible notion that she should enter the religious life.
Emma died in January 1883. Five months later, Katharine sent Bishop OConnor a list of pros and cons of joining a religious community, hoping he would side with the pros. OConnor was not impressed. He told her that her positiveswhich included self-sacrifice, perfect love of God, overcoming the flesh, and a high reward in heavenwere impersonal, abstract, and general. But her negatives raised warning flags, especially her avowed distaste for community life and abhorrence of obedience to an unworthy superior. In her subsequent letters, Katharine continued to express impatience about determining the course of her life. OConnor restrained her with advice to think, pray, wait.
Katharines father contracted pleurisy in February 1885, and although he recovered temporarily, he died unexpectedly while she was attending him. Her grief was unimaginable, losing her beloved father so soon after her mothers death. The events that followed complicated Katharines future by prolonging the uncertainty of her lifes direction.
Francis Drexel left his daughters equal shares of the annual income from fourteen million dollars held for them in trust. Like their parents, the sisters immediately looked for opportunities to use their wealth in support of the poor. They did not have to wait long. Shortly after Mr. Drexels death, Fr. Joseph Stephan, director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, visited Katharine and appealed for help in building and staffing schools for Indian children. Without hesitation she contributed to the construction of centers in Montana and New Mexico, thus beginning a lifelong friendship with Fr. Stephan and ministry to Native Americans. A year later, she started her service to African-Americans by purchasing a building in Philadelphia to be used by the Sisters of Notre Dame as a school for the colored.
The opportunity to use her inheritance to aid the poor created a new tension for Katharine. Her heart aspired to the contemplative life of a cloistered nun, but it also ached to help Native Americans and African-Americans, whom she recognized as the most neglected people in the country. Trips to Europe and to the western United States tugged her in the direction of an active life in the world. On a visit to the Vatican in 1886, she asked Pope Leo XIII to send priests as missionaries to Native Americans. The popes reply was one she would never forget: Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary? In 1886 and 1887, Katharine accompanied Fr. Stephan on tours of the missions she had funded in the West from South Dakota to Washington. Personal contact with her poor beneficiaries heightened her love for them, but at the same time her desire for a life of quiet prayer grew even more.
Katharine poured out her frustration in a series of exchanges with Bishop OConnor. She wondered why she could not establish a bureau that would distribute her money to the causes of Indians and blacks. Because, the bishop replied, she had the charism for serving these most abandoned and forlorn peoples, and a board would not do it with as much fervor and care as she would. But in the end, Katharines restless hunger for the religious life won out. On November 26, 1888, her twenty-eighth birthday, she informed the bishop that she had decided to become a nun. Do not, Reverend Father, she wrote,
I beseech you, say What is to become of your work? What is to become of it when I shall give it all to Our Lord? Are you afraid to give me to Jesus Christ? God knows how unworthy I am, and yet can He not supply my unworthiness if only He gives me a vocation to the religious life? Then joyfully I run to Him. I am afraid to receive your answer to this note.
Katharine did not need to fear, for the bishop responded immediately, approving of her decision and recommending religious communities for her consideration. She determined to find a community that served Indian and black people and that practiced frequent reception of the Eucharist, which was not the norm at the time. Then the bishop startled her in February 1889 with a new suggestion. He strongly recommended that she found her own religious order dedicated to care for the marginalized people she had come to love.
Katharine resisted with a series of objections: she desired the contemplative life and daily Communion; she did not have the virtue or gift to start a new order; an established order could do the work without the red tape required to start a new one; the combined effort of many orders working together would do a better job. OConnor assured Katharine that founding a new order was Gods will for her. He easily dismissed her concerns as scruples. Her rule could require daily Communion. God would supply gifts that would compensate for her weaknesses. New orders always rose up to meet new needs. And although existing orders could help in the work, the ministry required the exclusive attention of one dedicated community.
Apparently Katharine was more open to the idea than her initial response to the bishop had indicated. Prayer melted any residual resistance, and a month later she agreed to found her own religious order. The Feast of St. Joseph, she wrote, brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and colored, to enter fully and entirely into your views as to what is best for the salvation of the souls of these people.
Katharines long quest for her vocation had reached its goal.
After two years of preparation and training, on February 12, 1891, she made her profession and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. To vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, she added a fourth: to be the mother and servant of Native Americans and African-Americans and not to undertake any work that would lead to neglecting or abandoning them.
For the next four decades, Mother Katharine spent herself in active service tempered with prayer. She formed her sisters and trained them for missionary work. By 1904, 104 women had joined her community. Katharine traversed the country many times, selecting sites for missions and visiting established centers. She and her sisters founded 145 missions and twelve schools for Native Americans and fifty schools for African-Americans. In 1915 Katharine proudly established Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic college for black youth in the United States. Throughout her life she contributed about twenty million dollars for these causes.
St. Katharine Drexel heard Gods call in the circumstances of her life. He spoke to her through a father who viewed everything from the perspective of eternity and devoted himself and his wealth to pursuing it. Katharine heard Gods voice in her mother, who taught her to pray and trained her in generous service to the poor. She sensed his calling her in her compassion for Native Americans and African-Americans. God guided her through a spiritual director, who helped her map the course of her life. He appealed to her in the words of a pope, who suggested that she become a missionary. Most of all, Katharine heard Gods call in her irrepressible desire to give herself to him in prayer.
And after Katharine had spent forty years serving God on his terms, he granted her youthful wish for a life dedicated simply to him. In 1935 a serious heart attack slowed her down, and two years later she retired. Then she got her hearts desire and enjoyed eighteen years of quiet contemplation before her death in 1955 at the age of ninety-seven. As Scripture promises, Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4, RSV ).
Think, Pray, and Act
You have seen how God communicated his call to St. Katharine in a variety of ways. She heard him speaking to her through Scripture, circumstances, family, friends, spiritual advisers, the marginalized people that she served, and even the pope. Gently, he nudged her in the direction that he wanted her to choose for her life. Think about it. God has been gently leading you, too, on the path to happiness. And he may be attempting now to reorient you a bit or to make a course correction in the direction you have taken. Use the following questions to help you realize how God has guided you in the past and also hear what he may be saying to you now.
- In what ways has God called me and guided me through my life? through Scripture? life circumstances? family members or friends? advisers? the pope? (just kidding, but maybe not).
- When God sought to redirect me, how sensitive was I to his leadings?
- Set aside half an hour of quiet prayer and reflect on the following questions.
What do I think God may be saying to me now?
Is God asking me to make any change in the way I am conducting my life? What does he seem to want me to do?
- What one action might you take to respond to Gods call now?
An excerpt from Bert Ghezzis book The Heart of a Saint.