Katharine Drexel: The virgin with the lamp of knowledge

She proved through her life that the Eucharist is a never-ending sacrifice to be translated into one’s own life which she did for the education of the marginalized.

Katharine Drexel: The virgin with the lamp of knowledge

By Joe Palathunkal
What the Catholic church has done for the spread of education all over the world through its numerous organizations and agencies is phenomenal and no other religion can reach anywhere near it in this regard. Katharine Drexel is a shining star who played a crucial role in this phenomenal mission of the Catholic Church but by taking the “road less travelled” as the great US poet Robert Frost wrote. And the road taken by Drexel was indeed the one less travelled or perhaps never travelled by anyone.

When she was born to Francis and Hannah on November 26, 1858 in Philadelphia, USA, the difference started there itself, and looking at the extremely weak infant and the mother, the doctors doubted whether both would survive. But in a couple of days, the infant started to become stronger and the mother weaker, and her mother died within few days of her baptism on December 29.

The region where Katherine Drexel was born too had a significant difference. Philadelphia was the place where America sang its greatest song of freedom on July 4, 1776, in the historic Philadelphia Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

And to provide life, liberty and happiness to the marginalized and the outcasts, Katharine Mary Drexel embarked upon her greatest mission of education from the very Philadelphia pledging not to “undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races”.

And the mission started in full earnest when she founded in 1890 the religious congregation, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, for imparting education to the Native and African Americans, the most marginalized people of USA. Now the mission has extended to the people of Haiti, one of the smallest countries in North America with predominantly colored people and also poor.

This is what made her education mission different to bring development and liberation for a people searing in the fire of injustice and neglect but her education mission enabled the future generations of Native Americans to become aware of and loudly speak about their sky: “Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds.”(Chief Seattle’s Speech)

It is her mission that enabled the African Americans to dream with Martin Luther King and assert that they should not be judged by the colour of their skin but by ‘the content of their character’. It is her mission that drove people like the greatest Roman Catholic President, John F Kennedy to bring in several legislations and rules for the entry of African Americans into every school in USA, though he paid with his life for the initiatives he took for the Coloured Americans. And that was the impact of Drexel’s mission, the virgin with the lamp of knowledge, truly a wise virgin as Jesus demanded in the parable of the wise virgins who filled their lamps with oil to welcome the bridegroom whenever he came.

Her crowning glory came with the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Black co-educational institution of higher learning in Louisiana and today it has almost any branch of academics under the sun. It must be noted that all the three daughters of Francis got this spirit of compassion for the rejected and the dejected from their own parents(including their step-mother) who were always engaged in philanthropic works and kept telling their daughters to show compassion for others, be a Good Samaritan for those who are robbed of human dignity and left on the wayside.

But this she did because she had a clear-cut conviction which she expressed in these words: “It is for each of us to learn the path by which He requires us to follow Him and to follow Him in that path.” To follow that path, the least travelled one, Mother Drexel got energy from the Holy Eucharist: “The Eucharist is a never ending sacrifice. It is the sacrament of love, the supreme love, the act of love.”

She proved through her life that the Eucharist is a never ending sacrifice to be translated into one’s own life which she did for the education of the marginalized. Today when America glories itself for electing the first African American as President in Barack Obama, it has to gratefully acknowledge the vision and role played by Katharine Mary Drexel whose 63 schools spread across 13 states of USA did pave the way for such a historic event. At her death, she had 500 Sisters working in these schools to take the lamp of knowledge to so many children.

The unusual crowd that gathered on her death proves this beyond doubt. When her coffin was carried to Philadelphia Cathedral by two Whites, two Blacks, and two Native Americans, it was a symbol of all the Americans carrying her within their hearts, and the Philadelphia Cathedral or its campus could not contain the crowd gathered there. Pope John Paul II canonized her in January 2000 as the second native-born American saint. Her feast on March 3rd is celebrated across the dioceses of USA with great prominence.

So the infant born after 82 years of Philadelphia Declaration in Philadelphia, did reflect America’s fundamental creed of freedom for every American through the power of knowledge, and thus became Saint Katharine Drexel, another living Statue of Liberty in the US history.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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