Saturday, March 03, 2007
Rich Little Rich Girl
Katharine Marie Drexel, born in 1858, was the second of three daughters of an insanely wealthy banking and railroad entrepreneur. Her father and stepmother (her birth mother died when she was still a newborn, and as was traditional for widowed fathers of infants, her father promptly remarried....) raised her and her sisters in the tradition of noblesse oblige and with a love of generosity, which all three would follow into their adult lives. When Katharine nursed her stepmother through her final illness, she learned for herself just how little money and power matters.
At the passing of her father, she and her sisters came into their inheritance --- but it was structured as an untouchable trust, to protect them from fortune-hunting husbands-to-be. Remember, this was pre-feminist times, when all a woman's possessions became the husband's at marriage, for him to steal or waste at whim. The income of the inheritance would go to the daughters, and then to their children, for as long as they lived, and then when there were no more descendants, the principle would go to a list of the father's favorite charities. The income stream from the trust was about $3000 each day ---- in an era when $1000/year was considered a respectable annual income for a hard-working family man.
Katharine remembered the travels she took with her father into the West, and the poverty and oppression of the native peoples there, and into the South. She began building and financing schools on the reservations. She had an urging to retire from the world, but could not see how, unless she could find others to administrate the schools. So she went to Rome, looking for a community of European missionary sisters who could go to Montana and run her schools, so she could be free to enter a cloister. When she asked Pope Leo XIII if he knew of an appropriate community, he said, "Why don't you become a missionary?" Katharine took it as a word from the Lord, and, with the help of her bishop, received formation, and established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for the Indians and Colored People, vowed to poverty, chastity, obedience, and to service to the Indian and Colored people forever. Because of the terms of her inheritance, however, she could not renounce it; she could only keep giving away the income every day she lived.
She spent the next several decades building schools and churches for the poorest people in the United States, and staffing them with eager young sisters and dedicated and justly compensated lay staff --- the money for this coming from the trust fund. All of her churches were integrated, except where that was illegal. Where integrated churches weren't legal, they would be quite subversively segregated --- the laws insisted on separation, not on colored people always having the bad seats. So they'd be segregated, colored on the main floor and whites in the balcony, or colored on one side of the center aisle and whites on the other. After all, there may be white and colored in Mississippi, but not in the Kingdom of God. In 1915, she founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic University for Colored people in the US.
In 1935, she suffered a massive heart attack, from which she never fully recovered. She resigned as superior of the order she founded in 1937, and was able to fulfill her youthful desire to be retired from the world in contemplative prayer. And, to live just as long as the Lord would let her, so that the trust fund money would keep flowing, at least long enough for Xavier University to grow and have enough alumni to support it. [Her father had no idea that years after his passing his daughter would be a founder, so her order was not among those receiving the principle on her death....] She finally reposed, her work complete, in 1955, age 97.