Originally created 04/17/99

Socialite who took vow of poverty poised to become saint



BENSALEM, Pa. -- A socialite and heiress to one of Philadelphia's largest fortunes, Katharine Drexel could have had or done anything. What she chose instead as her life's work shocked high society but has her poised to become the second American-born saint.

The woman who lived a storybook youth of mansions, world travel and private tutors took a vow of poverty, entered the convent and used all of her $20 million inheritance to establish a missionary order dedicated to helping those treated the worst and regarded the least.

"She ... gave everything to God, including herself," said Sister Ruth Catherine Spain, who belongs to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament order founded by Mother Drexel and who lives in the order's motherhouse in Bensalem.

Supporters began touting her cause almost immediately after her death in 1955 at age 96. And a pair of mysterious healings -- one confirmed, the other still being investigated -- are drawing her closer to sainthood. She would be the only American-born saint besides Sisters of Charity founder Elizabeth Ann Seton, canonized in 1975.

Four other people with U.S. ties have reached beatification, which is the last step before sainthood: Mohawk Indian convert Kateri Tekakwitha; Belgian-born priest Damien de Veuster, who cared for lepers in Hawaii; Spanish-born priest Junipero Serra, who founded nine California missions; and French-born nun Theodore Guerin, who founded the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods in Indiana.

Mother Drexel is the closest to canonization of America's 29 candidates, most of whom are decades away from sainthood.

"There's no white smoke yet," said Monsignor Alexander Palmieri, vice postulator, or official advocate, for Mother Drexel's cause for sainthood, referring to the plume that signals when a new pope is chosen. He said he hoped canonization could come by the end of this year. She was beatified in 1988.

Katharine Drexel was born in 1858 to a family of great wealth. Her father, Francis Drexel, was a banking magnate and business partner of J.P. Morgan. Her uncle, Anthony Drexel, founded Drexel University. Young Katharine was a world traveler and a debutante but also was taught the importance of charity.

The Drexels, devout Roman Catholics, believed their wealth belonged to God, who entrusted it to them to care for the poor. In addition to making monetary donations, the family distributed food, clothing and money three times a week from their mansion in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

When Francis Drexel died in 1885, the family fortune was worth $15 million, the equivalent of about $250 million today. Though she and her two sisters were pursued by many suitors, Katharine was drawn to religious life.

After she joined the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh in 1889 at the age of 30, The Philadelphia Public Ledger ran the headline, "Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent -- Gives up Seven Million."

The woman who once dressed in the finest fashions now stitched her torn shoelaces back together.

"She dedicated her life to ministering to African American and Native American people, which was by no means a popular thing to do at that time," Palmieri said.

In 1891, she founded what was then called Blessed Sacrament Sisters for Indians and Colored People. The order's work was unpopular in the early years; undeterred, Mother Drexel urged the nuns to pray for those who opposed them.

The Ku Klux Klan once threatened to burn one of the order's Southern schools and its church if the sisters didn't leave.

"Lightning struck the (KKK) headquarters and burned it to the ground," Palmieri said.

In Mother Drexel's lifetime, the order established 12 American Indian schools and more than 100 rural and inner-city schools for blacks, including New Orleans' Xavier University, the only historically black Catholic college in the country.

At its height, 550 women belonged to the order. Today there are about 260.

The road to sainthood is a rough one.

After an exhaustive scrutiny of the would-be saint's life, the case for sainthood is reviewed by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which consists of about 25 cardinals and bishops. If the committee and the pope approve, the candidate is designated "venerable."

Then the search begins for two miracles, which are confirmed through interviews with witnesses, theologians and medical experts. The first miracle earns the candidate the title "blessed" and the second, "saint."

In 1987, Mother Drexel was declared "venerable." In 1988, the Vatican confirmed Robert Gutherman was cured of deafness in one ear after praying to Mother Drexel. The church is investigating the case of an unidentified 6-year-old from the Philadelphia area whose hearing is said to have been similarly restored.

Among Mother Drexel's supporters are Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, a member of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Timing is a plus too: Pope John Paul II has canonized more people than all his predecessors in the 19th and 20th centuries combined, said Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

"He sees the canonization of saints as an instrument of evangelization," Cunningham said.