Learning About Detachment From St. Katharine Drexel

“Detachment from riches is obligatory
for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven”
(CCC 2544).

Admit it. You know the entire Beverly Hillbillies theme song by heart, don’t you? And you can sing it from memory, start to finish. So can I.

If you grew up on Jed and Jethro and Elly May like I did, then you’ll remember that one episode where the banker, Mr. Drysdale, advises the yokel millionaires to “put money in circulation.” The result? Granny tossing out aprons full of cash onto the streets, while Mr. Dreysdale tries to stop her.

“Wait, wait,” Mr. Drysdale pleads. “Granny, stop! You cannot throw money out the window!”

“Not till I get some more,” Granny answers matter-of-factly, shaking out her empty apron. Then, as Jethro runs off to fetch another boxful, she shouts, “Get bigger bills! It makes ‘em much happier!”

The Hillbillies and their seemingly naïve, even shocking disregard for money came to mind the other day during an exchange with Kathy, my eight-year-old. “You know, your birthday’s coming up next week,” I noted, “and that means it’ll be your feast day as well.”

“Yes, Papa,” she replied. “St. Katharine Drexel.”

That’s right, Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia railroad heiress turned nun who lavished her vast fortune on the poor. We interpreted the coincidental timing of Kathy’s arrival on March 3, Drexel’s feast, as a providential sign, and there was little question what our baby girl’s name would be. Besides, the fantastically beneficent St. Katharine was just the kind of patron and role model we’d want for our infant daughter anyway.

Which makes Kathy’s follow-up comment to me the other day all the more remarkable. “She was a teacher, I know,” she stated flatly, as if giving a saint report at school, “and she wore glasses.” End of report.

What? That’s it? Here, let me fill in a few more details.

St. Katharine and her two sisters were raised in a devout Catholic family that happened to be wealthy, and her parents refused to allow the wealth to disrupt the devotion. The girls assisted their parents in regularly welcoming the poor into their own home, and they were taught early on that such acts of benevolence and charity were the assumed norm for those who’d call themselves Christian.

After their financier father passed away in 1885, the Drexel girls inherited a tremendous estate, and yet their consciences would not let them settle comfortably into high society. Katharine in particular was especially moved by the terrible hardships endured by so many Native American and Black families throughout the country, and she started liberally distributing her own inheritance to alleviate their suffering. To enlist additional help, she traveled to Europe and lobbied Pope Leo XIII to send missionaries to help rectify the dire situation, but the Holy Father did her one better. “Why don’t you become a missionary?” he asked her.

Why not, indeed?

Drexel rose to the Pope’s challenge, took up the habit in 1889, and established a religious order dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament and to serving the special needs of disenfranchised American minorities. Seeing education as the key to combatting both poverty and prejudice, Katharine devoted her patrimony to building schools, and lots of them – approximately 60 in her lifetime. She sent sisters out west to establish mission schools for Native Americans, and for young Blacks in the South, Katharine not only built schools but a college as well – now Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically Black Catholic college in the U.S.

And schools were only the beginning, for St. Katharine and her community were determined to confront racism and oppression on every front, come what may.  Here’s how Drexel herself expressed their commitment:

Resolve: Generously with no half-hearted, timorous dread of the opinions of Church and men to manifest my mission…. You have no time to occupy your thoughts with that complacency or consideration of what others think. Your business is simply, ‘What will my Father in heaven think?’

Among other things, Katharine’s order cleverly skirted segregation laws in the South so that Catholics of all races could worship together in their churches. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (as they came to be known) were burrs in the saddle of bigots everywhere, and their conflicts with entrenched racist interests led to bomb threats and arsonist attacks against them.

And the money? Have I forgotten about Katharine’s big jackpot legacy, one of the biggest in the U.S. at the time? Nope, but that’s the beauty of St. Katharine’s story, and it’s why the Granny Clampett allusion is apropos. I have this mental image of Katharine Drexel, her habit tucked up and full of cash, standing alongside the Beverly Hillbillies and strewing money out that bank window willy-nilly. They’re all laughing and smiling, full of joy at the prospect of sharing their abundance with others – heedless of who’s paying attention or keeping track. No photo ops with oversized checks for the Drexel debutante, yet even so she managed to give away some $20 million before she died. In today’s dollars, that would amount to about half a billion – but who’s counting?

Certainly not St. Katharine. Her only interest was in being faithful to her calling to serve the poor, and her only reward was Jesus himself. As she wrote,

My sweetest Joy is to be in the presence of Jesus in the holy Sacrament. I beg that when obliged to withdraw in body, I may leave my heart before the holy Sacrament. How I would miss Our Lord if He were to be away from me by His presence in the Blessed Sacrament!

She got her wish in the end. St. Katharine’s declining health led her to relinquish leadership of her community in 1937, and then a stroke in 1938 left her largely immobile for the last 18 years of her life. “Though gradually becoming more infirm,” the Vatican’s newspaper reported, “she was able to devote her last years to Eucharistic adoration, and so fulfil her life’s desire.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s an axiomatic Gospel principle that St. Katharine embraced with total abandonment and in marked contrast with what the world values. “What is glorified is success at any cost,” Pope Francis observed, “affluence, the arrogance of power and self-affirmation at the expense of others.” St. Katharine’s life is an illustration of what the Pope proposed as an alternative: “Think big;” “open your hearts;” “swim against the tide;” “have the courage to be truly happy!”

Now it’s true that very few of us will have the opportunity to douse the streets with our largesse, and we all will devote consider time and energy to making money in order to live. Still, Katharine’s story reminds us that our property and wealth, regardless of how much we have, are truly only tools for accomplishing greater goods. The more loosely we hold on to them, the easier it is for the Lord to have his way with us, and the more we’ll be filled with his joy.

That’s why I think my daughter neglected to mention her patron’s extravagant generosity, because it was so natural, almost pedestrian from her childlike perspective. For children and saints, money is something for others to worry about – dads, for instance, or our Father in heaven – and when you get some, you get rid of it pretty quick.

But being a teacher and wearing glasses? Now that’s noteworthy.

image: St. Katharine Drexel on stained glass window by Nheyob / CC BY-SA

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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