During our summer message series, Wonder Women: Female Heroes of the Bible, we highlight saints who exemplify the qualities of our biblical heroine for the week. This week’s heroine is the Widow of Zarephath. Listen to her complete story on the messages page of our website. Her companion saint is Katharine Drexel.
In the middle of a famine, few would give up their last bits of food to feed a strange man, like the widow of Zarephath did. Similarly, few would give up the entirety of a massive fortune to aid marginalized communities, like our saintly hero of generosity this week.
Hardly anyone would guess that the woman who wore the same pair of shoes every day for ten years and used pencils all the way down to the erasers was the same woman whose inheritance granted her a daily salary of almost $25,000 in today’s money. Yet it was, and she would grow up to be only the second American-born woman canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church.
Katharine Drexel, born Catherine Marie to prominent Philadelphia banker and philanthropist Francis Drexel, was taught from a young age that her family’s wealth was simply loaned to them, and that it was truly meant to be shared with others, especially the poor. While her mother died shortly after Catherine’s birth in 1858, her father and stepmother, Emma, set examples of both spiritual and financial generosity for Catherine and her sisters. Growing up, they were exposed to Francis’s daily prayers and Emma’s unending charity to those in need. Indeed, Emma would open their family home to care for the poor three afternoons a week.
As a teenager, Catherine’s family often spent summers at a second home in the countryside, where her parents actively encouraged her and her sisters to run a Sunday school for the children of their employees. It was during these summers that Catherine developed a special devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and vowed that, like him, she one day would give all of her fortune to the poor.
Educated privately, Catherine had plenty of opportunity to travel across the United States with her parents, where she was horrified by witnessing the abysmal treatment of African Americans on Southern plantations and Native Americans on reservations. A fire was lit in her generous spirit and, following the deaths of both her parents, Catherine committed her life to aiding them. She gave generously of her fortune to organizations and missions helping both groups of people.
Feeling that the lacking quantity was people, she personally petitioned Pope Leo XIII for missionaries. He turned the request back at her, asking her to become a missionary herself. This she did, taking the name Mary Katharine and establishing a new order of nuns: the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. From age 33 to her death at age 95, she dedicated her life and personal fortune of $20 million to the development of missions, schools, and churches for marginalized groups. At the time of her death, there were 501 members of her order, teaching in 61 schools and missions in 21 states.
--Claire Kosewic, Parishioner
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