My cousin, the saint

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Mother Katharine pinning a button on Doris Wiltz during an alumni celebration at Xavier Normal School. Doris’s mother was a graduate of Xavier’s first class in 1917. CREDIT: COURTESY SISTERS OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT

GROWING UP in one of Philadelphia's pre-eminent families, Cordelia Frances Biddle heard stories about St. Katharine Drexel, one of her most esteemed ancestors, the high-society girl who in 1891 gave it all up to devote her life and her wealth to the Catholic Church and good works.

But she didn't hear these glowing tales from relatives. Instead, she said, she learned the most about St. Katharine from the family's employees.

"The people who revered her the most when I was a child were the people who worked for my grandmother, the cooks and the maids who were all of them Irish Catholic and who felt she was an amazing woman," Biddle said. "It wasn't always easy for her relatives because she chose a path that was so different. I think they felt a little threatened."

Biddle spent four years researching her legendary relative's life - St. Katharine's beloved cousin, Emilie Drexel Biddle, was Biddle's great-grandmother - for the new biography, Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel. The book details how the daughter of one of the country's wealthiest families walked away from a comfortable life filled with parties and pleasures to join a Catholic convent and devote herself and her entire fortune - the modern equivalent of about $550 million - to social justice initiatives, primarily aimed at improving the lives of African-Americans and American Indians.

Her family and those around her were scandalized. As one Philadelphia newspaper bluntly announced in a banner headline at the time: "Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent - Gives up Seven Million."

"They were the rock stars of the period and they could have anything they wanted. They could eat anything they wanted. They could have servants bring them anything they wanted," Biddle said of her family. "People were horrified. For her to throw it all away must have seemed like lunacy. You could say it was for a good cause, but they didn't think it was a good cause, 'Who wants to help those people?' "

Biddle is well-known as the author of the Martha Beale Mysteries and the co-author, with her husband, of the Crossword Mystery series under the nom de plume of Nero Blanc. She could have offered St. Katharine's story to a large New York-based publisher familiar with her work. Instead, she wanted to keep it local, contacting independent publisher Bruce Franklin of Yardley-based Westholme Publishing. Franklin said taking on the project was an easy choice.

"When you read this book, you want to meet this person. She goes from this Downton Abbey-like world, which is almost make-believe, to the real struggle for civil rights," he said. "Anybody reading this, religious or non-religious, will find themselves confronted by the question: You're 27 years old and you've inherited a staggering fortune. What do you do?"

 

Biddle decided to take on the daunting task of telling St. Katharine's story after attending her 2000 canonization. It rained steadily that day, with water puddling around the ankles of the faithful thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square. Then St. Katharine's name and elevation were announced, Biddle recalled. The skies cleared.

"There was this communal gasp," said Biddle, who is Episcopalian. "I was in tears and I think everyone around me started to pray . . . I came home and said, 'I must write this.' "

She also knew the saint's life would serve as a role model for modern young women. St. Katharine was raised to be "a kind of bauble," yet she had a drive that was rare in women of her era. She made it clear that once she made a decision, nothing was going to get in her way.

"She understood how much power she had. She understood how to use it," Biddle said. "That's a rarity, to find someone with that sense of self-worth who says, 'This needs to be done. I'm going to do it.' "

A self-proclaimed "history buff and research geek," Biddle spent hours in the archives of Drexel University, founded by Katharine's uncle, and exploring the collection of St. Katharine's writings kept by the religious order she founded, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which has a motherhouse and shrine in Bensalem.

Her research took her across the Atlantic to Austria, the Drexels' native land, and across the United States to New Orleans, where Katharine founded Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation's only African-American Catholic university.

The book opens in the late 1700s with Drexel family patriarch Francis Martin Drexel and the drive that turned him from a struggling painter in Austria to one of America's wealthiest bankers. It's a suitable beginning, Biddle said, because she found numerous similarities between Drexel and St. Katharine, his granddaughter.

"Nothing stood in his way. He had a vision and he went for it," Biddle said. "The same was true for her, except where his vision was built around making money and hers was giving it away."

 

St. Katharine, born in Philadelphia in 1858, was a mischievous child, the impetuous middle sister of three sometimes called "Kitten."

"Here she is canonized, and you don't think of her being a naughty kid who liked to play pranks," Biddle said.

Philanthropy was important to the family. St. Katharine's stepmother Emma opened the doors to the family's Center City Philadelphia home to those in need three times a week, giving away an estimated $20,000 a year in money, medicine and clothing. "Never let the poor have cold feet," she told the three Drexel daughters.

But philanthropy was also considered only one small part of life. As Biddle put it, the family was charitable but "that's different from saying, 'Let me give them myself.' There's philanthropy, but that's still having the house in Bar Harbor and vacations and parties and this and that."

St. Katharine was supposed to follow the lead of her cousin Emilie (Biddle's great-grandmother), whose extravagant 1872 wedding to Edward Biddle was attended by sitting U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The younger female family members were expected to look upon Emilie's life as "the model for each girl's future: a cultivated woman whose family position elevated her to the haut monde," Biddle writes in St. Katharine.

But while outwardly the future saint seemed to be following her cousin's lead - traveling to Europe with her sister, building her cultural library at Europe's finest museums, meeting eligible young men who might control her future - she was struggling inside, as her journals and letters reveal. She wanted to be a better, more worthy person.

In one list of self-improvement ideas penned by St. Katharine at 16, she resolves to read more books about the lives of individual saints and to "Try to go to confession less as if you were going to an execution."

 

A few years later, St. Katharine began keeping a notebook titled "Strictly Private - The Holy Ghost Speaking to My Soul." Ever the pragmatist, she made a pro and con list about becoming a nun.

Included on the "pro" list: "Jesus Christ has given His life for me. It is but just that I should give Him mine."

Among the drawbacks on the "con" list: "I do not know how I could bear the privations and poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries." Also: "I hate community life. I should think it maddening to come in constant contact with many different old maidish dispositions."

She included in her writings the correspondence she shared with Bishop of Omaha James O'Connor, who had served as the Drexels' parish priest locally. He advised St. Katharine to test herself, eating only "convent rations" and dressing in "unbecoming colors."

In the end, the religious life was the stronger pull. That choice would change the lives of generations to come.

"She used to say, 'Think it. Desire it. Speak it. Act it.' That sums up her whole life," Biddle said. "We all have amorphous ideals and we say, 'Oh, this must be done. Here's some money so someone else can do it.' She acted on it. That's what sets her apart from anything I could ever hope to do."