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How St. Katharine Drexel and My Odd-Couple Parents Taught Me to Fight Racism

What I learned from St. Katharine Drexel was that the first act is simply to see the truth. To really use our eyes and intellect and heart to see another as a fellow human, given dignity by God, is no simple act—but it can be done. And then to step toward those who are not being accorded this dignity and to offer it to them, to reach out the hand of charity, takes a monumental act, a decision often of serious self-sacrifice.

Since this summer’s racial explosion, I have been thinking about Saint Katharine Drexel and her relationship to my mother and father. If the saints and one’s parents offer at their best a model for a life well-lived, I have been wondering if the three of them offer me—and maybe us—a way to move forward in charity in our racially charged world.

If anyone in America was ever white and privileged, it was Katharine Drexel. Born in 1858 into one of the wealthiest families in Philadelphia (her grandfather had come to America a penniless painter and soared to the top of American financiers, founding Drexel Burnham and then Drexel University) she grew up in mansions with servants, going to country estates when Philly summers became too hot. Her sister’s wedding was the social event of the East Coast society set. When their parents both died while the three girls were in their twenties, they became known as the wealthiest young women in America. It was an utterly privileged, utterly insulated, and cosseted upbringing.

And yet, while still a young woman, Katharine Drexel shocked her smart set by giving it all up, becoming a nun, and starting an order whose exclusive charism was to serve black and Native American people. She sent her nuns to incredibly remote western lands in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona, living in quite primitive conditions. The sisters served the poorest in American life, opened schools, and lifted up those to whom they ministered by living among them. Mother Katharine was a powerful figure on Capitol Hill; few politicians wanted to face her formidable presence. She spent her fortune building schools and churches in what were then known as “Indian lands” and in inner-city poverty. She traveled to all of these missionary outposts, living herself (often at risk to her own health) in unheated rooms with little furniture and meager food, to help, to cajole, and to browbeat local officials into working to improve conditions for families in these communities.

Her crowning institutional achievement was the founding and construction in 1925—largely from her own money—of Xavier University in New Orleans, so that black men and women would be able to pursue higher education. In this, as in many other acts, she, her sisters, and the people they served experienced vicious racist opposition; Mother Katharine repeatedly took time away from the construction to face down KKK thugs and defend those doing this good work. In all this she was unfazed. In her blunt way she would tell her sisters, “God loves courage. Get some from him.” Xavier is to this day a beacon of African-American higher education. Its motto is Deo Adjuvante Non Timendum: “With God’s help, there is nothing to fear.” Mother Katharine died in 1955, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Katharine Drexel’s life, then, shows that through intelligence, vision, and God’s grace, any of us can see outside of our own limited worlds and perceive the truth, goodness, God-given beauty, and value in people completely unlike us. It might not be easy, but it is necessary and it is possible. Note also that Katharine made heroic sacrifice to serve and lift up the poorest and most derided through education, not through an activism that might have just told people that they were victims who should define themselves by their grievances and resentments. Katharine had no patience, no truck with such ideas; she asked her nuns, the students at her schools, and their families to get some courage and get to work.

 

Her story is quite personal to me, for my mother grew up virtually on the grounds of Katharine’s motherhouse on the outskirts of Philadelphia; my grandfather was for a time the convent’s groundskeeper. Mother Katharine lifted up my mother after her birth and dedicated her to the Virgin Mary. A distant cousin who had become a big sister to my mother joined the order and left the family home. My mother wept so much at missing the now-Sister Rosalie that Mother Katherine left the chapel and growled, “What is all this caterwauling?” After the sniffles stopped, Mother Katharine agreed each week to lead my mother by the hand and allow her to join Sister Rosalie for Saturday vespers, “if only you will stop this foolish bawling.” Yes, my mother knew a great American saint personally, and spoke of her powerful presence, her refusal to suffer fools, her impatience at sniveling children self-centeredly missing their big sisters.

Despite being the daughter of an alcoholic father and a weak mother, Mom never saw herself as a victim, and always had the preferential option for the poor close to her heart, volunteering for the Fair Housing Commission and in poverty-stricken schools. I am quite sure her fierce dedication to the weaker and poorer among us, her brash courage, and her impatience with cant and obfuscation, especially when coming from the self-important and powerful, come from Mother Katharine’s influence.

My father—a small-town, deep-South Baptist from Hazlehurst, Mississippi—came into her life through his service in Philadelphia during the Korean War. Unlike Mom, he came from privilege; his father owned a produce-shipping business and a small store in Hazlehurst and served on the board of the local bank. Dad, then, had every social and cultural reason to be as racist as the rest of his family. Yet there they were after their marriage, this odd couple, registering African-Americans to vote in deep Mississippi, an act that shocked all the other white people they knew. When seven of us children came along, we were the only white people I ever met in the state—though surely there were others—who did not openly and flagrantly use the n-word; to do so was to incur the immediate wrath of both my mother and father. “We do not,” they would say, “ever, ever use that word, you hear me?”

Later, as an adult, I asked my father, “How did you not end up a racist like the rest of your family?” He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I was in the Navy in World War II, and you found yourself among people from all over, all types, and I guess I just realized then that we were all people.” I remember accepting that response for years, until one day a thought occurred to me, and I put it to him: “But all of your brothers served in the Navy as well, and they came back just as racist as when they left.” Now I had stumped him. He had had his own narrative to explain his views for so long that, when confronted with this fact, he had no answer, except to say, “Maybe I just had eyes to see.” But that, of course, still raises the question: where did he acquire such eyes in mid-century Mississippi? Today’s culture wants to tell us it simply isn’t possible. Yet there my father stood, a tangible refutation to a position that suggests people cannot see truth and respond to it.

 

My own guess is that my father, a notorious contrarian in many ways, including being a lonely Republican in the Dixiecrat South, early set himself against his own culture. I have heard stories from his siblings of his different ways, and his puzzlingly kind treatment of the African-Americans who worked for my grandparents. But I imagine that he could easily have slid back into his family’s ways were it not for St. Katharine Drexel’s influence through my mother. Like Mom he refused to see skin color as anything but an accident of birth that had nothing to do with the worth and dignity of the person inside. For both Mom and Dad, it was the “content of [someone’s] character” that mattered. The honest man or woman of integrity earned their utmost respect no matter the skin color, while the corrupt man of any skin color—but especially the corrupt man of power—was to both of them beneath contempt.

What I learned from them, and thus indirectly from St. Katharine, was that the first act is simply to see the truth. This takes effort and often an act of the will, for it is so easy to see only what our surrounding culture, our media, and our friends present to us as the truth. To really use our eyes and intellect and heart to see another as a fellow human, given dignity by God, is no simple act—but it can be done. And then to step toward those who are not being accorded this dignity and to offer it to them, to reach out the hand of charity, takes a monumental act, a decision often of serious self-sacrifice. Few of us can do it with the completeness of a great saint. But we can do it in the small, unheralded ways of an alcoholic’s daughter or a contrarian son of the racist South. And that’s not nothing. It might, indeed, be everything.

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