Mother Katharine Drexel to be canonized Oct. 1; Philadelphia heiress dedicated her life to helping blacks, Indians


PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- Fulfilling a 36-year journey to sainthood, Pope John Paul II has set a date to canonize Mother Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who dedicated her life to opening schools for American blacks and Indians.

"Catholics everywhere, and especially in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, will rejoice at this news," Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said in making the announcement recently. He said the canonization would take place Oct. 1 at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.

Drexel, heiress to one of the country's largest banking fortunes in her day, founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People in 1891, when she was 32 years old. In her lifetime, she inherited $20 million, said Sister Mary Faith Okerson, a spokeswoman for the Bensalem, Pa.-based order. Almost all of it went for schools for the country's disenfranchised blacks and Indians and for her order.

"It was not a matter of charity. She truly saw God in everyone around her," said Okerson. "Her whole method was to go to the people and ask them what they wanted. Almost always the answer came back: education."

In 1925, Drexel founded Xavier College in New Orleans, the only Catholic university in the United States specifically for blacks. By the time she died in 1955, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, as the order was then named, ran 66 schools in 23 states.

Okerson said that Mother Katharine, as she was known in the convent, lived so parsimoniously that when a doctor told her she would have to use a wheelchair after suffering a heart attack in 1935, she responded, "All right, but only if it doesn't cost too much."

Men who worked at the convent built her a wheelchair out of two seats from the auditorium. Asked where the wheels for the chair came from, Okerson said, "If they bought them, nobody dared tell her."

Okerson said the convent rejoiced at Bevilacqua's announcement. The canonization of Drexel, buried beneath the altar at the convent's chapel, represents a milestone for her sisters. They had begun their efforts to have her recognized as a saint in 1964, gathering her qualities and failings as a person, along with evidence of her faith.

Along the way, two crucial miracles were attributed to Drexel. Both involved hearing. The first miracle came in 1974, when a teenager, Robert J. Gutherman, underwent surgery that removed two bones in his ear, after complications from an ear infection. Doctors said that Gutherman would never hear again in his right ear.

After his family prayed for Drexel to intercede on the teenager's behalf, doctors found the bone and tissue regenerating themselves, Okerson said. Today, Gutherman hears normally with both ears, a phenomenon that the Vatican said could not be medically explained.

More recently, the family of a girl who was born deaf, Amy Wall, prayed for Drexel to intercede for their daughter.

The sisters at the Bensalem convent gave the Wall family a relic from Drexel, a piece of cloth from one of her robes that the family placed on the child's ear. Like Gutherman, Amy Wall began hearing, Okerson said. She is now 7 years old, and the Vatican ruled her case, too, a miracle.

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