Cheryl C.D. HUGHES, Katharine Drexel: The Riches-To Rags Story of an American Saint. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. VII + pp. 275. ISBN 978-0-8028-6992-0. Reviewed by Francis X. KLOSE, Cabrini College, 610 King of Prussia Road, Radnor, PA 19087
Growing up in Katharine Drexel's native Philadelphia, there was much that I already knew about the life of Drexel. I have visited her shrine many times. I heard plenty of stories about Drexel growing up in the area as well as the churches she attended, and her personal conversion from wealth to poverty for the sake of others, especially the Native American and African American communities that really needed the help. But, there was never a comprehensive biography of Drexel's life until now, with the publication of Cheryl C.D. Hughes' Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Story of an American Catholic Saint.
The opening chapter of Hughes' work is "Simply Katie", a background into Drexel's life, from her childhood through adulthood. Most fascinating in the first chapter is a series of letters that give the reader an intimate view of the life of the Drexel family. We learn that the family shared a most special bond and a deep spirituality. Francis Drexel, once the organist at Saint John the Baptist parish in Manayunk, maintained the spirituality and was consistently generous to Catholic and other causes alike. Meanwhile, Katharine's mother Emma was very generous to the poor herself, a ministry the family called the Dorcas, after the woman in Acts 9 who ministered to the poor.
The next chapter, "'Make Haste Slowly': the Discernment of a vocation", is equally fascinating. Included are plenty of Drexel's personal journals that show her tremendous personal discipline and personal accountability as she looked towards a vocation. Drexel's vocation was not a simple matter of joining a religious order; Bishop James O'Connor was opposed to her vocation, as was her own mother, who wished that she would marry. But Drexel followed her spirituality all the way to Pope Leo XIII, who suggested she become a missionary. Drexel's time and money began to be put towards the Native American community. Eventually, the bishop who frequently rebuked her suggested she found an order of sisters to minister to Native American and African Americans. The personal letters of Drexel and O'Connor are fascinating to read.
Chapter three focuses on the growth of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored people in 1891 and its subsequent expansion throughout Drexel's lifetime. Like earlier chapters, personal letters give this chapter a most personal touch. It is also very fascinating to learn of the Roman Catholic Church in the expanding United States. The bishop of Cheyenne, for example, wrote that he was in a "vast desert" and therefore was "bishop in name only". Thus, her request for a mission there was denied. But, Drexel began missions around the country, ministering to the Native American populations. Also included is a look at the numbers of religious before and after the Second Vatican Council, and several pictures from the archives of Saint Katharine Drexel.
With the history of Drexel's life and religious order complete, Hughes offers two more really interesting looks into Saint Katharine Drexel: her personal spirituality, and the road to sainthood under Saint John Paul II. Drexel's spirituality is described by Hughes as one of kenosis, denying herself for the sake of others, while pouring herself into obedience, poverty, and chastity. Drexel emptied herself so that God could fill her the rest of the way. It was this spirituality that John Paul II encountered that caused him to lead the charge to Drexel's sainthood. Chapter five looks at John Paul's theology and spirituality to frame just how Drexel's full giving of self made for a holy woman.Hughes' work is one that was much overdue; few thorough biographies about Saint Katherine Drexel's life have been published until now. The book is an excellent choice for any academic study on religious women in America, the Roman Catholic Church in America, Religion in America, and even just for a seeker looking to be spiritually nourished. Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Story of an American Catholic Saint is a book that will fully engage readers, who will not want to put it down.