The remains of St. Katharine Drexel were installed last month at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. Moving her tomb from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament’s motherhouse in Bensalem, Bucks County, to Philadelphia proves the song lyric that “everything must change.”
For some, change is difficult to endure. For others, it can be the door to unexpected bounty.
I am the son of a single mother, a church-going woman, from a family of Baptists. We moved from our small efficiency apartment from Ninth and Kaighn Avenue in Camden to the projects across town, and life changed for us as Thelma Griffin walked across the street to introduce herself to my mother. At their very first meeting, Mrs. Griffin insisted that my mother enroll me into Catholic school. My mother agreed.
In September 1974, I transferred from John Greenleaf Whittier Elementary School to Parkside/St. Bartholomew School, diagonally across from the now-demolished Camden High School.
I found attending Catholic school unique, and the smaller classroom environment made it easier for me to make friends with classmates who had been enrolled at St. Bart’s since kindergarten. All of us were young African-Americans from the nearby neighborhood, and very few of us were practicing Catholics.
Even though my mother was all in favor of me attending the school, she didn’t encourage me to join the Catholic faith.
Still, career education included entering the priesthood or becoming a nun as the ultimate life profession. Needless to say, most of my friends weren’t sold on those choices as future occupations.
As we studied spelling, reading, and math, religion was a unique subject. At any time, the nuns would tell us to pray. And our teacher stressed the importance of then-Mother Katharine Drexel’s contributions as the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Her philosophy had a profound impact on me and most of my friends. Born into the wealthy Philadelphia Drexel family in 1858, she eventually gave away all her wealth and devoted her life to teaching.
Even now, many years after attending that small Catholic school, her story continues to mesmerize me. I recently spoke with the New Jersey archbishop of the African Orthodox Church about the woman canonized as a saint in 2000.
“Mother Katharine used her fortune not only to establish an order of nuns, but to have a specific mission and impact on the impoverished African-American community in our country,” said Brother Gilbert Lyons.
“Katharine Drexel went to Rome before becoming a nun. Her trip to the Vatican inspired her to become a missionary to help both Native Americans and African-Americans in the United States,” he said.
Like many students who attended Catholic schools run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, I am fortunate to have had St. Katharine Drexel’s good gratitude, the endowment of her inheritance, as a beacon of my life.
Wayne E. Williams is South Jersey-based freelance writer and Speak Easy essay contributor.