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The Canonization of Saint Katharine Drexel
By Dominic B. Gerlach, C.PP.S.
September 22, 2000

October 1, 2000 will be a great day for the local community. On this day, for the second time, a woman born in the U.S. will be officially declared a saint by Pope John Paul II. She is none other than Katharine Drexel, whose name is memorialized in Drexel Hall and on the adjoining road.

More than that, she will have been the first canonized saint to have visited our county, our town, and St. Augustine's parish. Saint Joseph's College, however, cannot make this claim, for it did not yet exist. Having acquired the Drexel farm in 1921, Saint Joseph's College can claim that it now owns the property on which the saint once walked.

It was in early October, 1888, a fact attested to by two extant letters, that the now St. Katharine traveled by train from Chicago to Rensselaer to visit the newly erected Saint Joseph's Indian Normal School. She had provided an estimated ,000 for the school building (that still stands), furnishings, support buildings and the surrounding 420 acre farm.

Katharine Drexel was a daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel, a very wealthy Philadelphia banker. She was raised, however, in a family with a strong commitment to helping the poor, whom it regularly and generously aided in many ways.

How did she become involved with Rensselaer? Here we must introduce a pioneer priest, Joseph Stephan, who began as a circuit-riding priest in this area back in the 1850's. It was also he who was the first chaplain of the Saint Joseph's Orphan Asylum and Manual Training School begun in 1867 where Saint Joseph's College now stands. Its chapel simultaneously served as the first Catholic house of worship in all of Jasper County. In 1878, the bishop allowed Stephan to serve as an Indian agent in the Dakota Territory. His experience there and his ability led to his becoming in 1884 director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions for all of the United States. Two years after that, shortly after Mr. Drexel's death in 1885, Stephan, accompanied by Bishop Martin Marty of the Dakota Territory, paid Katharine and her two sisters a visit. This visit led to their making an extensive tour of the West in 1887, where Stephan and Marty showed them the pitiful conditions under which the Indians were forced live. It was here that Katharine discovered her purpose in life: to use her considerable financial resources to elevate the conditions of the Indians through education. This meant erecting schools.

It was in this context that the Indian School at Rensselaer was built, a noble experiment, inspired by Stephan, by which Indian boys of Catholic parentage could be trained in isolation from their reservation environment to such a degree that they could after several years return to their people to help them transform their lives. Katharine was only too glad to fund this school, a "contract" school in which the Federal Government would provide financial support according to the number of Indians in attendance.

Why was Rensselaer chosen for this school? In 1887 the local orphanage was closed, and the local Catholics had already built St. Augustine's church in Rensselaer. So this land, still owned by the bishop of Fort Wayne, was available, not only to provide a model farm for the Indian school, but also sufficient land to erect a Catholic college nearby. Missionaries of the Precious Blood arrived in 1888 to staff St. Augustine's, in early 1889 to superintend the Indian School, and in the fall of 1891 open Saint Joseph's College.

The Indian School closed, however, in 1896. It was a disappointment, but it was only the beginning of Katharine's dedication to the cause. In 1891 she founded her own religious order named Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. The thrust was to serve the needs of the poorest of the poor, principally through education supported by the income from the estate left by her father. Her most prominent foundation was Xavier University in New Orleans, which she built for African Americans in 1925. This school flourishes to this day. It was also a project that met considerable opposition from the whites, an opposition that she met so often wherever she opened schools for Indians or African Americans.

In 1935, Katharine suffered a heart attack that forced her to retire to the order's mother house in Bensalem on the outskirts of Philadelphia until her death in 1955. By that time the number of nuns had grown to over 500 and served in many of the schools for Indians and African Americans all over the country.

Here at Rensselaer, Saint Joseph's College expanded into a four year college, which led to converting the old Indian School building into its first full-time residence hall. It was then, 1937, that it was named Drexel Hall. It continued to be the students' favorite residence hall until its close 40 years later. It was also in this building that the Chicago Bears football team was first housed in 1944 for its summer training camp here.

The last 22 years, however, have not been kind to this venerable but abandoned building originally funded by a "saint," St. Katharine Drexel.

Fr. Leonard Kostka, C.PP.S., formerly chaplain of the College and now senior associate at St. Augustine's, will represent the local community at Katharine's canonization in Rome.

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drexel.jpg (99163 bytes)
Katharine Drexel

1888drexel.jpg (187221 bytes)

Saint Joseph's Indian Normal School as it appeared in 1888.

1882pupils.jpg (256678 bytes)

Saint Joseph's Indian School Pupils, 1882-1883.

Story from Saint Joseph's College (Rensselaer)

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