It is fitting that the March 3 feast day of St. Katharine Drexel closely follows Black History Month. Readers would be hard pressed to find another saint who directly contributed as much charity to African- Americans of this nation. Her contributions were also important to the Diocese of Charleston.
Born into a prominent and wealthy Philadelphia family in 1858, Drexel traveled extensively. While in the northwest, she witnessed firsthand the suffering and oppression of Native Americans. Imbued with her parents’ devotion to charity and driven by a desire to alleviate racial injustice, she began personally financing Indian missions.
Her involvement with the missions drove her to seek an audience with Pope Leo XIII, whom she asked for missionaries to meet staffing needs. The Holy Father replied that she should become a missionary. The suggestion compelled Drexel to devote herself wholly to God through service to Native Americans and blacks.
In 1891, Drexel made vows as a religious and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pa. At the same time, the long-dormant parish of St. James the Greater in Ritter, S.C., was reawakening. Originally built on the corner of Thompson’s Crossroads by Irish plantation owners in 1833, the church burned to the ground in 1856.
Apparently, parishioners were too few to warrant rebuilding the church or maintaining the parish. The diocese must have assumed area Catholics could attend St. Philip Church in nearby Walterboro. But without the knowledge or support of the diocese, local black Catholics — who were for the most part former slaves who had converted to Catholicism — had maintained their faith and continued personal religious devotion in the immediate area of the defunct parish.
In 1888, Father Thomas McCormack, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Beaufort and circuit priest for area missions, made an important discovery in his travels. He noted in his annual report: “There are a number of colored people, Catholics, who reside between Greenpond and Walterboro.”
By 1890, the diocese assigned the region, then known as Catholic Cross Roads, to the pastoral care of St. Peter Parish. In 1894, Bishop Henry (Harry) P. Northrop dedicated the second St. James the Greater Church that locals built on the same site as the original. The parish later erected a school.
The renewed black Catholic parish at Catholic Cross Roads was among the earliest beneficiaries of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1901, Mother Drexel gave funds to the parish for school renovation and church expansion. Later, she began annual subsidies for the lay teacher’s salary and donated more money for the construction of a sound church structure.
St. James the Greater was not the only black Catholic community in the diocese to benefit from Mother Drexel’s benevolence. By 1903, St. Peter Parish in Charleston, dedicated by Bishop Patrick Lynch in 1868 for black Catholics on the peninsula, had more students in its school — and still more applicants — than the extant building could accommodate. Mother Drexel gave the parish the financial assistance needed to relocate and expand its school on Society Street and to found Immaculate Conception School on Sheppard Street. Further, she provided annual subsidies for the Sisters of Mercy and later the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who provided instruction on both campuses.
By no means an absentee benefactor, Mother Drexel continually monitored the needs and progress of both communities through correspondence with local lay teachers, pastors, and Bishops Northrop, Russell, and Walsh. At the prospect of building a new and much larger school for Immaculate Conception at the corner of Coming and Morris Streets, Mother Drexel traveled to Charleston in 1929 to personally survey the situation before backing it.
By 1933, Mother Drexel was subsidizing three schools, three churches, four priests, 16 sisters, and two lay teachers for black Catholic communities in the diocese. Although the family estate that fueled such charity appeared inexhaustible, the Great Depression took its toll and forced Mother Drexel to reduce benefits. In 1937, she withdrew her support from peninsular Charleston and focused on the rural and isolated parish of St. James the Greater. There she continued her support until her death at the motherhouse on March 3, 1955.
Upon her death, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer received benefits from the family estate and had to drastically cut their financial assistance. Regardless, the Diocese of Charleston was greatly indebted to the nun and her order for more than five decades of support. By that time, Mother Drexel and the sisters had given the present equivalent of more than $200,000 in outright grants and approximately $530,000 in subsidies for the direct benefit of black Catholic communities.
To show the diocese’s appreciation for St. Katharine Drexel’s benevolence, Bishop Robert J. Baker moved the Charleston Volunteer Program Headquarters into the former convent of the Oblate Sisters at 34 Wentworth St. He rededicated it as the St. Katharine Drexel House in 2001, the year after her canonization by Pope John Paul II.
Brian Fahey is the archivist for the Diocese of Charleston. The office is open to the general public by appointment. Call (843) 724-8372 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, go to www.catholic-doc.org/archives.