Several years ago, when I was a middle-school teacher, I looked with fear and trepidation at the beginning of the new school year. You see, the incoming class was a class that was “notorious” since kindergarten! The issue, I was told, was that each of them thought they were in charge! Knowing that I was going to face a difficult year if I didn’t use this as an opportunity to teach about the importance of service, I took it to prayer.
What I needed was a symbol of working together to make the community better. I thought and I prayed. During the middle of summer, a series of thunderstorms came through the area in which I was living. After each storm, a beautiful rainbow appeared. These rainbows were not the variety that had only a piece of the arc visible, but were seen in a full arc. One appearance even showed a double rainbow!
As I viewed this splendor, I thought, “What a great symbol! Thank you, God! Your creation is truly marvelous!” Wanting to integrate this symbol throughout the entire curriculum that year, I did some reading about rainbows. Did you know that in order to see a rainbow, the refraction of light has to be at a 40-degree angle? How could you not think about the 40 days of Lent, the 40 years that the Israelites wandered through the desert, or the 40 days of rain that Noah experienced?
As I continued to ponder the rainbow, I came to realize that it was truly a symbol of unity in diversity. Let me explain. If you bend white light at a 40-degree angle, you will see the spectrum or rainbow. Some of the “colors” of the spectrum lie beyond what our eyes can perceive. If you bend the spectrum again, white light appears, not a double rainbow. So, white light, an essential component of life on our planet, is made up of individual colors – some seen, some invisible. What an amazing symbol of how the individual bands of energy, when united, help to produce life!
Because of this, everything in my classroom that year had a rainbow theme. I explained the symbol over and over and over again. The result was that after a few months, my student “bosses” suddenly began working together! Incredible!
I could not help think about this story as I continued to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Diocese of Harrisburg and focus on the life of St. Katharine Drexel. She was born Nov. 26, 1858, the second of three children, into a wealthy banking family in Philadelphia. At her birth, our beloved diocese had not yet formed. So, we indeed can claim her as our own! She was ten years old when our diocese was created from the Diocese of Philadelphia.
Like many women born in luxury, Katharine was keenly aware of poverty all around her. She often helped her step mother, Emma, serve the poor. From her, she learned that helping the poor required a “direct and personal approach; three days a week, she [Emma] welcomed hundreds of the poor into her home, giving them money, food, medicine and clothing. She paid the rent for over 150 families a year, and spent tens of thousands of dollars a year on the poor. These she interacted with personally, getting to know their needs and keeping detailed records, better to assist them on return visits.”2
After her parents’ death in 1886, Katharine traveled throughout the northwest and was surprised to see the level of poverty on the Indian reservations.
One biography describes this encounter: “The native peoples living there [on the reservations] had their way of life destroyed by an onslaught of soldiers, miners, railroad workers, and settlers. With no more buffalo to hunt and federal troops confining them to barren reservations, their numbers dwindled from disease, malnutrition, and social breakdown. They appeared to be a forgotten people, pushed aside by a modern industrial society anxious to exploit the land and resources that had once been theirs.”2
During this time, Katharine experienced a growing sense of a vocation to religious life. She was greatly concerned for the great need within the Native American and the African-American populations. She traveled to Europe because of a suggestion for her spiritual direction. While in Europe, she had an audience with the Holy Father. She requested the pope for prayers and that he should send missionaries to assist in the needs of these forgotten populations. The pope told her that she was to be that missionary.
Taking those words to heed, she founded a congregation committed to the welfare of Native and African Americans. They were called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Blacks. “By 1942, she had a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. … In all, she established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states.”3
Unlike Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School, Katharine’s boarding and day schools were located on the reservations where the children could remain connected to their family, friends, communities, and culture. Needless to say, this model of education was greatly supported by the parents of the school age children.
St. Katharine Drexel’s love for people came from her love of the Eucharist. This was the source of her energy and vision as well as her belief that all people are God’s sons and daughter. This is the legacy she gives us: love of God flowing into service of all people, especially the poor. Hers is the legacy that goes beyond the boundaries of the Dioceses of Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Hers is a legacy that arches over diversity and blends all people within the heart of Christ.
At her canonization in October 2000, about 300,000 people braved the relentless downpours during the ceremony. When Katharine’s name was announced as a newly declared saint, the skies cleared up to the point that the sun shone and a rainbow cold be seen over St. Peter’s Basilica. Incredible!
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness