After the death of her father and stepmother, Catherine and her sisters visited an Indian reservation. This visit made a huge impression on young Katharine. After seeing the poverty, she helped Native Americans by providing schools and staff along with food, shelter, and clothing.
The first boarding school opened in 1887 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, named the St. Catherine Indian School. By her early 20's, she was determined to help disadvantaged Native Americans and African-Americans by giving assistance with her own personal wealth.
Another important event for Catherine Drexel was her trip to Rome where she visited Pope Leo XIII in 1887. She expressed her concern for the Native Americans and asked for his assistance with missionaries for the schools she was opening.
Instead, the Pope suggested that she become a missionary specifically for the cause of Native Americans and African-Americans. After some consideration, she acknowledged this calling and joined the religious order of the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia.
Two years later, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. In late 1889, she received the religious habit and took the name of Sister Mary Katharine. Thirteen companions joined her to become the first Sisters of the new order.
Her Sisters went to places that could not be reached easily by rail. In Louisiana, they visited missions in Bogalusa, Baton Rouge, Mansura, Marksville, New Roads, Opelousas, Washington, Grand Coteau, Coulee Croche, Klotzville, Franklin, Bertrandville, Napoleonville, Convent, Thibodaux, Lafayette, Leonville and New Iberia.
Closer to home, on July 30, 1923, The Congregation of St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church in Thibodaux bought a lot on Bourbon and East 12th Streets for $2,000. Sr. Katharine donated $4,000 for the church and school. They constructed a two-story building that served as a church and school; the lower floor would be the church and the upper floor would be the school. Graduates from Xavier University would teach, and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament would supervise.
Archbishop Shaw dedicated St. Luke Catholic Church on January 27, 1924. A newspaper article stated: “Thibodaux now has two Catholic Churches, the new one St. Luke’s having been formally dedicated at services that began Sunday at 10:00 A.M. the new church being intended specially to minister unto local Negro Catholics who are becoming too numerous to be accommodated in St. Joseph’s Church … The building 40' x 100' was crowded with both white and colored citizens who gathered to witness the ceremony and to attend the Solemn High Mass that followed the dedication. Preceding the Mass, the pastor of St. Luke’s, Father Joseph Van Baast, expressed his gratitude to Mother Katharine Drexel for providing the means to establish the foundation for his new church.”
A February 24, 2000-Bayou Catholic article entitled “A Saint in Our Midst” stated: “When St. Luke began, the state was spending $40 a year for every white child in public school but only $7 a year for every black child. Because the education that children could receive at St. Luke school was so much better than in the public school, families who were not Catholic sent their children there.”
St. Katharine Drexel once said, “If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to him and them. Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy that invites us. Press forward, and fear nothing.”
I want to thank Mrs. Gretchen Caillouet for allowing me to use material from her final paper, “Activities of Saint Katharine Drexel in the Lafourche Country,” that she wrote in Dr. Paul Leslie’s history class, “The History of Lafourche Parish.”