By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

BENSALEM – St. Katharine Drexel’s birthday came early this year – on Nov. 1 – instead of Nov. 26, the real date of her nativity. But this is the 150th anniversary of her birth, an occasion for a special celebration.

Cardinal Justin Rigali visited St. Elizabeth’s Convent, the Bensalem motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, on that day to celebrate Mass and officially rededicate the shrine where she is entombed as the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel.

In his homily, the Cardinal spoke of St. Katharine’s birth into a family of wealth.

“She chose to give not just her fortune but her whole life totally to the Lord,” he said. “To her religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she taught a spirituality based on prayerful unity with the Eucharistic Lord, and zealous service to the poor and the victims of racial discrimination. Her apostolate brought about a growing awareness of a need to combat all forms of racism.”

In introductory remarks before the Mass, Sister Patricia Suchalski, the president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and spiritual descendant of St. Katharine, said of her foundress, “she vividly saw the face of God in the poor, especially those who were discriminated against in the Black and Native American communities of our country.”

After the liturgy the Cardinal was preceded to the shrine by a procession of children, led by Bob Gutherman, now a married father of three and a promoter of St. Katharine. He was a youth of 14 when his cure of a possibly life-threatening ear infection was the miracle cited for her 1988 beatification.

Accompanying him was Amy Wall, who was a toddler when she received the gift of hearing, which was the miracle for St. Katharine’s canonization. She is now a high school sophomore and teacher in her parish religious education program.

Time hasn’t dimmed Wall’s enthusiasm for St. Katharine. “She definitely had an impact on me; the miracle is still a major part of my life,” she said.

Nov. 1 was also the Feast of All Saints, and earlier in the day Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, presided at graveside services for the many undeclared saints interred in the convent cemetery.

A first stop was at the graves of St. Katharine’s parents and sisters, who rivaled her in sanctity, missionary zeal, and concern for the poor in body and spirit.

A next stop was the grave of Msgr. Joseph Stephan, an early director of the Catholic Indian Mission Bureau, who greatly influenced St. Katharine.

A final stop was at the graves of the hundreds of Blessed Sacrament Sisters who gave flesh to the word of St. Katharine, dwelling among the Black and Native Americans who were her, and their, special apostolate.

Bishop Murry himself was taught by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Bartholomew School in Camden, N.J., where he entered the Catholic Church while in fifth grade.

“The Sisters influenced my vocation,” he said, adding that St. Katharine “means courage to me. She was a person of great wealth who used her wealth for the poor and the needy. That’s courage, to let go of anything that holds us back so that we can follow Christ.”

Among those attending the birthday festivities and events leading up to it were Josephite Fathers, partners with St. Katharine in Black missions in the South, and Franciscan Fathers, collaborators with her in Native American missions in the Southwest. There were also Native American dancers, African American singers, Mummers, Irish step dancers, Knights of Columbus, Knights of Peter Claver and many, many alumni of Blessed Sacrament Schools and supporters of the congregation.

St. Katharine has been dead for 53 years, but some of the visitors remember her well.

“I met her when I was a little boy,” said retired president of the United Food Workers, Wendell Young. “My aunts, Sister David Young and Sister Florence Marie Young, were here and they took me to her.

“I’ve been coming here all of my life.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.