On her feast day earlier this month, I reveled in a little-known fact about St. Katharine Drexel.
Her name is commonplace on hospitals, schools, churches, missions, and college campuses. Her work for and reach to the most marginalized was undoubtedly tremendous. She was the embodiment of a missionary disciple.
Hers was a life lived at the peripheries – despite, or perhaps because of, her family’s wealth – to meet and be with those most in need. Yet, what some may not know about St. Katharine is her patronage. She is the patron saint of both philanthropy and racial justice. And it is this legacy that unlocks for us the future of the Catholic Church.
At its most basic, philanthropy is goodwill to the human race. It is so vital that without it, society as we know it would cease to exist. Humanity therefore depends on philanthropy, and in particular, on Catholic philanthropy.
The Church – thanks to saints such as St. Katharine and countless other women and men who lived in service to others – is one of the greatest forces for good in the world. Through the millennia, its schools, hospitals, shelters, and sanctuaries have provided physical and spiritual care for billions around the globe. No other institution on the planet can say the same. And yet, this work is only possible with holy and inspired Catholic philanthropy – the kind of passionate, full-hearted giving by which St. Katharine lived.
From a young age, St. Katharine was drawn to alleviating injustice around her. Her family opened their home to shelter and care for the poor each week. She felt pulled in particular by the plight of Native- and African Americans, donating time and money in service to marginalized and overlooked communities.
As with many saintly women and men, St. Katharine’s work and faith were one, each reinforcing her commitment to give back to the Lord with increase. The fruits of this generosity are still apparent today. She went on to establish the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament congregation and founded a secondary school for African-American students in New Orleans that would eventually become Xavier University of Louisiana.
Oddly enough, raising the kind of money St. Katharine and her family donated can be viewed as a funny business, an unfortunate necessity bordering on a dirty deed. As a professional fundraiser in the Church, I know this feeling all too well. It is a feeling that the sacred must not be confused or watered down by the temporal – that giving and asking for material wealth are actions devoid of spirituality, a realm God does not frequent.
St. Katharine’s life teaches us just the opposite – that philanthropy is a sacred call, one of the most holy ways to serve the Church and live out one’s faith. Simply put, St. Katharine sanctified philanthropy. And in doing so, she made the ask – fundraising – not a bad word, but a holy one. She modeled a spirituality of stewardship for us all, before it was given a name.
Today, we look to St. Katharine for the promise her life and legacy hold for the Church. We are pulled by her life of service and gift to elevate philanthropy so that those it serves around the globe – the good of the Church – can flourish. It is an exhilarating call to answer and a compelling ask to make.
Elizabeth Zeigler is President and CEO of Graham-Pelton.
Reprinted from Patheos.com, first published on March 3, 2019.