Church begins inquiry into sainthood for Mother Drexel Accounts of the day when lightning struck in Beaumont, Texas

March 11, 1997|By David O'Reilly | David O'Reilly,knight-kidder news service

BENSALEM, Pa. - When Sister Ruth Spain explains why Philadelphia's Katharine Drexel deserves to be a saint, she speaks of "holiness" and "charity" and "social justice."

But nothing wows young listeners like the tale of the divine thunderbolt.

"The Ku Klux Klan was angry because Mother Katharine had opened a school for blacks," Sister Ruth recently told fifth-graders visiting Mother Katharine's shrine and crypt in Bensalem, Pa. "Then, one day, they rode up on horses, wearing robes and hoods and carrying torches."

The year was 1922. The place was Beaumont, Texas.

"The Klan leader, who was called 'the wizard,' said they were going to burn down the school," Sister Ruth said, "but Mother Katharine was very strong. She came out and stood before them and said, 'No, we will not leave' - and she started to pray.

"And you know what? A lightning bolt hit the wizard and knocked him off his horse and left him dead on the ground. The others all turned and rode off, and the Klan never bothered the school again."

The youngsters gazed wide-eyed at Sister Ruth.

"Cool," whispered one.

And almost true - the Klan did indeed threaten the school in 1922, but the lightning actually struck their headquarters, miles away.

Still, a Klan leader was hit by the bolt and died two days later, according to Mother Katharine's official biography. And the Klan never did bother the mission again.

Prospects look bright

A miracle? Perhaps, but it takes "absolute proof" of two miracles to make a saint. Now, 42 years after her death, 10 years after she was declared venerable, the prospects for Katharine Drexel's becoming America's fourth saint look brighter than ever.

A Pennsylvania couple last year informed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that their child, born with what doctors said was incurable deafness, began to hear after family members and friends prayed to Mother Katharine. The archdiocese is releasing no details.

"The child's doctors cannot explain it," the Rev. Alexander Palmieri, chancellor of the archdiocese, said. "Neither can the independent medical experts who have reviewed the case."

In December, after reviewing preliminary reports about the incident, the Vatican authorized the archdiocese to begin "The Process for Asserting a Miracle" on Mother Katharine's behalf. Since early February, a panel of three archdiocesan priests and a non-Catholic physician have interviewed about 20 witnesses, said Father Palmieri, the Vatican's vice-postulator, or local observer, in the process.

The witnesses, who testify under oath, have included the child's pediatrician, several ear specialists, a surgeon, a family counselor, and the family members and friends who prayed to Mother Katharine.

"All the physicians interviewed to date, including two independent ear, nose and throat specialists who are non-Christian, have found no medical explanation" for how the child gained his hearing, Father Palmieri said.

Born into a fabulously wealthy Philadelphia banking family in 1858, "Katie" Drexel gave up a life of luxury in 1891 to found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a missionary order based in Bensalem and devoted to converting "Indians and Colored People" to Catholicism.

Until her death in 1955, she used a $400,000 annual income from her trust funds to establish 145 Catholic missions, 112 schools for American Indians, and 50 schools for blacks, including Xavier University in New Orleans.

"She was, in fact, a one-woman charitable foundation, the financial court of first and last resort for bishops and priests seeking money to build or staff schools for Indians and blacks," wrote Newsweek editor Kenneth Woodward in his 1990 book, "Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, And Why."

The quest to honor Mother Katharine began in 1964, when then-Archbishop John Krol approved a request by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament that the church consider the possibility of canonizing her. After weighing the evidence, Pope John Paul II declared her "venerable" on Jan. 26, 1987.

That done, then-Cardinal Krol is said to have told his staff: "Now get after those miracles. We need them."

On Nov. 20, 1988, the pope bestowed the title of "Blessed" on her, declaring that Katharine Drexel "seemed to grasp fundamental truths which many of her contemporaries failed to grasp - for example, the truth about the equal dignity and worth of every human being, regardless of race or ethnic origin."

Hair shirt and iron chains

Mother Katharine also was extraordinarily pious, even by the standards of 19th-century religious orders. According to testimony presented in the early stages of her cause, she frequently wore a hair shirt and iron chains around her waist and arms.

Such "disciplines" were not uncommon among religious orders of her day, but she seems to have carried them to unusual lengths. As a young sister, she frequently flogged herself bloody with a leather scourge, or whip, filled with iron points.

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