Wednesday, March 3, 2010

St. Katherine Drexel (November 26, 1858- March 3, 1955): The heiress who became a saint - The Novena of Grace

In the United States today, an optional memorial of St. Katherine Drexel is permitted. Her story is so gripping and inspiring, it bears sharing:

If your father is an international banker and you ride in a private railroad car, you are not likely to be drawn into a life of voluntary poverty. But if your mother opens your home to the poor three days each week and your father spends half an hour each evening in prayer, it is not impossible that you will devote your life to the poor and give away millions of dollars. Katharine Drexel did that.

She was born in Philadelphia in 1858. She had an excellent education and traveled widely. As a rich girl, she had a grand debut into society. But when she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death, and her life took a profound turn.

She had always been interested in the plight of the Indians, having been appalled by reading Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor. While on a European tour, she met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming for her friend Bishop James O’Connor. The pope replied, “Why don’t you become a missionary?” His answer shocked her into considering new possibilities.

Back home, she visited the Dakotas, met the Sioux leader Red Cloud and began her systematic aid to Indian missions.

She could easily have married. But after much discussion with Bishop O’Connor, she wrote in 1889, “The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored.” Newspaper headlines screamed “Gives Up Seven Million!”

After three and a half years of training, she and her first band of nuns (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored) opened a boarding school in Santa Fe. A string of foundations followed. By 1942 she had a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. In all, she established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states.

Two saints met when she was advised by Mother Cabrini about the “politics” of getting her Order’s Rule approved in Rome. Her crowning achievement was the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university in the United States for African Americans.

At 77, she suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire. Apparently her life was over. But now came almost 20 years of quiet, intense prayer from a small room overlooking the sanctuary. Small notebooks and slips of paper record her various prayers, ceaseless aspirations and meditation. She died at 96 and was canonized in 2000. (--Saint of the Day,

Katharine was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 20, 1988 and canonized on October 1, 2000. The Vatican identified in Katharine a fourfold legacy: A love of the Eucharist and her perspective on the unity of all peoples; courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities; her efforts to achieve quality education for all; and her selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice. She is known as the Patron Saint of racial justice and of philanthropists.

Prayer of the Optional Memorial

Ever-loving God, You called Saint Katharine Drexel to teach the message of the Gospel and to bring the life of the Eucharist to the African American and Native American peoples. By her prayers and example, enable us to work for justice among the poor and the oppressed, and keep us undivided in love in the eucharistic community of Your Church. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The typically Jesuit Novena of Grace, begun in 1643 by an Italian devotee of St Francis Xavier, still draws crowds in many Jesuit parishes from March 4-12 (the illustration is from last year's observance in Dublin's St. Francis Xavier Church). Perhaps this permits the faithful to celebrate St. Patrick (whereas those making the Novena to St. Joseph or to the Canadian Martyrs, who were devotees of Our Lord's foster-father are jsut getting underway on March 12).

The Novena of Grace originated in Naples, Italy in 1643. The Novena of Grace owes its origin to St. Francis Xavier. In December 1633 Fr. Marcello Mastrilli, SJ was at the point of death when St. Francis Xavier appeared to him and asked him to renew a vow he had made to labor in Japan. St Francis promised that all who implore his help for nine consecutive days and worthily receive the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharist on one of the nine days would experience his protection and hope to obtain from God any grace they ask for the good of their souls and the glory of God. Fr. Mastrilli was instantly cured. The spiritual and temporal favors, which have been obtained through the novena, caused it to become known as the Novena of Grace. It is celebrated from March 4th to March 12th, the anniversary of the canonization of St. Francis Xavier.

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Francis was born in Navarre, northern Spain in 1506. His university studies brought him to Paris where he met Inigo, later Ignatius, a mature student from the same part of Spain. Inigo was hell-bent on getting creative and ambitious people to make the Spiritual Exercises he had put together. These were a series of prayer exercises over thirty days to find out the will of God in one’s life and to follow Jesus Christ.

Eventually Francis agreed to do this, and thus began the journey of life which would eventually bring him as a missionary to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and to his death within sight of China in 1542 at the young age of 46. His memory is dear to Jesuits all over the world, and in many places this devotion has taken root in his honour.

The Novena is simply nine days of prayer, bringing intentions to the Lord and opening ourselves to his grace. Its special focus is on the following of Jesus in the life of St Francis Xavier, listening to the word of God in the Eucharist and following responses to it in the homily. We come in trust to God that God is interested in our life and in our needs.

Many intentions are for loved ones – that sons and daughters may come back to practice of faith, that someone may give up drink, drugs or crime. That someone might find a marriage partner or happiness in marriage. People pray for jobs for themselves and for the family. For cures from depression and illness, that family conflicts may be resolved and that loved ones may rediscover faith in God. The petitions cover most human needs and hopes.

The novena brings the ordinary yet deep cares of life to God, based on the faith that God does care for our lives and that our concerns are his concerns. It is centred on the liturgy of the Mass, is rooted in the bible in its readings and homilies on the Scriptures; it is focussed on Jesus Christ ,whom Francis Xavier loved and served, and is a popular and communal renewal of people’s faith in people.

Is it old-fashioned? Yes and no. Its tradition is long, some of the hymns are the old favourites, while others are more up to date. The language of the prayer can vary whether the more traditional prayer is used or the modern version. It presents no magical formula.

In good gospel tradition it hears the words of Jesus, ‘ask and you shall receive’, and we ask knowing that God always gives something through prayer. People say they have received a particular intention, and this is part of why people come. Nobody goes away disappointed from God, even if the specific intention is put on hold.

The Novena


1. Take a moment in quiet to put yourself in God’s presence and to think of your particular intention for this novena.

2. Read the biographical section and the questions for reflection for each day.

3. Spend some quiet time meditating on the reading or how you have responded to the questions.

4. Pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be to the Father.

5. Close with the following prayer:

O most kind and loving saint, in union with you I adore the Divine Majesty. The remembrance of the favors with which God blessed you during life, and of your glory after death, fills me with joy; and I unite with you in offering to God my humble tribute of thanksgiving and of praise.

I implore of you to secure for me, through your powerful intercession and the all important blessing of living and dying in the state of grace. I also beseech you to obtain the favor I ask in this Novena (here ask the favor you wish to obtain), but if what I ask is not for the glory of God or for the good of my soul, obtain for me what is most conducive to both. Amen


Francis is born into a rich family: Francis was born in 1506, into an aristocratic family. When he was 19, he went to Paris to study, to help the family fortune by becoming a cleric. By his own account, he was more interested in the parties than in studies.

Reflection: How has my family and my upbringing influenced my life and my choices?


Francis meets Ignatius Loyola: Ignatius was twice as old as Francis, and saw potential in the young man from his part of the country. It took 5 years of each man getting to know the other, but finally Francis let Ignatius direct him in the Spiritual Exercises and his life was changed forever. He decided to give his life to serving God.

Reflection: Who has been influential in my life? Have I ever examined my life and my goals in quiet prayer? What role does God play in my life today?


Francis and the First Companions are ordained: Ignatius and Francis gathered around them a group of young men with whom they prayed and planned for the future. They decided to be ordained and to go to Rome to offer themselves at the service of the Pope. Eventually they decided to form a religious order, the Society of Jesus.

Reflection: Who are my companions? Do I ever share spiritual desires with my friends, or invite them to share theirs with me? Is my faith a part of my character that I share with others? Am I willing to ask for help – from others, and from God?


Francis is secretary to Ignatius: When he joined with Ignatius and the other companions, their idea was “to do great things for God.” Others were sent to councils and to deal with Kings and princes. Ignatius asked Francis if he would stay with him in Rome and help deal with the management of the new religious order. For someone who wanted to “go forth,” this must have been a difficult assignment.

Reflection: How do I react when asked to do something I don’t want to do? How do I deal with difficult challenges in my life? Where is God in my decision-making?


Francis is sent to India: At the last moment, Francis took the place of another Jesuit who had fallen ill. With no preparation or even a chance to pack, he left to spread God’s word in foreign places. He never returned to Rome or saw Ignatius again.

Reflection: Am I ready if God calls me for a special mission? Am I listening for God’s voice in my life? Does prayer appear on my schedule every day?


Francis baptizes thousands: Francis worked tirelessly wherever he went, and he traveled throughout the lands of India and Japan for many years. Everywhere he went he taught and preached and above all, baptized. Although he was often alone and sometimes became discouraged, he was always cheerful and energetic in his work.

Reflection: How do I react when things are difficult? Do I easily get discouraged? Am I open to new challenges in my life? What really excites me?


Francis goes to Japan: Always looking for new souls to save, Francis managed to spend almost three years working in Japan. He learned Japanese customs so he could better explain the beliefs of Christianity.

Reflection: Am I open to learning new ways of doing things? Do I assume that “my ways” are automatically better? Am I willing to try to explain my faith to others?


Francis preaches by his life: When Francis went to Japan, he had a translator but he was limited by not being able to speak the language. But he soon started to make many converts, because they were impressed that the way he lived his life so closely reflected what he preached.

Reflection: What do people learn about me from the way I live? Am I embarrassed at sharing my faith in public? Do I live what I say I believe?


Francis dies overseas: Francis did not know that Ignatius had sent for him to come home; the letter arrived after he died. Legend has it that he died on the beach, looking across the ocean at China, the land he never reached.

Reflection: How do I imagine my death? What can I learn about my life by reflecting on the life of Francis Xavier? How do I want to be remembered?

Questions to ask myself each day: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?

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