Thursday, March 3, 2011

St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine Drexel was born in 1858 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father was a wealthy banker, and her uncle the founder of Drexel University. When she was a young woman, her family took a trip to the Southwestern United States, where she observed the poverty and destitution of Native Americans there. She was deeply moved by their plight, and wanted to do something to make improve their living conditions. In 1887, she built a school for Native Americans in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the years that followed, she established several other schools for Native Americans.
Later that year, Katharine was given an audience with the Pope, in which she requested that he send missionaries to help serve in her schools. She was surprised when the Pope suggested that she return and work as a missionary there, herself. After receiving counsel from her spiritual director, she became a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, with the understanding that in two years she would begin her own Order. After her novitiate, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. She would dedicate her life and her sizable inheritance, to serving Native Americans and African Americans, to educating them, and to improving their lives. Thirteen sisters joined her in the Mother House of the order at St. Elizabeth's Convent in Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania. Their mission would be to found and staff schools for Native Americans and African Americans throughout the country. By 1942, she had established 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools in 13 states, in addition to Xavier College in New Orleans- founded primarily to train teachers to teach in her schools.
She had inherited $20 million from her father, but she lived under a vow of poverty, and gave all of her inheritance away to the needy and to the work of creating schools and churches. In 1935 she had a heart attack, which forced her to retire to a life of prayer at St. Elizabeth's convent. She remained there until her death at age 96 in 1955. At the time of her death, 501 Sisters in her Order were teaching in 63 schools in 21 states. She was canonized in 2000, two people had been healed from deafness by her intercessions: a man, healed in 1987, and a 17 month old baby healed in 1999. She is the patron saint of racial justice.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

St. Agnes of Bohemia

Bohemian Master of Prague, 1482, St. Agnes Caring for the Sick

Agnes was born in 1205 to King Ottakar I and Queen Constance of Bohemia. At the age of three, she was betrothed to Prince Boleslaus, who died before they were married. At his death, she decided that she wanted to pursue a religious life, but her parents objected, and she was betrothed to several other men, including the Holy Roman Emperor, Fredrick II. Desiring to live her life as she felt called to live it, she asked Pope Gregory IX to intervene on her behalf, and to ask Frederick to release her from the promise to marry. Frederick was insulted by the request, but freed her from her obligation. "if she had rejected me for another man" said Frederick, "I would have made my vengeance felt, but I cannot take offence if she prefers the King of Heaven to myself".

Her father had died in 1220, and left her quite a bit of wealth. In imitation of her cousin, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Agnes used her wealth to build a hospital in Prague,in honor of St. Francis. She also built a convent for the Poor Ladies and asked the Pope to send a group to Prague. She was hoping a group would come from San Damiano, but instead, five sisters were sent from Trent. Agnes entered the convent on Pentecost Sunday, 1234. In August, the Pope directed that Agnes be made the Abbess of the convent. She declined, but he ordered her to accept.

She and St. Clare never met, but they corresponded with each other for at least twenty years. Only four of Clare's letters to Agnes survive, but the letters show that these two women shared common desires and common struggles. Both desired to live lives of poverty, prayer, and service, and both desired to have the wishes they had for their own lives blessed by the Church. Yet, they continually struggled with the Church, and with a Pope who sometimes did not share their vision. Finally, the Pope did relent and allow her the "Privilege of Poverty", that she desired, but he never allowed her to form her community after the manner of Clare and the convent in San Damiano. He insisted her community follow his own Rule, which was based on the Rule of St. Benedict. However, she did never gave up. And in 1250, Pope Innocent IV allowed the Poor Clares in Prague to follow the Rule of St. Francis.

There were heavy snows in the winter of 1281, which brought famine. Agnes did without food so that others would have food to eat. She soon became weak and to the point of death. Her Legend tells the story of her death:
"On the third Sunday of Lent, sensing the approach of her happy departure from earth, she confided to a few of those most dear to her that the hour of death had come. With profound devotion she assured the safety of her journey by receiving the holy Eucharist and Anointing, in the presence of the friars and sisters... The following day, she was radiant with joy, a smile always on her face. As Mass was about to be celebrated at the ninth hour, she entrusted her soul into the hands of the heavenly Father. On the 2nd March 1281 she fell asleep serenely in the Lord, and was accompanied by an escort of angels to enter jubilantly into eternal joy."

Many miracles were wrought by intercessions to Agnes, both during her lifetime, and after her death, yet she was not beatified until 1874, and her canonization was not until 1989. Her holiness was renowned, as St. Clare herself acknowledged in her first letter to Agnes:

As I hear of the fame of Your holy conduct and irreproachable life, which is known not only to me but to the entire world as well, I greatly rejoice and exult in the Lord. I am not alone in rejoicing at such great news, but [I am joined by] all who serve and seek to serve Jesus Christ. For, though You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Caesar with splendor befitting You and His Excellency, You have rejected all these things and have chosen with Your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus You took a spouse of a more noble lineage, Who will keep Your virginity ever unspotted and unsullied, the Lord Jesus Christ:

When You have loved [Him], You shall be chaste;
when You have touched [Him], You shall become pure;
when You have accepted [Him], You shall be a virgin.
Whose power is stronger,
Whose generosity is more abundant,
Whose appearance more beautiful,
Whose love more tender,
Whose courtesy more gracious.
In Whose embrace You are already caught up;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones
And has placed priceless pearls in Your ears
and has surrounded You with sparkling gems
as though blossoms of springtime
and placed on Your head a golden crown
as a sign [to all] of Your holiness.

St. Clare and St. Agnes, painted by Sister Roberta Cusack, OSF

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March: Women's History Month

As March is women's history month, I am going to briefly write about women saints during the month of March. I'll try not to write about Our Lady each time, although that will be a great temptation. I hope to tell the stories of lesser known women who loved Christ and made a difference in the world.
Of course today is the feast day of Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales. In the East, today is also the commemoration of St. Eudokia of Heliopolis, who was martyred in 107. She was a beautiful Samaritan woman who was born in Syria, and accumulated great wealth for herself as a prostitute in Heliopolis. One day, she heard the Christian monk, Germanos, chanting his prayers while visiting her neighbor. She heard him read from Matthew's Gospel, 25:31-46:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirst and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Eudokia was filled with remorse for her sinful lifestyle, and asked the monk if it was possible for her to be spared from God's judgement. He instructed her to fast and pray for a week, alone in her house. She did so, and on the seventh day, she had a vision in which the Archangel Michael appeared to her, and assured her that Christ loved all people, and that salvation through Christ was for all people.

She was baptized, and at the age of 30, abandoned her former life, and started a monastic community for women in the Egyptian desert. She gave her wealth away to care for t
he poor, and preached the Gospel message of God's love for all. Through her charitable giving and preaching, many were converted to Christ. This drew the anger of pagan officials, who had her beheaded in 107.

Kontakion (Fourth Tone)

When thou wast brought up from the mire of transgression,
like a most precious stone whose brightness is darkened,
repentance made thee shine again with godliness;
and when thou hadst reached the height of ascetical striving.
Christ made thee illustrious with the glory of contest,
and hath bestowed on thee His grace to heal,
O wise Eudocia, thou rival of angel-kind.

Troparion (Fifth Tone)

O Eudoxia, when godly fear entered your heart,
You abandoned the glory of the world,
And hastened to God the Word.
You took his yoke on your flesh
And shed your blood in a contest surpassing nature.
O glorious martyr,
Entreat Christ our God to grant us his great mercy.