Saints who’ve had an impact on the Diocese of Phoenix

As the Diocese of Phoenix approaches its 50th Anniversary, we felt it would be appropriate to take a brief look at the lives of some saints — and those whose causes are open — who have had an impact on the Diocese of Phoenix. The following is a list of these holy men and women and how they’ve played a role in our diocese’s history and whom can be called upon to intercede for us.

St. Katharine Drexel (far left) holds the hand of a Navajo woman was at St. Isabella Mission in Lukachukai, Arizona in this file photo from circa 1920. (CATHOLIC SUN file photo)

St. Katharine Drexel

Feast Day: March 3

Born Nov. 26, 1858 in Philadelphia to Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth, Katharine’s father was a well-known banker and philanthropist. Her parents instilled in their daughters the idea that their wealth was simply loaned to them and was to be shared with others.

When the family took a trip to the Western part of the United States, Katharine, as a young woman, saw the plight and destitution of the Native Americans, arousing a desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition. The first school she established was St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe in 1887. When visiting Pope Leo XIII in Rome to ask him for missionaries to staff some of the Indian missions she was financing, she was surprised to hear the pope suggest that she herself become a missionary.

St. Katharine Drexel is depicted in this stained-glass window found in the Diocesan Pastoral Center’s Virginia G. Piper Chapel. Benefactors of the Catholic Community Foundation, of which she is the patroness, donated the window. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

“Out of love for Jesus, she would reverse the ‘rags to riches’ American dream and, embracing a life of religious chastity, obedience and poverty, dedicate herself to the poorest and most overlooked of her brothers and sisters in America,” wrote Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in his Catholic Sun column “Overturning racial prejudice” published in 2015. She was convinced that both charity and justice required this commitment and that Catholic education was the key to truly changing their lives.

On Feb. 12, 1891, she professed her first vows as a religious, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament whose dedication would be to share the message of the Gospel and the life of the Eucharist among American Indians and African Americans. Katharine found in the Eucharist the source of her love for the poor, oppressed and a concern to reach out to combat the effects of racism. The need for quality education led her to establish schools for these populations, eventually establishing Xavier University, the only predominantly Black Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, in 1925.

For the last 18 years of her life she was rendered almost completely immobile because of a serious illness. During these years she gave herself to a life of adoration and contemplation as she had desired from early childhood. She died March 3, 1955. St. John Paul II beatified her in 1988 and canonized her in 2000. Her feast day marks the anniversary of her death.

Impact on the Diocese of Phoenix

Among the schools she founded was St. Michael Indian School just west of the Arizona/New Mexico border in 1902. The school is currently one of the few schools supported by Catholic Education Arizona outside of the Diocese of Phoenix. She also funded tuition for Tohono O’odham children to attend schools on the Gila River Reservation and in Window Rock.

She was also influential in establishing the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, which included the northern parts of what is now the Diocese of Phoenix. At her invitation, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli visited the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico in 1936 and three years later, as Pope Pius XII, erected the new diocese.

Because of her impact on Catholic education, she is the patroness of the Diocese of Phoenix Catholic Community Foundation, which includes supporting education among its missions, and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted promulgated his apostolic letter “Evangelizing Through Catholic Schools” on her feast day in 2017.