By all accounts, St. Katharine Drexel (1858–1955) lived a remarkable life. Born into privilege as the daughter of a Gilded-Age Philadelphia banker, her spiritual yearnings ultimately drew her to embrace the religious life. In 1891 she established a religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and used her inherited wealth to fund their missionary work among Indians and blacks, two groups that had been neglected by the Catholic Church in the United States. Her actions and example led to her beatification in 1988 and subsequent canonization in 2000, making her the second American-born saint officially recognized by the Holy See.
In telling Katharine’s story, these two biographies approach her life from distinctive perspectives: one from the lens of family, the other from the lens of faith. Although the authors may not have been responsible for the design, it is revealing how the images chosen for the cover of the books each capture something of the Katharine that appears within. Biddle’s volume depicts a photograph of Katharine as a young woman of society. The image is set within a large gilt frame and sits upon a wallpaper-patterned background, so it resembles a portrait of a cherished relative hung on the wall of the family parlor. Hughes’s work, in contrast, displays a photo of Katharine dressed in the habit of her religious order, engaged in ministry, and greeting the families of Xavier University students on graduation day. A college building can be seen behind her, thus situating her between the institutions she built and the people she served.
Biddle’s biography is indeed a tribute to a member of the family. Written by the great-great granddaughter of Anthony Drexel, Katharine’s uncle and the founder of Drexel University, the book draws upon archival research and family lore to offer a lively account of the family member who has enjoyed the most enduring fame. In her narrative, she seeks to unearth origins of Katharine’s “iconoclastic spirit” and “non-conformist nature” (p. 2). Biddle provides particularly rich descriptions of the social world that Katharine inhabited, with fully half of the book focusing on her life before she entered the convent. Her attention to the social customs of the day and class expectations helps demonstrate the radical nature of [End Page 428] Katharine’s decision. As Biddle notes, “third-generation Drexels” and other members of her extended family who enjoyed the comforts and luxuries that their wealth afforded “found themselves perplexed and even threatened by their cousin’s self-abnegation” (p. 119). Yet as confounded as Katharine’s cousins may have been by her actions, Biddle herself seeks to show that Katharine remained entirely herself within her vocation. She emphasizes how Katharine lost none of her childhood exuberance and mirth, nor the keen financial acumen and strong personal resolve that had long been her hallmarks.
Written for a popular audience, Biddle’s account sparkles with engaging prose and entertaining anecdote. At the same time, however, it will likely leave scholars of American Catholicism unsatisfied. It does little to interrogate Katharine’s religious motivations or discuss the development of her religious order. Nor does it offer a critical analysis of Katharine’s spiritual convictions or her views on race and poverty, which could be both radical and conservative at the same time. More troubling, however, is the occasional lack of documentation to substantiate claims about Katharine’s personality and character. This is noticeable, for instance, when Biddle speaks of how the young Katharine “blossomed” in the “permissive and carefree environment” of her Uncle Tony and Aunt Ellen’s household, in which she lived temporarily following the death of her mother (p. 29) or how as a teenager she sought to model herself after her elegant and graceful...