We have to be proud. Now there are two American-born saints, both of them women with strong ties to New York. St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, who was canonized 25 years ago, was born here. St. Katharine Drexel, canonized a few weeks ago, was a native of Philadelphia, but her pioneering work among disadvantaged people stretched to New York and lives on here. It lives in the presence of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the congregation she founded, at All Saints and St. Charles Borromeo schools. And it is very much alive at St. Mark the Evangelist, the first Catholic school for black children in New York, which Mother Katharine Drexel established in 1912.
She was an heiress with a social conscience that moved her to invest her wealth, and her life, to make life better for black and Indian people, long before African-American and Native American became the preferred terms. People can hide behind their use of the "politically correct" titles, letting their involvement go at that. Katharine Drexel, however, did the work. St. Mark the Evangelist parish began the integration of the Catholic Church in New York, staffed by the Holy Ghost Fathers, and helped by Katharine Drexel's Catholic school for black children.
Remember, Pierre Toussaint, another on the road to canonization, was barred from some Catholic churches in 18th-century New York because he was black.
Last week in St. Mark the Evangelist School, 284 African-American children were reminded by the principal, Sister Nora Gatto, a Daughter of Charity: "St. Katharine Drexel was here. She walked where you walk, she sat where you sit, and she saw what you see when you look out your classroom windows." Even the smallest know by now that being a saint makes you an important person. It excited them that they were that close to her.
Sister Nora went on to say that St. Mark's continues its original mission of "fostering academic excellence in a Christ-centered environment." The parents present at the celebration of the canonization Oct. 11 understand that very well. They have chosen the school, and they make sacrifices to send their children there for those very reasons. Tuition is about $1,900 a year.
But the cost per child is much higher, about $3,400 a year. Here's where the commitment demonstrated by Katharine Drexel is demonstrated by the Church of New York. Funds come from the archdiocese and a few other sources, such as alumni and other private contributors.
Some alumni were proudly in attendance as the bright, smart, courteous children recited the life and work of St. Katharine Drexel, a life that is the subject of a book by a parishioner, Ellen Tarry, who knew the saint well, and, in fact, became a Catholic while she was a student in a school conducted by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were there, too. They have left a beautiful legacy of their 70 years at St. Mark's, years that included the Depression when they educated and fed more than 500 impoverished children.
It was an important enough occasion for the new Archbishop of New York to make St. Mark's the first school he has visited. Archbishop Egan pronounced it magnificent.
And there was one more important thing the celebration demonstrated: the unbroken presence of the Church in Central Harlem and other inner-city areas of New York. The cost is high. The children and parents of St. Mark the Evangelist School appreciate the effort and show that it's worth the tab. We can be proud.