"At the October 2007 New Board of Trustees Members Orientation Meeting, Sr. Monica Loughlin, SBS, presented Xavier’s Mission. It was a personal story intermixed with reflections on the rich legacy and history of Xavier. So, in Sr. Monica’s own words, here is a refreshing new look through the eyes of a great storyteller of the mission of Xavier University."
I want to begin with a word of gratitude to Dr. Francis and the Trustee committee for the invitation to talk about Xavier’s Mission. Xavier holds a place very deep in my heart. As a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament, an alumna of Xavier, a former faculty member, and a former member of the Board of Trustees of Xavier, and especially as a current dean, it is an honor for me to be asked and to have the opportunity to spend some time with you to reflect together on Xavier’s Mission.
I know each of us comes to this gathering with divergent knowledge and experiences of Xavier and of its foundress, St. Katharine Drexel. There has been much written and the Archives at XU as well as the SBS archives are rich resources. I submit, however, that the best way to learn about Xavier is from the storytellers, our ancestors—alumni, faculty, staff, SBS and non-SBS who have kept the story alive and who have spread the story by anecdotes and by the way they have lived their lives.
When I talk about Xavier, I frequently refer to an ad for the Air Force Reserve that states: First you are part of it, then it becomes a part of you. For many of us, that has been our experience at Xavier. Xavier has become part of our story. And our family has become very large! We all stand on the shoulders of those who have taken St. Katharine Drexel’s vision and expanded upon it.
There are countless names I could mention that have made Xavier what it is today. They keep the dream fresh and challenging. Primary among those who hold the dream and continue to shape it, is Dr. Norman Francis who has provided consistent leadership here for almost 40 years. Mother Katharine is the starting point, but the story is so much bigger than Mother Katharine…and one of her gifts was that she always knew that.
In brief fashion I would like to summarize our foundress’ life--
Katharine Drexel was born into great wealth in Philadelphia in 1858. Her father was Francis Anthony Drexel, head of the Drexel Banking Company and her mother was Hannah Langstroth Drexel. Her mother died within weeks of Katharine’s birth leaving Francis with sole responsibility not only for Katharine but also for her older sister Elizabeth. A few years later, their father married Emma Bouvier. A younger sister, Louise, was added to the family 3 years later.
Katharine and her sisters were privileged not only by wealth, but also by faith and love. Their lives were permeated by the word and example of their parents who stressed the primacy of faith and the necessity of good stewardship.
The girls learned values at home by their parents’ example and teaching. Katharine and her sisters received outstanding educations through private tutors and travel.
They received well-known and exotic visitors into their home, and they also engaged in extensive letter and essay writing. The girls were encouraged to reach out to those in need and to use their wealth to help alleviate the sufferings of others. To all accounts, the daughters had a delightful childhood and they learned well.
Both of their parents died when all three girls were in their 20’s. They were devastated by both deaths but they were determined to carry on the legacy of their parents.
At the time of Francis’ death, the Drexel’s had amassed a $15 million fortune that today would probably be worth close to $300 million. In his will, Francis had put the money in trust and indicated that the income from the trust was to be equally divided by his daughters and their offspring, not their husbands. His intent was to ward off suitors who might be looking for money. If at the death of the third daughter, there were no surviving offspring, the principal of the trust was to be divided among a group of Philadelphia area charities that he designated.
Katharine’s travels had included trips to the West where she learned the reality of the Native American Indians who had had their land taken away and their culture denigrated. Their treatment by the nation and by the church caused her great concern. Her love and her vast wealth were soon being shared with them. She was convinced that evangelization —sharing of faith-- and quality education were the key to empowerment.
As word of Katharine’s benevolence spread in the U. S., those concerned with the plight of the descendants of African slaves who had been brought to the U.S. and treated as a commodity contacted her for the same type of help. Her philanthropy began to solidify around these two peoples — African Americans and Native Americans.
At the same time, Katharine was also dealing with her vocation— to what was God calling her personally? Was it more? For quite a while she felt that her money could be used for her mission and then she could be of service to the people through prayer in a contemplative religious order. She was quite convinced that this was her call. She visited the pope and asked him to send missionaries to carry out the mission she had funded so could become a contemplative and be assured that her missions would continue. His response was “Why not, yourself, be come a missionary?”
Her spiritual advisers supported the Pope’s plan and asked her to discern on a closer union of her mission and vocation—they suggested she found a religious order of women devoted to the particular mission to which she had devoted her financial resources. She struggled with this decision for a long time but finally was convinced that this was God’s will.
In 1891, Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and became Mother Katharine. The new community flourished and she continued to use her amazing wealth to assure that the congregational mission flourished.
She believed in “hands on” leadership and so traveled extensively as her congregation and its works grew. She continued on as leader of the congregation until she was almost 80. After that, Mother Katharine’s weak heart finally allowed her to lead a more contemplative life until her death in her 97th year.
At the time of her death, Katharine was the sole beneficiary of her father’s trust fund. Her older sister Elizabeth had died in childbirth while Katharine was in training to begin her congregation. Katharine and her younger sister, Louise then split the income from the trust fund. Louise—a laywoman, fellow apostle and confidante, died in 1945. She had been married but never had children. When Mother Katharine died, the principal of the trust fund was distributed to a number of charities as per her father’s will—she never contested the will even though it seemed clear that her father would have provided for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had the congregation been founded before his death. Mother Katharine, however, held firm to her idea of stewardship—the money was given by God for a time to be shared with others. When she was gone the Sisters were to rely on God’s divine providence and care for all the congregation’s needs. What a courageous and accurate lesson!
God blessed the congregation and its work. There were more than 500 Sisters by the early 1960’s. For over 100 years, the congregation has been distinguished by its fidelity to its founding purpose, the efficacy of its mission, and its profound spirituality. The greatest joy of the Sisters is the abundant affirmation from the people for whom the congregation was dedicated. Today, like all congregations, the SBS are challenged by the decline in vocations and the increasing costs of care for our elders. We are now under 200 members. Remembrance of Mother Katharine’s small early congregation of 13 members and her emphasis on reliance on God’s providence fill us with peace and hope.
In order to identify Xavier’s founding mission we need to return to the year 1915. That year, Archbishop Blenk of New Orleans approached Mother Katharine about the lack of Catholic higher education for African Americans. With the guidance of the Josephites, Archbishop Blenk was able to offer a plan: Southern University that had been located uptown on Magazine St. in New Orleans had been moved to Baton Rouge in 1912 due to pressure from White neighbors. Their abandoned building which was well suited to higher education was about to be auctioned to the highest bidder.
After prayer, consultation and a personal visit to see the property, Mother Katharine purchased the building and surrounding property through a third party. Old Southern—became St. Francis Xavier, named after a great missionary.
Xavier flourished from the beginning. By 1925 a Teachers College and College of Arts and Sciences had been established and by 1927 a College of Pharmacy had been added. As the college thrived and the high school also expanded, it became clear that additional space was needed. Property on Washington and Pine was purchased in 1929 and the new buildings were dedicated in 1932.
The new buildings at that time stirred as much excitement as the green roofs do today. An article about the new site appeared in Time magazine and newspaper articles covering the event abound. At that time Xavier staff consisted of, 12 SBS, 3 Josephites and 21 lay faculty and staff. Enrollment was around 300.
The high school remained on Magazine St. and continues there today as Xavier Prep with a post-Katrina enrollment of about 400 female students.
A number of elementary schools staffed by SBS in New Orleans created an educational ladder reaching from Kindergarten through college.
It was at Xavier that Mother Katharine could best enable her whole vision and congregational mission—that those who were educated and evangelized by the SBS would become the leaders, educators and evangelizers themselves. The vision has been made a reality in ways that she couldn’t even have imagined.
The impact of University has been told and retold by individuals who were part of the story. It is told everyday here at the University by example as so many graduates have returned to give back and to share. In a unique way, Dr. Francis epitomizes the fulfillment of Mother Katharine’s dream.
Mother Katharine’s death in 1955 had a profound impact on Xavier in many ways, the most obvious being financial. Since she and her two sisters all died without offspring, the trust fund established by her father was divided among charities he had designated.
In order to assure accreditation of Xavier, Mother Katharine had established a relatively small endowment known as the Drexel fund specifically for the University. Her ardent desire and hope had been that the Catholic hierarchy would assume financial responsibility for the University in a manner similar to Catholic University but that has never happened. At her death it was clear that the days of unlimited full scholarships based on need and ability were over. Also, soon after her death, the cultural phenomenon of the 60’s found its way to Xavier.
The anti-war and Black power movements impacted Xavier significantly as did the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. God’s divine providence bestowed strong leadership both at the University and within the SBS congregation.
Here I must mention Sr. Mary David Young who was the SBS Mother General from 1964-1970. Her deep understanding of Mother Katharine’s vision and her ability to risk, enabled Xavier to move through those difficult days. She led Xavier in the reformulation of its governance structure, identification of new leadership, rededication to its mission and to new and enriching insights into race and culture.
The purpose or mission of Xavier did not change when Dr. Francis became President, but the standard operating procedures took a long leap. When Sr. David and the Sisters turned over Xavier to lay leadership, they did so wholeheartedly. There was no micromanaging, no “reserved powers.” For both the congregation and Dr. Francis and his associates there was a whole lot of reliance on divine providence. That mode of governance and the selection of Dr. Francis as leader have served Xavier well as evidenced by the phenomenal growth and solid reputation that Xavier enjoys today.
Throughout Xavier’s history, in the planning and implementation of the University initiatives at every level, there has always been collaboration with others in order to maximize potential. From the beginning, the administration, staff and faculty were black, white, religious and lay, from the United States, from outside the United States, Catholic and non-Catholic.
It seems clear that this desire for consultation and collaboration did not result from insecurity but rather from the humility/truth that characterized Katharine all of her life.
At the dedication of the new buildings at Xavier in 1932, Katharine watched from a window while those who were actually directly involved took center stage. In the vernacular of today, we would call Mother Katharine “gutsy” and would be echoing “You go girl!”. At a time when women did not have an active voice in society she was not only courageous but also fearless in working for justice. She raised the consciousness of the church and nation. Hers was never a strident voice but she was assertive, respectful and compelling in her arguments. She called her church and her nation to be true to the gospel and to the Bill of Rights. Hers was a voice that could not be stilled.
Mother Katharine was clear about the purpose of Xavier University. She wanted to invite people to fully share in the faith that had shaped her life and she wanted to produce leaders—for society, for government, for the church. From the beginning, there was a great deal of emphasis on liberal and practical education as well as a requirement of service, especially with the students at other SBS schools. There was a strong emphasis on “giving back” with the sense of stewardship or sharing—freely have you received, freely give.
Clearly, the purpose of Xavier has been very consistent over its history. The current Mission Statement of Xavier in many ways quite identical to the founding Mission:
Xavier University of Louisiana, founded by Saint Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, is Catholic and historically Black. The ultimate purpose of the University is to contribute to the promotion of a more just and humane society by preparing its students to assume roles of leadership and service in a global society. This preparation takes place in a diverse learning and teaching environment that incorporates all relevant educational means, including research and community service.
Today, more than ever before, we all need to be conscious of fidelity to Xavier’s founding gift. We need to tell the story, reflect on the truth and discover where our lives intersect with the mission of Xavier.
*All photos provided by Xavier University archive.