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Future saint had hand in starting church for Black Catholics in Southern Maryland

St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in McConchie, Maryland was established in 1911. The small country church in Charles County has historic ties to a saint. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

When he was named pastor of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in McConchie, Maryland, two years ago, Father Aaron Qureshi said he began “puzzling over why” the parish was named in honor of the martyred saint.

“It is rather unusual because you do not hear many parishes named after her,” he said. “I asked some of our old-timers and no one seemed to know. It was all very curious.” 

St. Catherine of Alexandria was a fourth century virgin and martyr. She converted to Christianity at the age of 14 and was martyred at the age of 18. She was one of three saints of whom St. Joan of Arc reportedly had visions. The others were St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Michael the Archangel. St. Catherine of Alexandria is also counted among the “14 Holy Helpers,” a group of saints to whom devotion began during the Middle Ages and whose intercession was sought to ward off the bubonic plague.

With equal amounts of curiosity and dogged research, Father Qureshi began looking into the reasoning behind the parish name. And, while he did not uncover why the parish has the name it has, he did make another startling discovery: St. Catherine of Alexandria Church was built with funds donated by a future saint who shares the same name. 

Mother ­– now Saint – Katharine Drexel donated $500, ­about half the total construction cost, for the church to be used by African American Catholics who were descendants of the formerly enslaved residents of that part of Southern Maryland.

Above, this likeness of St. Katharine Drexel is seen at the Katharine Drexel Shrine in Bensalem, Pa. St. John Paul II canonized her in 2000, making her the second American-born saint. Below, a statue of her in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception reflects her life's work in expanding educational opportunities for African American and Native American children. (Photo above/CNS photo/The Crosiers; photo below courtesy of the National Shrine)

Born in Philadelphia in 1858, Katharine Drexel was a wealthy heiress who turned away from a high society lifestyle to dedicate her life to ministering to Native Americans and African Americans. She founded the Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament and used her vast fortune to found schools and missions around the country for Black Catholics and Native Americans. She also founded Xavier University in New Orleans. She died in 1955, and was canonized in 2000.

Father Qureshi, who also serves as pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Hilltop, Maryland, made the discovery of St. Katharine Drexel’s connection to his parish this past March with the help of Jesuit Father Thomas Clifford, an historian who serves as pastor of St. Ignatius Church in Chapel Point, Maryland.

“Father Clifford was very generous, and he went through things with me, paging through dusty file after file and folder after folder,” Father Qureshi said. “We finally turned to an old ledger book with entries from 1911, and right there clear as day on the income side of the sheet it read, ‘Gift from Mother M. Katharine Drexel, $500’.”

The priest added that “I just about fell out of my chair when I saw that St. Katharine Drexel had something to do with the founding of our parish.” Ironically, the discovery was made on March 2, the vigil of the Feast of St. Katharine Drexel.

Jesuit Father Thomas Clifford, at left, joins Father Aaron Qureshi in looking over a ledger that shows the building of St. Catherine of Alexandria Church received major support from St. Katharine Drexel. Father Clifford is pastor of St. Ignatius in Chapel Point, and Father Qureshi leads St. Catherine of Alexandria in McConchie and St. Ignatius of Loyola in Hilltop. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Through his research, Father Qureshi discovered that African Americans who had to travel by ferry and on foot to attend St. Ignatius Church in Chapel Point wanted to build their own chapel.

“This area was heavily populated by Blacks, and Black Catholics were travelling to other parishes in the area. It was an arduous journey, they did not have horses, and of course they were relegated to sit in the gallery or in the choir loft,” Father Qureshi said. “It was the inspiration of Father William Tynan (the Jesuit founder of the parish) that they should have their own chapel, not only for convenience, but so they could have their own place where they would not feel the strictures of the other parishes.”

Once Father Qureshi discovered St. Katharine Drexel’s connection to the founding of his parish, he contacted the Philadelphia-based archivist for the Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament for more details.

“They had a treasure trove of information,” the priest said. He discovered that Father Tynan wrote a letter to Mother Drexel explaining that “there is a neck of land here in one of six missions cut off by water and entirely settled by colored who have kept the faith despite great difficulties. They are anxious to build a chapel down there.”

In a series of letters ­– a total of five letters from the priest to the future saint still exist­ – Father Tynan asks for a loan “on easy terms.” Mother Drexel writes back, asking for more information about the people who want to build the chapel and if they have money to contribute to its construction.

Father Tynan writes that the parishioners are Black Catholics, most of whom own their own homes or farms, and that he says Mass for them on the second Sunday of each month in a building they fixed up for that purpose.

Mother Drexel, learning that the chapel will cost $1,000, pledges $500 to the effort if the founding parishioners can raise the other half. They did so in one day. “They must have made some major sacrifices to make that happen so quickly,” Father Qureshi said of those founding parishioners. “To raise $500 would have been no easy feat when the average Sunday collection then was about $2.”

This 1911 ledger page from St. Ignatius in Chapel Point records Mother Katharine Drexel's $500 donation for the construction of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in McConchie. (Photo courtesy of Father Aaron Qureshi)

Once the donation was made, Father Tynan wrote back to Mother Drexel thanking her and telling her that “your generous offer stirred them up as nothing else could have done … They wish you to select a name for the chapel.”

In two subsequent letters to Mother Drexel, Father Tynan writes that “the good to be accomplished will go on ever increasing and your reward will be measured only in eternity” and “the church now being erected through your noble generosity will be ready for occupancy in six weeks, and much is expected from it.”

Unfortunately, no responses from Mother Drexel are in the archives.

“We only have Father Tynan’s letters to her, not her response,” Father Qureshi noted. “We are hearing only one side of the conversation, and it is pretty fascinating.”

Father Qureshi said that correspondence took place in May and June of 1911, and by Christmas of that year, the chapel was built and Masses were being said.

“There is a rumor that the chapel was ordered from Sears & Roebuck, or at least some of the parts and pieces were ordered from them,” Father Qureshi said. “The parish was poor, but they had a lot of blue-collar talent – artisans and carpenters ­– who helped build it. They wanted to claim it as their own. They wanted to say, ‘This is our faith, and this is our chapel’.”

Father Qureshi said that while he was amazed at the discovery of St. Katharine Drexel’s connection to his parish, he is “still a little puzzled how we got our name.”

He said two possible theories are that the parish was named in honor of Catherine Brent, a 17th century English woman who was among the most prominent of early settlers in the Maryland colony; or that St. Catherine of Alexandria was chosen as patroness “because there is a connection there to Africa.”

“It is just one of those mysteries we may never get to the bottom of,” Father Qureshi said, “but we discovered St. Katharine Drexel had a crucial role in the founding of our parish and in some way her name lives on here.”

Father Aaron Qureshi, pastor of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in McConchie, Maryland, was curious to discover how the parish got its name. In doing research, he found out that Mother ­– now Saint – Katharine Drexel donated money for its construction.  (CS photo by Andrew Biraj)