By Mary Rezac
Of the 106 historically black colleges in the United States, only one is Roman Catholic – Xavier University of Louisiana.
But Xavier is also the only Catholic college, of the United States’ 251 Catholic colleges, to have been founded by an American-born saint.
C. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, told CNA that the spirit and charism of St. Katharine Drexel, foundress of the school, continue strongly on campus today.
“She saw education as a transformative gift, and that’s something we need to understand today,” Verret said. “That education is not a gift to the individual, even though it does improve the life of the individual, but it’s a gift to the communities to which those individuals returned, in which they serve, it’s an ever-expanding gift.”
Katharine Drexel was born to a wealthy and devout Catholic family in Philadelphia in 1858, and shocked much of society when she decided to become a religious sister and a missionary to Native Americans and African-Americans.
Supported by the inheritance from her father, Drexel and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament founded schools to serve these populations throughout the United States, including a Catholic secondary school for African-Americans in Louisiana in 1915.
By 1917, she also established a preparatory school for teachers, one of the few career tracks available to Black Americans at the time. A few years later, the school was able to offer other degrees as well and became a full-fledged university in 1925.
Drexel’s gift was her ability to see potential, and God’s presence, in all people, despite having grown up in a segregated world.
“There’s a famous New York Times interview in 1915 when…the reporter asked Mother Katharine – ‘why are you using this expensive Indiana limestone for a school for black children?’ And Mother Katherine said, ‘do they not deserve the best?’” Verret said.
“We often remind ourselves of that, and I think that comes from her spirituality, where she could see, despite living in a segregated country where some were more valued than others, somehow she could see value in all, and I think that is her charism,” he said.
That charism continues on in Xavier University today through its “rigorous academics, its great faculty, and expectations,” Verret said.
Besides being a top-ranked Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Xavier University also sends the most African Americans on to medical school of any HBCU in the country, Verret told CNA. The school is also one of the top HBCUs for sending students on to doctoral programs in the sciences, and has several alumni who are currently serving as federal judges, he added.
“We have great students, some who come to us and may not have had the pre-collegiate experience that they needed or deserved,” Verret said. “But we recognize where their gaps are and address them and they graduate.”
Verret said that the Catholic Church has a rich tradition in the black Catholic community from which to draw, and that the Church can continually grow and learn when it comes to reaching out to the black community. During Katharine Drexel’s time, many Catholic Churches and institutions operated with the same segregation as the rest of the country.
“As a human institution we fall short of God our Father and the calling of Jesus, but that’s not (surprising) because we’re human institutions in the process of perfection – we are called to speak the truth and to bring real information and light before the world and into the Church,” he said.
The Institute of Black Catholic Studies out of Xavier University also examines the worship styles and cultural traditions of black Catholics in the country.
What is distinct about black Catholic culture can be seen clearly in the music and worship style of the community, Verret said.
“I would offer any parish to use the hymnal ‘Lead Me Guide Me’, created by the Institute of Black Catholic Studies in the late 70s and 80s,” Verret said. “The style of worship somewhat differs from the style of worship in the Northern European tradition – it is not quiet, it is much more expressive of spirituality, people sing, people express things with their hands.”
While Xavier University is historically black, the school has always been open to students of other races, and today’s student population is about 70 percent black and 30 percent students of other races.
This diversity provides students with learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom, Verret said, which can show students how to be united even with those who are different than they are, Verret said.
“In this moment we’re still struggling with – ‘who’s the other?’ We’re not assuming that we are all one people. But really we have an expansive global message [at Xavier] which is that we are one people and what we have to give is for the large community and the larger nation,” he said.
During February, which is Black History Month, the school is also sponsoring events and speakers to honor their cultural heritage, including an art exhibit, a private screening of the movie Black Panther, and a screening of the HBCU series “Tell Them We Are Rising”.
Verret added that he hoped the message that Xavier University sends through its students and alumni is one that continues to dissipate the myth that black students can’t perform as well as other students.
“We are disabusing the nation of the myth that was prevalent after the Civil War, which is that these young people are not educated and could not be educated at a high level. What Xavier did was to educate students who can sit and compete and be equal and present whether at medical school or law school…and these students demonstrate that they’re able to achieve and contribute at those levels, and that’s an important message.”