We were delighted to chat with the author of Veiled Leadership, Amanda Bresie. Amanda Bresie is the current President of the Texas Catholic Historical Association and teaches at the Greenhill School, Addison, TX.
Q: What drew you to Katharine Drexel and /or inspired you to write this book about her?
A: I have been interested in religious sisters since I worked with some Dominicans at a Catholic School. I remember Sister Mary V doing Donald Duck impressions to make the kids laugh. Working with these women made me realize that the stereotypes I had about women religious were false. I discovered Katharine Drexel a few years later in a footnote in a book on the American West. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about this sister who crisscrossed the West founding schools. The more I dug into her life, the more convinced I became that her story needed to be told. The books I read about her addressed Mother Katharine the saint but did not talk about the historical and cultural forces that shaped what she did. Rather than an aberration, Drexel’s story is American History.
Q: In addition to Mother Katharine, you look at the larger constructs of gender, race, religion, reform and national identity. How did you balance telling a story about Mother Katharine with looking at these larger constructs?
A: This was sometimes tricky, but I don’t think it is possible to understand Mother Katharine without her context. Many of the previous works on Drexel examine her as a saint, a woman for all time, but she was very much a product of her time. Her life is by any metric extraordinary–she was an heiress, a foundress, a CEO of a massive philanthropic trust–but through this extraordinary life, we can get a good luck at larger 19th and 20th century issues. In a period when scholars are increasingly interested in intersectionality, the story of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament can be illustrative. The Sisters experienced the misogyny of a patriarchal Church. They dealt with anti-Catholic sentiment during the rise of Nativism. They campaigned for education and rights for Black and Indigenous people. At the same time, they imposed their own white, middle-class values on those they sought to help. Despite being counter cultural figures, they acted agents of assimilation and sometimes harmed those they wanted to assist. As interested as I am in Katharine Drexel and the SBS, what I really wanted to do was investigate the complicated world they inhabited.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this book?
A: My favorite part of the research was examining Mother Katharine as a business woman. I enjoyed reading the letters where she dictated the terms of business arrangements often stopping priests and bishops in their tracks. For all of her piety and talks of obedience, she had an iron will, and she almost always got her way.
Q: What do you hope a reader takes away from this book?
There are a lot of books on Catholicism, anti-Black racism, government policy towards Indigenous people, feminism, and social reform movements, but this book is unique in that it grapples with all of those issues. My hope, though, is that the story of a group of women who dared to change the world–even with flawed methods–shines through. As I say in the book, “The history of race, gender, and religion in America is a complicated on that has kept scholars busy for years. . . . Drexel and the SBS saw things more simply. They witnessed inequality and prejudice and sought to use their Catholic faith to expand the definition of who got to be an American. It was other people who made it complicated.”