The Music Division's Patron Saint, Katharine Drexel

By George Boziwick, Chief, Music Division, Library for the Performing Arts
May 2, 2011
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

On Sunday, the first of October, 2000 in Rome, Pope John Paul II presided over the ceremony that would elevate Philadelphia born Katharine Drexel to sainthood. It’s doubtful that few, if any of the thousands present that rainy day in St. Peter’s Square were aware of the connection between the second American saint to be so designated and the collections of the Music Division of The New York Public Library.

Katharine Drexel was born on 26 November, 1858 in Philadelphia. As a child of the prominent Drexel banking family, she was taught from an early age that her wealth was to be used for the benefit of others.  As a young woman, she was deeply affected by Helen Hunt Jackson’s book A Century of Dishonor, regarding the government’s intervention under President Grant into the affairs of the Native American population. In 1887 at the invitation of religious clergy, Katharine toured the west and southwest to view the results of these policies firsthand. What she saw kindled a lifelong passion to support the material and spiritual well-being of both African and Native Americans. Unsure as to how to proceed, Katherine sought an audience with Pope Leo XIII and was advised to follow a missionary path. This advice and the death of her mother the following year, proved critical in her decision as to how best to initiate and undertake this important work. In 1891 Katharine entered the novitiate; and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament which she guided until her death in 1955. During her long lifetime, often amid much opposition and prejudice, Mother Drexel realized her calling by founding hundreds of missions, schools and vocational institutions exclusively for African and Native Americans. Chief among these accomplishments was the founding of Xavier University, the first Catholic university for African Americans.[1]

One hundred and twelve years prior to Katharine Drexel’s ascendance to sainthood, her uncle, the financier, collector and musician Joseph W. Drexel passed away on March 25, 1888, shortly after a major snowfall had brought New York City to a halt for three days. The earthly possessions that St. Katharine Drexel’s uncle left behind were quiet and inconspicuous compared to what nature had deposited one week earlier. But the impact of Joseph Drexel’s legacy and the blizzard of 1888 would be remembered for generations to come. 
In 1871 Joseph W. Drexel (1833-1888) on the advice of his business associate and brother Anthony, moved to New York City from Philadelphia, becoming a partner with the young J.P. Morgan in the firm of Drexel, Morgan, and Co.[2] Aside from banking, Drexel’s real gravitational pull was towards music, as a philanthropist, performer, and collector. Drexel was on the boards of many prominent organizations including the Presidency of the governing board of the Philharmonic Society of New York (1881-1888), and as a director of the newly formed Metropolitan Museum of Art.  
Drexel’s passion for collecting took shape as “The Joseph W. Drexel Musical Library,” which contained both printed and manuscript music, books and incunabula. Amassed from several major auctions (of antiquarian dealer Edward Francis Rimbault and the personal library of musician Henry F. Albrecht) Drexel’s Musical Library was the most celebrated of the era: Thomas Morley’s First Booke of Consort Lessons (1599); the only remaining copy of the engraved Parthenia In-violata (1615); John Playford’s seventeenth-century song anthologies and instruction manuals, and

Gafurio’s Theorica Musica from 1492 (pictured here) are just a few of the treasures to be found among Drexel’s 6,000 volumes. Bequeathed to the Lenox Library at the time of his death, the Drexel Collection became the cornerstone of music holdings when consolidation of the Lenox Library with the Astor Library and the Tilden Trust established The New York Public Library in 1895.[3] Without the Drexel Collection there would have been no Music Division to speak of when the 42nd Street building opened on May 23rd 1911.  Shortly thereafter upon the death of Drexel’s daughter, Katharine Drexel Penrose in 1918, the Joseph W. Drexel Musical Library Fund was established. These funds continue to add significant items of like materials to those found in the Drexel Collection.
In 1931 Music Division chief, Dr. Carleton Sprague Smith began an inquiry into the feasibility of adding like materials to what was, according to Joseph Drexel’s bequest, intended to be a discrete collection of rare music materials. After careful legal consideration and discussions with Drexel’s descendants, it was decided that the Library would continue to add rare materials purchased with Drexel and other funds into its adjacent “Music Reserve” or other rare book classes rather than integrate additional like materials directly into the original Drexel Collection. In his written decision, attorney Clarence B. Smith’s opinion for the Library on this matter affords an interesting assessment, and in light of this present article, he offers both sound advice and a prescient philosophical observation. 
[I]t may perhaps be in point to note that it is natural from the human point of view to have the names of large benefactors become identified with something larger than the original gift… Mr. Drexel has been the chief benefactor of the musical library here, and it may seem quite appropriate perhaps to make him its modernized patron saint.[4]
Who would have predicted that the legacy of the Drexel Collection and the Music Division would be linked to sainthood? Each year on March 3rd, the feast day of St. Katharine Drexel, the Music Division staff acknowledges this extraordinary connection as a reminder of the riches in our collections, and the happy directive we pursue in making these treasures available. Having the inspiration of the Drexel family in our midst informs us of not only what we continue to collect, but also of the unexpected connections that have made the history of the Music Division so unique.  Indeed, it is something worth contemplating. St. Katharine Drexel and her uncle inspire all of us in the Music Division to value our treasures and to insure that they will be made available for generations of users.

[1] Baldwin, Lou. Saint Katharine Drexel: Apostle to the Oppressed. Philadelphia: The Catholic Standard and Times, 2000. Duffy, Sister Consuela Marie. Katharine Drexel: A Biography.  Bensalem, PA: Mother Katharine Drexel Guild, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, 1966.

[2] Rottenberg, Dan. The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, pp. 101, 111, 118, 153.

[3] Susan T. Sommer, “Joseph W. Drexel and his Musical Library.” Music and Civilization: Essays in Honor of Paul Henry Lang, ed. by Edmond Strainchamps and Maria Rika Maniates, in collaboration with Christopher Hatch. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984, pp. 270-78. Susan Thiemann Sommer (1935-2008) was Chief of the Music Division from 1997-2001.

[4] Letter from Clarence B. Smith to Dr. Carleton Sprague Smith, Chief of the Music Division, 28 February, 1931. “Drexel Collection” folder, The New York Public Library Archives.