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Coming Up: Returning to the Garden



It’s awkward. I mean having an idea like this when I’m not wealthy, famous, or charismatic.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, on my first visit to Santa Fe in about 1992, I recognized it as the place where I belonged. And here there is a smaller place whose potential fascinated me from the first time I saw it.

St. Catherine’s Indian School

I discovered St. Catherine’s Indian School during my first extended stay beginning in 1999. It is located on an 11-acre tract of land, rather hidden and difficult to access off a neighborhood road. The main building, one of the largest adobes in the United States, is more than three stories tall and looks a bit like a monastery with a small bell tower on top. Sitting upon a hill in the company of 10 other buildings also considered historic, it seems to monitor traffic heading north toward Española.

Another Woman Who Left Her Mark on Santa Fe

St. Catherine’s is a ruin, an in-town ruin, and there is quite a story behind it. The heroine of that story, and in alignment with the theme of this last series of posts–is a woman. Her given name was Katharine Drexel, and she was born into a very wealthy and philanthropic family in Philadelphia in 1858. Upon her father’s death when she was 27, she inherited a portion of his estate, the largest recorded there up to that time. The education of Native Americans was of special interest to her, and she soon donated money for the construction of St. Catherine’s Indian School, which was completed in 1887.

Two years later, Katharine Drexel became a novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy. Two years after that, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which would be dedicated to the education of Negro and Indian children in some 60 schools nationwide. She would later be credited with integrating the Catholic Church. In 2000, Blessed Mother Mary Katharine Drexel was the second of the first two American-born individuals–both women–to be canonized as saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mother Katharine Drexel

With her death at 97 in 1955, her wealth had reverted to the charities designated by her father; and the Sisters found it difficult to support all of their schools. St. Catherine’s closed in 1998, and except as a site for film crews and vandals, the property has been vacant ever since.

Of course many people have had ideas about what to do with it, including one man who is now in prison because of a bad idea. Last year, the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority acquired the 11 acres for $2 million. It sounds like an amazing deal, but millions will be needed to restore the buildings; and it will be challenging to satisfy the requirements of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation in developing the property.

However, if there were ever an estate loaded with significance, symbolism, and opportunity for the right idea, this must surely be it. I wonder if nothing has succeeded so far because St. Katharine hasn’t approved of it. She was very enlightened for her time, and perhaps she would like to see the ground dedicated to the further evolution of the feminine influence for which she is renowned.

First, let’s look at the physical site. As I said earlier, the school seems to survey the highway going to the north, but it also looks down on the Veterans Cemetery where white headstones multiply like snowflakes. Of course, we are indebted to millions who have already served, and more land is needed for graves. However, the feminine mind wonders, “Must the military way of resolving conflicts of interest go on forever?”

And in the main building, which I toured one day, an energy endures that is unmistakably troubled. As did pioneers of all persuasions in America, the Catholic Church mistreated Indians in some ways. Many of us now understand how unkind and unjust it was to try to supplant indigenous spirituality. The effort has resulted in something shamans recognize as a collective “soul loss.” Nevertheless, I have read interviews with Native Americans revealing fond memories and gratitude for their education here.

The Story of the Garden

Now back to the feminine. With regard to the status of women in her time, Katharine Drexel was privileged in rare ways by establishing and governing her own order. However, she was not exempt from the teachings of Christianity that have deliberately and relentlessly subordinated the feminine. One story in particular comes up.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Masaccio, 1425

I refer to that of Adam and Eve, supposedly the first humans. We learned from this story that Eve was manipulated by Satan/the Snake to tempt Adam to eat an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. According to doctrine, Eve’s act resulted in humanity being banished from paradise in the Garden of Eden. From the first telling, this myth has lain like a curse on the feminine psyche. Ironically, the apple has endured and flourished as a profitable cash crop.

So what is the destiny of the prime piece of property on which the St. Catherine’s Indian School complex stands?

My thought is that the time is ripe for someone or some group with the wealth, vision, and determination of St. Katharine to take advantage of an extraordinary opportunity here. It would mean finding a way to create on this historic ground an institute or think tank where unfettered feminine intellect could be dedicated to finding new solutions to humanity’s foremost problems. The two pillars of success would be (1) the pursuit of truth and (2) a reverence for balance.

I realize that this is a fantasy, but creativity is known to flourish during chaotic and dangerous times like the present And there are now many women in the world who have by their own hand created the kind of wealth that Katharine Drexel inherited. In a manner of speaking, this is a matter of coming full circle. Since we have been blamed since the very beginning of our history for the exit from the Garden of Eden, it is only right that we assume responsibility for mapping the return.

In conclusion, I hope that all of you who agree will share this post with others who will be interested in the journey. There are many impeccable compasses among us.


5 Responses to “Coming Up: Returning to the Garden”

  1. Orwell or Aldous Huxley? Les Fenter

    As always, Ellen, well-written. I love your two pillars concept — Truth and Balance!
    So let’s focus on those two. Maggie succinctly calls you to the first. Your distant view of Christianity may be due for an update. Our congregation of First Methodist Church – Marble Falls, loves our Pastor, Ellen Ely. She is a fine example of Christian womanhood — learned, capable, faithful, loving, kind, inspiring, maybe too giving — and on and on. I could write a thesis about what Christ taught to counter your opinion. Although his recorded teachings, were hyperbolic, the theme is always agape – respect in action. Also the “Apostle Paul” founded the Christian church in Europe through a woman, Lydia. But hey, I still hold you in high esteem. Maybe we can sharpen steel with iron on this one and both learn more. peace, dear woman. Keep on roaring!!!

  2. Barbara McCarthy

    Wow, I think about Saint Kate’s fairly often. I remember visiting there in the seventies. One thing I remember is that the children did the custodial work – sweeping, dusting, tidying up – after school. At that time I was teaching photography at Santa Clara and San Juan Pueblos and visited with a prospective student and her parents. It seemed to have a pleasant atmosphere. Thanks for adding some more information to my memories of Saint Kate’s.

  3. Maggie

    A touching article shows how a well intentioned mission has ended in ruin and there is opportunity again. There is much to comment on that came to my mind. Primarily I agree with you in the hope that someone or an organization with the financial wherewithall will step up and bring new life to this beautiful place. However, where I do disagree is in your detour to Adam & Eve and noting that Eve is blamed. In all my upbringing and reading it was both and yes we carry that original sin with us (as some religions teach). I do commend you for writing about it and I will share it.

  4. Robert

    You could try this crowdfunding site https://www.youcaring.com/.

    “YouCaring is dedicated to compassionate crowdfunding, providing free and easy online fundraising and support for humanitarian causes.”

  5. Judyth Scott

    I agree, Ellen. The time is ripe! I’ll gladly share this post.