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Inspired by a saint

NCR Staff
New Orleans

Leo Luke Marcello, professor and poet, can’t remember precisely when or how St. Katharine Drexel won him over, but win him over she did.

Perhaps it started when he was a young boy and heard her name spoken around in De Ridder, La., where he grew up in a family of Sicilian immigrants. Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia socialite who became a nun and a missionary, died when Marcello was 9.

Years before he was born, she had spent time in Louisiana building schools for black children. In New Orleans she founded Xavier University, the only historically black Catholic university. It was fundamental to her mission: using the fortune she inherited from her father for the education of Native American and African-American children. She built some 65 schools in some of the poorest areas of the United States.

Katharine Drexel knew southern Louisiana and its needs quite well.

What Marcello is more certain about is that his relationship with Katharine Drexel mysteriously grew, drawing in his younger brother, Chris, and turning them both into evangelists of sorts.

One of Leo Luke Marcello’s four books of poetry, Blackrobe’s Love Letters (first edition by Xavier Review Press, 1994; second edition The Cramers Press, 2000) is about Katharine Drexel’s life. He and Chris, a full-time artist, both of Lake Charles, La., have put together a program of paintings and poetry and given it some 50 times around the country since 1992. Leo Luke reads poems about Drexel’s life while Chris shows slides of 18 related oil paintings and sketches. All have been sold except for one, a portrait of Katharine as a nun that he gave to Leo Luke.

NCR attended one of the programs at Xavier University in mid-March. The brothers are booked as far ahead as 2002, when they’re scheduled to do the program at The Catholic University of America.

In the late 1980s, Leo Luke took some time off from teaching at McNeese State University in Lake Charles to study theology at The Catholic University in Washington. One day he did a side trip to Bensalem, Pa., to visit the shrine dedicated to Drexel at the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the religious order she founded. Since returning to Louisana, he’s been back several times since to mine the archives for information and inspiration for his poetry.

“I can tell you that I’ve done a lot of research in my lifetime,” said Leo Luke, who got his doctorate from Louisiana State University in 1976, “but I’ve never been as enthused. I was just on fire to want to know more about her, and I love speaking about her because I know in every audience there’s someone who needs to hear her story.” In part, Marcello said, he thinks it was Drexel’s connection to black Americans, so many years before the civil rights movement, that inspired him. Drexel was born in 1858 and lived to be nearly 100. She died in 1955.

Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were described by racist Southerners as “the n----- nuns,” he said. They were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.

“Her work against hatred spoke to me very strongly,” Leo Luke said. “She was so far ahead of her time in so many ways. She was so prophetic. I can talk and talk and talk about her.

“Her life was a mystery to her. She was destined to be a Philadelphia debutante and live a life like her second mother,” the former Emma Bouvier. Drexel’s blood mother, Hannah, died soon after Katharine was born; Emma died of cancer when Katharine was 21. Drexel’s father, Francis Anthony Drexel, banker and philanthropist, was a partner in J.P. Morgan & Co.

As a young woman, Katharine Drexel, caring for the dying Emma, realized that “against Mother Death, money can do nothing,” as Marcello puts it in one of his poems.

Leo Luke had hardly dared to hope that Drexel would be canonized in his lifetime. “I always hoped it would happen, but I never thought it really would,” he said. He attended canonization ceremonies at the Vatican last October, joining the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament as honored guests.

In some ways, Leo Luke says, his own life is a mystery to him, just as Drexel’s was to her. He and Chris bracket a family of five children. Leo Luke, 55, is the oldest; Chris, 16 years his junior at 39, is the youngest.

“When I left for college, Chris was still in a crib, and I told myself I’d never know this brother,” Leo Luke said. But in later years, they became the best of friends.

Chris said he wasn’t interested in Katharine Drexel at first, but as Leo Luke traveled to the Katharine Drexel archives in Bensalem and carried stories home, he, too, was won over. Leo Luke asked Chris if he’d do a painting of Drexel as a backdrop for his poetry readings. Chris said, “Well, maybe I’ll do more.”

“It snuck up on me,” Chris Marcello said. “I wasn’t expecting to be so moved.”

Besides the Drexel series, Chris has done a group of paintings inspired by memories and the role memory plays in connecting people to one another, and a series based on a nine-week trip through Europe and northern Africa.

Another area of common interest for Chris and Leo Luke is their Sicilian roots. Leo Luke has been to Sicily to visit family five times in recent years; Chris has gone three times. The result: Leo Luke’s book of poetry Nothing Grows in One Place Forever: Poems of a Sicilian American (Time Being Books, 1998) and, for Chris, whose works, exclusive of commissions, sell in the $500 to $1,500 range, some paintings.

One of Leo Luke’s poems from that book, “The Fig Tree,” was incorporated into a sculpture on display at Ellis Island last November through March. The poem was read at a ceremony to close the exhibition.

Including the Drexel programs, Leo Luke has done about 200 poetry readings around the country.

“We inspire one another. We’ve been a constant source for one another,” Chris said of the brothers’ relationship.

Chris and Leo Luke aren’t collaborating on a new project at the moment. But, Chris said, “The door is wide open.”

For more information about Leo Luke and Chris Marcello:

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001