In 1974, Robert Gutherman was a 14-year-old youth, one of 11 children growing up in the shadow of the convent of St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. He and his brothers had often served mass for the sisters. Though not yet declared venerable at the time, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament believed their foundress to be a saint. An heiress to an immense fortune, she had given it all and her whole self to educate poor black and Indian populations. So when a severe infection in Bob’s right ear persisted, the sisters gave his family a prayer for Mother Katharine’s intercession. The result? Nothing less than a miracle. It would eventually lead Pope John Paul II to declare her Blessed.
What was wrong with your right ear?
The pain was intense and wouldn’t go away. I remember my mother used to fill up one of those hot-water bottles and put a towel across it, and I’d lie on that. The burning was less than the pain that was causing all my problems. The sisters found out that I was sick. The initial push was to pray that the pain would go away, or that at least I’d be able to tolerate the pain. Shortly after that, we were advised by our family doctor to go to St. Christopher’s in Philadelphia and ask for the best ear, nose, and throat doctor they had. He put me in the hospital and did an exploratory operation on my ear. He discovered that two of the bones in my right ear were destroyed by the infection.
What happened after you were told you would never hear out of that ear again?
Over the course of the next couple of days, I noticed that I could hear the noise in the room. Someone was calling “Bobby” in the hallway, and I woke up and asked my mother who was calling me. My parents kept telling the doctor that I could hear out of my right ear. But he kept saying I must be hearing out of my left ear. Finally, after a few days he gave me a test and found I could hear. After a week or so we came back to the hospital for a checkup. The doctor looked into my ear and wrote, “His body is reconstructing anatomy.” Next to that he wrote, “Is this possible?” My mother asked, “What does that mean?” He said, “His body is healing itself.”
Did you know it was a miracle right then?
My mom asked the doctor, “Do you believe in miracles?”
He said, “When you work with children every day of your life, you have to believe in miracles.” My mother said, “We’ve been praying to Mother Katherine. I believe this is a miracle through her intercession.” He didn’t agree, but he said, “I have no other answers.” We drove right to the convent and told the sister who opened the door what was going on. Sister just nodded her head and asked my mother to write it all down and send it to her. So my mother did. Then we got a call from the Archdiocese, and they asked that we come down and tell the story to them. Both my mother and I told them the story. They also brought the doctor in. Before we left that day, they asked us, “From this moment on, you are never supposed to talk about this again until we tell you it’s okay.” Only the people who were directly involved were the privileged few who knew. We knew Rome was investigating it. For the next 14 years, we’d get a call: “We need you to go see this doctor and get this test.” And we’d go have the test. We as a family knew that it was a miracle, but it was not official. Finally we did get the phone call that it was approved.
It must have been an amazing feeling when you heard the miracle was approved.
Yeah, it was because we were not allowed to talk about it for 14 years. When it finally became official, I was 28 years old. I was out of school and working at this time. I had a whole new set of friends, and next thing you know it’s on the 6:00 p.m. news and everyone’s wondering, “Is this the Bob Gutherman we know?” I was very privileged to be involved with both the beatification and then the canonization ceremony, 12 years later. One of the things my mother said before we went was, “This is not a vacation to Rome.” She viewed it as a pilgrimage. We were going to pay honor to our neighbor who did some great things. She always viewed Katherine Drexel as a neighbor. When asked, “Why did you decide to pray to her? She said, “When you run into any difficulties, you don’t hesitate to ask a neighbor for help. She did great things for many people. Let’s not hesitate to ask for help.”
St. Katherine said, “He that abides in charity abides in God and God in him.”
Katherine Drexel viewed all people as children of God.
One of the things we tend to forget is that at that time in her life, the Indian people and the people of color in this country here were not viewed in the brightest of lights. They were not allowed to go to school with the white people. She didn’t ask for anything in return: “I’ll give you this if you give me that.” It is estimated that over her lifetime, she gave away 22 million dollars. One of the things that Katherine Drexel saw and was brought up with was that there are people who are worse off in the world. Her parents viewed their wealth as a way of helping out. They were taught that their wealth was not theirs to keep—it was theirs to share.
How do you think she would address today’s problems?
Today we so much need Jesus in our lives. We may or may not be shutting out different classes of people, but today more than ever we’re pushing Jesus out of our lives. We’ve pushed God out of the schools. We’ve pushed him out of the workplace. Then we turn around and complain about all the violence and all the drugs afflicting our world. I think today she would be pushing for all people to return to the Church, return to the sacraments. She named her order the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament because the Eucharist was central in her life. We need to get back to our roots, to a remembrance of our faith. People always say, “Keep the faith.” No. Share the faith. If you kept it to yourself, nobody would have it. It was the same with her wealth. Who needs wealth but the people who don’t have it? It’s the same for us Catholics. Who needs our Catholic faith? It’s for us to give away—to give freely and not ask for anything in return.
When you think of the miracle, do you ever ask, “Why me?”
I used to ask myself that. But the opposite is, “Why not me?” God loves each one of us more than we can ever imagine. It doesn’t matter if we’re black, white, or yellow. I am created in his image and likeness, so why not me? This miracle took Katherine Drexel to the ranks of Blessed. But I believe in my heart that miracles happen frequently; we just miss them. One of the things I’ve always said is that I’d talk to anybody about it anytime. There is no denying that for me. One reason John Paul II canonized and beatified so many people was that he was giving us all examples to follow. We now have more of a visual idea of a pathway to God. We don’t always have the financial backing to do what Katherine Drexel, did but what we do have is the means to look at another person and see God in that person. Katherine Drexel and all the modern day saints didn’t really worry about themselves as much as putting all their trust in God. It wasn’t a matter of being afraid or winning or losing. They just said, “If this of God, it will succeed.”
Visit KatharineDrexel.org to learn more about St. Katherine.
This article originally appeared in Catholic Digest in 2014.
Read about another amazing sister, Mother Marianne of the lepers here!