The Word Among Us

July 2010 Issue

In the Footsteps of a Saint

Katharine Drexel turned my life upside down.

By: Dot Teso

In the Footsteps of a Saint: Katharine Drexel turned my life upside down. by Dot Teso

I never saw myself as a speaker for the missions. To me, mission speakers were always nuns or priests who spoke eloquently about their cause, effortlessly encouraging parishioners to make generous donations.

Yet here I sit, waiting for the parish priest to introduce me to his congregation. While I wait, I am having a conversation in my mind with God. It is always the same. First, I am making sure God doesn’t forget to download what he wants me to say. Then, my mind moves to remembering the conversation that got me to this place.

That conversation was at Our Lady of the Light Catholic Church in La Luz, New Mexico. When I think back about that day, May 2, 2003, I will always remember the sun. It was as if it were shining just for me—I can still feel the warmth.

"Call on Me." I had just come from the hospital, where I had been told that my mother had advanced ovarian cancer. She would be in recovery from surgery for a couple of hours, and all I could think about was running to God. I was a recent convert to the faith, but I remembered a priest’s words from a few years back: "If your mother was sick, wouldn’t you call your friends and ask them to pray for her? That is how you can call on saints." I had never prayed this way before, but there I was—my mother was so sick. I remembered one saint that day, Katharine Drexel.

I was a fund-raiser for Catholic schools, and Drexel’s work with Catholic education was something that I was in awe of. She used her entire inheritance and spent her life opening Catholic schools in underprivileged areas. Through education, she brought children to the Eucharist and to life in Christ. And so I asked this saint to come pray with me. I did not ask God to heal my mother. I simply asked for time. I was not ready to say good-bye.

What I experienced in prayer that day is hard to put into words. Lights, music—it was miraculous, overwhelming yet calm. I just sobbed and knew for certain that St. Drexel (as I call her) was there with me.

As I left the church, I told her, "Thank you for praying with me. And I want you to know that I think it is cool what you did with Catholic schools. If I can ever help you, call on me."

I returned to the hospital and saw my mother wake up pain free. She left the hospital after three days and began chemotherapy the next week. The doctors gave her only two months.

Will You Help? I returned to my "normal" Catholic life in Indianapolis, Indiana, where my children attended Holy Spirit Catholic School, and I worked as a fund-raiser for Fr. Thomas Scecina Memorial High School.

In August, three months after going to New Mexico for my mother’s surgery, I received a phone call from her. "I am okay," she said. "The tumor is shrinking, and it looks like I will be fine for a while."

Almost as soon as I hung up, my phone rang again, "Dot, this is Sister Kathleen from St. Michael Indian School in Arizona. I am sorry to bother you at home." I had met Sister Kathleen several years earlier and had visited her school, one of the first established by Katharine Drexel. St. Michael’s is in the Diocese of Gallup, which is among the poorest in the United States. The school offers Catholic education to children from Native American communities; over ninety percent of the student body is Navajo.

Sister Kathleen told me that St. Michael’s might have to close due to lack of funds. "We need your help," she said. "It is as if St. Katharine herself was willing me to call you."

As Sister worried aloud about how to pay me, or if I would even want to help, all I could think about was what I had promised St. Drexel back in May. My admiration for her work was so immense—what an honor to assist one of her schools!

"No worries. I will help you, Sister," was my response.

Will You Help More? Excited to help and humbled by the call, I began to share my knowledge of fundraising with Sister Kathleen and her staff. My children and I gave up ski trips and mini vacations so that I could afford the occasional visits to St. Michael’s, nearly fifteen hundred miles away. At first, they did not understand why I was doing this; it was hard on us all. "I am helping to save a Catholic school much poorer than the one you attend," I would tell them.

Gradually, the situation improved and it was clear that St. Michael Indian School would not have to close. But then came an even larger request: In early 2005, Bishop Donald Pelotte asked whether I would move and help the entire Diocese of Gallup. "God is calling you," he said. "Do you feel it?"

He was right. I could feel God’s call. And so that June, I moved myself and my three youngest children—then all teenagers—from a comfortable suburban life to a much simpler one in Gallup, New Mexico. The two oldest were surprisingly excited about the move, but on our first day here, my thirteen-year-old just sat down and cried. That was hard.

But children do adjust. Today, they are happy, normal, successful, and eager to help people in need. Twenty-one-year-old Jon is one of our most effective mission speakers. Jamie, nineteen, shares her musical talent at many fundraising events and recently recorded a song for our fundraising DVD. Jori, seventeen, is always ready to help with fundraising for her school, Gallup Catholic. My oldest son, Lee, has joined us; he left a good job in Indiana to set up a communications program for our diocese.

And Mom? She lived three more years. By the time she died, in October 2006, I had had all the time I needed.

Awed and Amazed. I have been working in the Diocese of Gallup for nearly five years now. And while some people back in Indiana may be thinking that I had a nervous breakdown when I moved with my children to "the middle of nowhere," we are all just fine. Our eyes and hearts are open.

Getting to help sustain this large, struggling diocese that is home to seven Native American tribes has been the most amazing adventure. It is all so humbling. I often wonder what I did to deserve such a blessing.

It’s a big job, and I still pray with St. Drexel. In fact, our lives have become more intertwined. Often I can feel her presence and I am comforted to know that she is still praying with me.

So yes, I am your mission speaker. Just a mom, a regular Catholic, a person who just a few short years ago was sitting in the pew, looking at her watch and thinking about all the ordinary stuff she needed to do—never imagining that God had such an amazing plan.

Dot Teso is executive director of Catholic Peoples Foundation in the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico and Arizona. To learn more, visit

Click here to go to Catholic People's Foundation Website.