The Catholic roots of Columbia date back to 1884 when William and Catherine O’Donnell Wakeham were the first Catholic family to settle in the rural Virginia community. They founded the Wakeham Chapel in 1884 which later became St. Joseph’s Church.
In 1901, Mother Katharine had made this trip not only to inspect the [nearby] school (St. Francis de Sales), but also to discuss setting up small catechetical centers in nearby places in Virginia. This necessitated a considerable amount of train travel. Once in a coach between Richmond and Lynchburg, the train stopped at a small station marked Columbia. She noticed a gilt cross gleaming through the trees and said to her companion, Mother Mercedes, “Do you think that is a Catholic Chapel?” Mother Mercedes replied that she did not think so, as she had been told there was no Mass celebrated between Richmond and Lynchburg.
On their return to St. Francis de Sales they learned from one of the students that there was such a chapel in a little town nearby. The two Sisters went to see this chapel and found it fairly large and in excellent condition; to their surprise they also found it in perfect order, swept and dusted; on the altar clean linen and fresh flowers. There was no sign of life, but even as they were still staring about they heard shuffling steps behind them and turned to see an old Negro looking at them with keen interest. He told them he was Uncle Zeke, and that he was a convert of Father Wakeham and had been with the Wakehams for years. His daughter, Rebecca, was the student who had told them about the Wakeham Chapel.
“Ever since the death of Mrs. Wakeham in 1891, I come here to clean the Chapel every morning and say a prayer there’ll be Mass again some day”, he told them. Then taking them to the carefully tended family cemetery, he showed some headstones weathered by the years, others very new.
Mother Katharine, much touched by the old man’s loyalty and devotion, told him that she could not promise that Mass would be said in the Chapel, but she could send a few of her Sisters from St. Francis de Sales there each week to teach Catechism (Her Sisters remained a part of St. Joseph’s until 1971) and perhaps later she would open a small school. As soon as Mother Katharine returned to St. Francis de Sales, she made arrangements to carry out that part of her promise.
In [the] early 1900[s], when Mother Katharine Drexel made arrangement for the Josephite Fathers to say Mass, the Wakeham Chapel unofficially became a Public Chapel, known as St. Joseph’s.
Mother Katharine Drexel, who had started an apostolate for Native American and African American children, was also responsible for bringing a young black woman, Lydia O’Hare, to Columbia in 1904. Miss O’Hare’s role was to be catechist, organist, sacristan and schoolteacher in the one-room mission school which had been built a year earlier by Fred Nicholas, who later was to become her husband in 1906.
The daughter of freed slaves, Lydia O’Hare was a dedicated teacher and devout Catholic. Miss O’Hare and Fred Nichols eventually married and continued to manage the school for 47 years, through the Great Depression and beyond.
After the school closed Lydia O’Hare Nichols traveled to Washington D.C. to be near her adopted daughter and to spend the remaining years of her life with the Sisters of the Poor. She is buried in St. Olivet Cemetery in Washington D.C.
The name of the chapel changed from Wakeham Chapel to St. Joseph’s on October 2, 1939, and the chapel remained a mission of the Josephite Order until 1967. Mother Drexel died peacefully on March 3, 1945 at the age of 97. Saint Mary Katharine Drexel’s Feast Day is March 3.
Mother Drexel devoted her life and sizable fortune to serving others recognizing the need to serve the poor and poorly educated. At her death there were more than 500 Sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the country, including here in Fluvanna County educating the African American communities in the area. Saint Katharine Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. Our parish, St. Joseph’s/Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel is one of only two national Shrines to her in the United States.
Today, the small chapel that inspired such devotion from Zach Kimbro, Mary Katharine Drexel and Lydia O’Hare Nichols continues to serve the community of Columbia. Mass is held each Sunday at 9:00 am, and the chapel can be seen from the exterior 24 hours a day.
(Excerpted from a parish history titled St. Joseph’s Shrine of St. Mary Katharine Drexel – Its History: Past and Present, and from the biography of St. Mary Katharine Drexel, The Golden Door, Chapter 11:”The River Flows South and West”, published in 1957, two years after her death.)
Pictured from left to right: Lillian Shaw, parishioner; Fr. Przywara, priest; Jay Anderson, former mayor; Bishop Walter F. Sullivan; and Barbara Jackson, parishioner. This is the dedication of the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel our parish on October 15, 2000, two weeks after the canonization of Mother Drexel by Pope John Paul II.
Special thanks to Jay Anderson