Javascript is currently disabled. This site requires Javascript to function correctly. Please enable Javascript in your browser!

Saint Katharine Drexel

Saint Katharine Drexel
  • Century: 19th & 20th Century
  • Patronage: Philanthropist, Racial Justice
  • Feast Day: March 3rd

St. Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Marie Drexel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858.  She was the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth.  Her family owned a considerable fortune, and her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  Her mom died five weeks after childbirth, and their aunt and uncle Ellen and Anthony Drexel cared for Katharine and her sister Elizabeth.   When her dad remarried Emma Bouvier in 1860, he brought the two daughters home.  They had a third daughter, Louise, born in 1863.  The girls were educated at home by tutors.  They also had the advantage of touring the United States and Europe with their parents.  The family distributed food, clothing, and rent assistance from their family home, twice a week, believing in helping the poor.  

As a wealthy young woman, she nursed her stepmother through three-years of terminal cancer.  She realized that the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain, or death, and her life took a profound turn.  She had always been interested in the plight of the Indians.  The family took a trip to the Western part of the United States in 1884, and Catharine saw first hand, the plight and destitution of the native Indian-Americans.  This aroused her desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition.  This began her lifelong support, both personal and financial, of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States.  After her father’s death in 1885, she and her sisters contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation.  

Catherine and her sisters were recovering from the father’s death when they went to Europe in 1886.  In 1887, during a private audience with Pope Leo XIII, she asked him for missionaries to staff some of the Indian missions that she was financing.  She was surprised to hear the Pope suggest she become a missionary herself.  She could have easily been married, but consulted with her spiritual director Bishop James O’Connor, and made the decision to give herself to God.  She also decided to take her inheritance, and be of service to American Indians and African-Americans.  In 1889, she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh to begin her six-month postulancy.  Her decision rocked the Philadelphia social circles.  Her father’s estate in today’s worth would be around $250 million.  The three girls would have divided this.  

On February 12, 1891 she professed her first vows as a religious, dedicating herself to work among the American Indians and African-Americans in the western and southwestern United States.  She took the name Mother Katharine, and joined by thirteen other women, established a Religious Congregation, “The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament”.  Mother Cabrini advised her about he “politics” of getting her Order’s Rule approved in Rome.  She felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.  The Georgia Legislature in 1913, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at Macon School, tried to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers from teaching black students.  

Her and her first band of Nuns opened a boarding school in Santa Fe.  By 1942 she had a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.  Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania.  In all, she established 50 missions for Indians in 16 States.  The most famous foundation was made in 1915, it was Xavier University, New Orleans, the first such institution for Black people in the United States.  When purchasing an abandoned university for this project, vandals smashed every window.  In Beaumont Texas, the local Klansmen posted a threat on the door of the Sisters, telling them to get out.  That evening a violent storm ripped through Beaumont, destroying a building that served as the Klan’s headquarters.  She didn’t have any more problems from them.  

Over the course of 60 years, up to her death in 1955 at the age of 96, Mother Katharine spent about $20 million in support of her work, building schools, Churches, and paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for African Americans and Indians.  

In 1935 Mother Katharine suffered a heart attack, and in 1937 she relinquished the office of Superior General.  Though gradually becoming more infirm, she was able to devote her last years to Eucharistic Adoration, fulfilling her life’s desire.  She died at the age of 96, at Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1955.  The St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and National Shrine is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.  The Mission Center offers retreat programs, historic site tours, days of prayers, and presentations about St. Katharine Drexel, as well as lectures and seminars related to her legacy.  Her tomb lies under the main Altar in St. Elizabeth Chapel, originally known as St. Elizabeth’s Convent.  Pope John Paul II beatified St. Katharine Drexel on November 20, 1988, and canonized her on October 1, 2000.  She was the second American-born saint to be canonized; with Elizabeth Ann Seton being the first. 

Practical Take Away

St. Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Marie Drexel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858.  She was the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth.  Her family owned a considerable fortune, and her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  After the passing of her father and stepmother, she entered the religious life.  She founded the Congregation, “The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament”. By 1942 she had founded a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.  In addition, she established 50 missions for Indians in 16 States.  The most famous foundation was made in 1915, it was Xavier University, New Orleans, the first such institution for Black people in the United States.  She was the second American born saint to be canonized, with Elizabeth Ann Seton being the first.