In high society of the early 20th century, the Drexel family moved in the same circles as the Biddles, Bouviers and Astors, to name a few. However, one of the most notable members of the family was a woman who used her wealth to embrace a life serving Black and Native Americans. Heiress, debutante, educator, missionary, philanthropist: Her name was Katharine Drexel and she became one of the first American saints.
Katharine was born on Nov. 26, 1858, second daughter of Francis Anthony and Hannah Langstroth Drexel and younger sister to Elizabeth. Francis was an international banker and the Drexels were a prominent Philadelphia family. Her mother passed away when Katharine was just 5 weeks of age. Her father remarried Emma Bouvier two years later, and younger sister Louisa was born in 1863. Francis’ brother was Anthony Drexel, was the founder of Drexel University.
The girls led a charmed life, yet one full of faith. Prayer had been a regular part of the family’s daily routine, and once a week, the Drexels opened the doors of their home to the poor, providing food, clothing and financial assistance to those in need.
They travelled the country and the world. In 1884, the Drexel family travelled West and saw how bleak conditions were for Native Americans. The family’s European travels included a meeting with Pope Leo XIII. During the meeting with the pope, the sisters had asked for assistance for the missions in the West. The pope is said to have replied “Why don’t you become a missionary?” Katharine had also seen the toll that prejudice took on African-Americans in the American South. These experiences wold influence the focus of her vocation.
Katharine made her social debut at age 19 and had many suitors who wished to marry her. However, she was deeply moved by the passing of her stepmother, realizing that money was not as important as the value of life and felt that she was called to serve God instead of getting married.
Francis Drexel died in February 1885. He left a fortune of approximately $15.5 million (about $400 million in today’s terms) with donations being left to several charities, and the remainder going to his three daughters. One of the girls’ first acts of charity following their father’s death was to send money to St. Francis Mission Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest, had become Katharine’s spiritual mentor, and the seeds of her life’s mission grew under his guidance. After much time soul-searching, Katharine realized her life’s calling was to serve Black and Native Americans and entered the Sisters of Mercy convent in Pittsburgh in 1889. She took her first vows in 1891. Later, taking the name Mother Katharine, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, called so because of her devotion to the Eucharist and the people she wished to serve. The first motherhouse was located at the Drexel summer home in Torresdale, Pa.; what would become the permanent motherhouse was later built in Bensalem, Pa.
In 1894 Mother Katharine opened her first mission, St. Catherine’s Indian School, in Santa Fe, N.M. Many more schools and missions followed for Native Americans in the West and African Americans in the South. Additionally, she worked with other religious orders to establish schools in Arizona and New Mexico. She financed the printing of a Navaho Catechism. One of her greatest legacies was the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first and only Catholic college devoted to the education of African Americans. All of the congregation’s endeavors were funded in great part by her inheritance.
Mother Katharine had a heart attack at age 77, which slowed her abilities to be active in ministry. She passed away on March 3, 1955 at the age of 96. At the time of her death, there were more than 500 sisters in the congregation she founded who worked at schools and missions in 16 states.
St. Katharine Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II in October 2000. She was the second American saint to be canonized. She was originally buried at the motherhouse in Bensalem. In 2018, citing financial strain, the sisters sold the large property to a real estate developer. St. Katharine’s remains were moved to the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in Center City, Philadelphia, resting at a side altar that had been previously established by the Drexel family.
St. Katharine’s Feast Day is March 3.
She is the patron of racial injustice.
Read her biography at Franciscan Media here: https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-katharine-drexel/
Lou Baldwin, Philadelphia historian and long-time writer for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, wrote a biography of Mother Katharine. Check it out here.
Cordelia Frances Biddle, a relative of Mother Katharine Drexel, also wrote a biography. Find it here.
Read St. Katharine’s official Vatican biography here.
Here’s an interesting Drexel University story about the return of St. Katharine’s body to Philadelphia.
Learn more about the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament: www.katharinedrexel.org/