St. Katharine Drexel was an heiress, a religious foundress, and a pioneer in education for underprivileged minorities. Katharine was the second daughter born to Philadelphia banking magnate Francis Drexel and his wife Hannah. Five weeks after Katharine’s 1858 birth, Hannah died. Several years later, Francis married Emma Bouvier, and three years later, a third daughter was born.
PRIVILEGED BUT CHARITABLE
The home of the Drexels was one of great wealth, faith, and charity. Emma taught her daughters that their wealth was meant to be shared with the poor; and alms, food and clothing were distributed from the family home on a regular basis. The girls were taught by private tutors, and the family traveled extensively in order for the girls to experience other parts of the United States and Europe. The Drexels were devout, and the family attended Mass daily. Katharine was especially devoted to the Blessed Sacrament. Emma prompted her stepdaughters to offer religion classes for the employees’ children. The girls dedicated themselves to this successful endeavor with creativity and the classes were taught for many years.
A DEBUTANTE DISCERNING
When Katharine was twenty, she was introduced as a debutante, even though she took little interest in the pomp of her social class. Her social life was active, and she received several marriage proposals. In 1879, Emma became ill with cancer, and Katharine nursed her until her death three years later. Katharine pondered entering religious life, but needed time to discern. She read a book about the plight of Native American people, displaced from their ancestral lands, and living in poverty and hopelessness. She resolved to do something tangible about it. In 1885, Francis Drexel died, leaving his three daughters a fourteen million dollar estate. Katharine made a substantial donation for the support of education for Native children. The three sisters traveled to Europe in 1886, where they recruited priests and women religious to come to America on behalf of the Indian missions. During an audience with Pope Leo XIII, during which Katharine requested missionary priests, he surprised her by telling her that she should become a missionary herself. The sisters visited the Indian missions in the Dakota Territory, and were further shocked to see how great was the need. Katharine used funds from her inheritance to establish thirteen mission schools for native children in seven western states. Aware that her own contributions were not enough, she requested of James O’Connor, Bishop of Omaha, that the U.S. bishops establish a board to solicit and distribute funds annually to meet this need.
GIVING EVERYTHING OVER FOR CHILDREN
In the spring of 1889, after meetings with her spiritual advisor, Katherine entered the Sisters of Mercy at Pittsburgh, and resolved to use her entire inheritance for the assistance and education of Native and Black children. By early 1891, Katharine had founded her own religious community and had made her vows. She was the first of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, and within a year she was joined by twenty-one women who entered postulancy under her direction. With the guidance of the Archbishop of Philadelphia, the group opened their first boarding school in New Mexico. Mother Katharine was helped by her Drexel sisters who had extensive knowledge of European educational methods.
The young religious community grew, and by 1904, there were more than one hundred sisters who had opened twelve schools for Native children and fifty for Black children. In 1910, she funded the printing of a Catechism in the English and Navajo languages. Mother [St.] Francis Cabrini advised Mother Katharine to seek approval of her Rule, and Pope [St.] Pius X approved it in 1907. Not surprisingly, the Sisters faced a great deal of prejudice and opposition by those who resented their efforts, but they were firm in their belief that these children, just like any other, deserved a quality education in order to reach their full potential. In 1915, Mother Katharine founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university in the U.S. for Black students.
INACTIVE PHYSICALLY, ACTIVE SPIRTUALLY
In 1935, she had a serious heart attack. At her doctor’s advice, she stepped down as Superior in 1937, and retired to the mother-house she had established in Pennsylvania. There, she lived for eighteen more years, devoting herself to contemplative prayer. She died there March 3, 1955, at age ninety-six.
St. Katharine Drexel shocked the social circles of Philadelphia when she walked away from a life of comfort and prestige and gave herself and her fortune completely to the education of children. She was canonized in 2000, and her tomb is located at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, where the Drexel family worshiped during her childhood. Dozens of parishes and schools are named in her honor throughout the United States, and she is a patron for the racially marginalized and for philanthropists. Her feast day is March 3.