St. Katharine Drexel
November 26, 1858 – March 3, 1955
St. Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858. She was the second daughter of Philadelphia banker and philanthropist Francis Anthony Drexel and his first wife, Hannah Langstroth. Francis and Hannah had one other daughter, Elizabeth who was the eldest of the two daughters. Hannah died when Katharine was only five weeks old. Francis was deeply saddened by the loss of Hannah and for the following two years after her death, Elizabeth and Katharine lived with their aunt and uncle. Francis Drexel later married Emma Bouvier, and Elizabeth and Katharine joined them as a family. To this marriage between Francis and Emma, a third daughter, Louise, was born in 1863. The children grew up in a very loving family atmosphere permeated by a very deep faith. By word and example, Francis and Emma taught their daughters that the wealth that God had entrusted to them was meant to be shared with those in need. Three afternoons a week Emma opened the doors of their home to serve the needs of the poor. When the girls were old enough, they assisted their mother in this ministry.
As a young woman, Katharine visited the Southwest with her family. On these trips, she witnessed destitution, poverty and a lack of education among the American Indians. This experience inspired her to help alleviate their condition, and in 1887 she established her first school, St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In 1887 Katharine and her two sisters travelled to Rome, and had the opportunity to have a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. Kneeling at his feet, Katharine asked for missionary priests to be sent to assist the American Indians. The Pope responded: "Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?" Katharine had pondered the possibility of becoming a contemplative religious, devoting her life to prayer and giving her wealth to the support of the missions. This suggestion made by Pope Leo XXIII was at first disturbing to Katharine as this was not the contemplative life to which she felt inclined.
After prayer and discernment, and consultation with her spiritual adviser, Katharine Drexel entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy, in Pittsburg, PA where she received her religious formation. Then on February 12, 1891, in an arrangement with Philadelphia Archbishop James O'Connor, Katharine Drexel established a new religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People to address social injustice, provide quality education, and spread the Gospel to the American Indians and Blacks. From the age of 33 until her death at the age of 96, St. Katharine Drexel gave a "Total Gift of Self" to her ministry. She distributed her inheritance of more than $20 million to meet the needs of the Native and African Americans and was a vocal advocate for racial tolerance.
St. Katharine Drexel felt a universal need for education, especially among the Native and African Americans, so she financed more than 60 Catholic missions and schools around the United States. In 1915, she founded Xavier Preparatory School, and in 1925 Xavier University in New Orleans. Today, Xavier University retains its distinction as the only historically Black, Catholic University in the United States.
In 1935, St. Katharine Drexel suffered a severe heart attack, and for the next twenty years she lived a contemplative life in retirement. She died on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96 at St. Elizabeth Convent in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. At the time of her death, there were more than 500 Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament teaching in 63 schools throughout the United States. At that time it was the largest active religious congregation in the United States.
Katharine Drexel was beatified on November 20, 1988. She was canonized by Blessed Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000 and became the second recognized American-born saint.
The Vatican identified in St. Katharine a four-fold legacy:
A love of the Holy Eucharist and her perspective on the unity of all peoples.
Courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities.
Her efforts to achieve quality education for all.
Her selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.
Saint Katharine Drexel is known as the Patron Saint of Social Justice, as well as Philanthropists.
Her feast day is celebrated on March 3rd, the anniversary of her death. She is buried at Saint Katharine Drexel Mission Center and Shrine located at St. Elizabeth's Convent, the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
To learn more about St. Katharine Drexel and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament visit http://www.katharinedrexel.org/
Photos courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament