Katharine Drexel

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Saint Katharine Drexel, S.B.S.
St. Katharine Drexel
Born (1858-11-26)November 26, 1858
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died March 3, 1955(1955-03-03) (aged 96)
Honored in
Roman Catholic Church
Beatified November 20, 1988 by Pope John Paul II
Canonized October 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II
Major shrine Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania
Feast March 3
Patronage philanthropists, racial justice

Saint Katharine Drexel, S.B.S., (November 26, 1858 – March 3, 1955) was an American heiress, philanthropist, religious sister, educator, and foundress. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000; her feast day is observed on March 3.

Early life[edit]

Katharine Drexel was born Katharine Marie Drexel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858, the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. Her family owned a considerable fortune. Katharine was born into a tradition of philanthropy. Her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was the founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia. When her Aunt Mary passed away, John Lankenau founded Mary Drexel Home for the aged and a hospital for children in memory of his deceased wife.[1]

Hannah died five weeks after her baby's birth. For two years Katharine and her sister, Elizabeth, were cared for by their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel. When Francis married Emma Bouvier in 1860 he brought his two daughters home.[1] A third daughter, Louise, was born in 1863.

Private tutors educated the girls at their home. They also toured parts of the United States and Europe with their parents.[2] Twice a week, the Drexels distributed food, clothing and rent assistance from their family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or lonely single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family sought them out, but always quietly. As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”[3]

As a young and wealthy woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1879. However, watching her stepmother's three year struggle with terminal cancer taught her the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death. Drexel's life took a profound turn. She had always been interested in the plight of the Indians, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor.[4]

When her family traveled to the Western states in 1884, Katharine Drexel saw the plight and destitution of the native Americans. She wanted to do something specific to help. Thus began her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. After her father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters had contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. For many years Kate took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska. When Kate wrote him of her desire to join a contemplative order, Bishop O’Connor suggested, “Wait a while longer....... Wait and pray.”[3]

Katharine and her sisters Elizabeth and Louise were still mourning their father when they sailed to Europe in 1886. Their high-powered banker father left behind a $15.5 million estate and instructions to divide it among his three daughters--Elizabeth, Katherine, and Louise--after expenses and specific charitable donations. However, to prevent his daughters from falling prey to “fortune hunters,” Francis Drexel crafted his will so that his daughters controlled income from his estate, but upon their deaths, their inheritance would flow to their children. The will stipulated that if there were no grandchildren, upon his daughters’ deaths, Drexel's estate would be distributed to several religious orders and charities—the Society of Jesus, the Christian Brothers, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Lutheran hospital and others. Because their father's charitable donations totaled about $1.5 million, the sisters shared the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $400 million. [3]

Religious career[edit]

In January 1887, the sisters were received in a private audience by Pope Leo XIII. They asked him for missionaries to staff some of the Indian missions that they had been financing. To their surprise, the Pope suggested that Katharine become a missionary herself. Although she had already received marriage proposals, after consulting her spiritual director, Drexel decided to give herself to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans.[5] Her uncle, Anthony Drexel, tried to dissuade her from entering religious life, but in May 1889 Drexel entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh to begin her six-month postulancy. Her decision rocked Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million".[4]

Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament[edit]

St. Benedict the Moor School, St. Augustine (c. 1898), paid for by St. Katharine Drexel

On February 12, 1891, Drexel professed her first vows as a religious, dedicating herself to work among the American Indians and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern United States.[5] She took the name Mother Katharine, and joined by thirteen other women, soon established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Mother Frances Cabrini had advised Drexel about the "politics" of getting her new Order’s Rule approved by the Vatican bureaucracy in Rome.[4] A few months later, Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the new motherhouse under construction in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In the first of many incidents that indicated Drexel's convictions for social justice were not shared by all, a stick of dynamite was discovered near the site.[3]

Requests for help and advice reached Mother Katharine from various parts of the United States. After three and a half years of training, she and her first band of nuns opened a boarding school, St. Catherine's Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1897, Mother Drexel asked the friars of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, Ohio, to staff a mission among the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico on a 160-acre tract of land she had purchased two years earlier. Mother Katharine Drexel stretched the Cincinnati friars apostolically since most of them previously had worked in predominantly German-American parishes. A few years later, she also helped finance the work of the friars among the Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico. In 1910, Drexel financed the printing of 500 copies of A Navaho-English Catechism of Christian Doctrine for the Use of Navaho Children, written by Fathers Anselm, Juvenal, Berard and Leopold Osterman. About a hundred friars from St. John the Baptist Province started Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in 1985. Headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they continue to work on the Navajo reservation with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.[6] In all, Drexel established 50 missions for Native Americans in 16 states.[4]

Knowing that many Afro-Americans were far from free, still living in substandard conditions as sharecroppers or underpaid menials, denied education and constitutional rights enjoyed by others, Drexel also felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.[5] The turn of the 20th century was the height of Jim Crow laws as well as anti-Catholic sentiment, particularly in the Southern United States. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon school, tried to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers from teaching black students. When Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window. Nonetheless, Drexel made possibly her most famous foundation in 1915--Xavier University, New Orleans, the first such institution for Black people in the United States.[7][8]

In 1922 in Beaumont, Texas, Klansmen posted a sign on the door of a church where the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had opened a school. “We want an end of services here, ... Suppress it in one week or flogging with tar and feathers will follow.” A few days later, a violent thunderstorm ripped through Beaumont, destroying the local Klan headquarters. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, by 1942 Drexel and her order established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. [3]

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, and so fulfilled her lifelong desire for a contemplative life. Over the course of six decades, Mother Katharine spent about $20 million of her private fortune building schools and churches, as well as paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians.[3]

Death and legacy[edit]

Mother Katharine died at the age of 96, on March 3, 1955, at her order's motherhouse, where she is buried.[7]

Because neither of her biological sisters had children, after Mother Katharine's death, pursuant to the their father's will, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries.[3] Nonetheless, the order continues to pursue their original apostolate, working with African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.


Her cause for beatification was introduced in 1966. Pope John Paul II formally declared Drexel "Venerable" on January 26, 1987, and beatified her on November 20, 1988 after concluding that Robert Gutherman was miraculously cured of deafness in 1974 after his family prayed for Mother Drexel's intercession.[7] Mother Drexel was canonized on October 1, 2000, one of only a few American saints and the second American-born saint (Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born US citizen canonized, in 1975). Canonization occurred after the Vatican determined that two-year-old Amy Wall had been miraculously healed of nerve deafness in both ears through Katharine Drexel's intercession in 1994.[3]

The Vatican cited fourfold aspects of Drexel's legacy:

  • a love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples;
  • courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities - one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
  • her belief in quality education for all and efforts to achieve it;
  • and selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.[5]

St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and Shrine[edit]

Entrance to the Drexel shrine in Bensalem, PA

The Saint Katharine Drexel Mission Center and National Shrine is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.[9] The Mission Center offers retreat programs, historic site tours, days of prayer, presentations about Saint Katharine Drexel, as well as lectures and seminars related to her legacy. Furniture, photo displays, and other artifacts tell the story of St. Katharine Drexel, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and the accomplishments of Black and Native American people.

St. Elizabeth's Convent

Her tomb lies under the main altar in St. Elizabeth Chapel.[10] Originally known as St. Elizabeth's Convent, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.[11] Much of the art displayed in St. Elizabeth Chapel are works by or about Native American, African and Haitian artists and musicians.


A second-class relic of St. Katharine Drexel can be found inside the altar of the Mary chapel at St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in the Day Chapel of Saint Katharine Drexel Parish in Sugar Grove, Illinois.


Numerous Catholic parishes, schools, and churches bear the name of St. Katharine Drexel.



St. Katharine Drexel also founded St. Michael Indian School, serving K-12th grade in St. Michaels, AZ, in 1902.

Schools named in honor of the saint also include:

Churches and chapels[edit]

  • St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, New Orleans, LA
  • St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, Martell, CA
  • St. Katharine Drexel Summer Chapel, Harpswell, ME
  • St. Katharine Drexel Chapel (on the campus of Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans)[15]



See also[edit]



  • Tarry, Ellen (1958). St. Katharine Drexel – Friend of the Oppressed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc.

External links[edit]