The Catholic Defender: Saint Katharine Drexel
St. Katharine Drexel, (born November 26, 1858, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.—died March 3, 1955, Cornwells Heights; feast day [U.S.] March 3), American founder of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters for Indians and Colored People (now Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament), a congregation of missionary nuns dedicated to the welfare of American Indians and African Americans.
Her family owned a considerable banking fortune, and her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was the founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia. She was a distant cousin of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on her father's side.
Her mother, Hannah Langstroth, died five weeks after Katharine was born, and Katharine and her sister were cared for by their aunt and uncle until their father remarried in 1860. The family was active in charitable works and distributed food, clothing, and money from their home twice a week. As a young adult, Katharine was deeply impacted by her stepmother’s long and painful battle with terminal cancer and marked that as a pivotal time in her life.
After watching her stepmother suffer with terminal cancer for three straight years, Katharine also learned that no amount of money could shelter them from pain or suffering. From this moment, Katharine's life took a turn. She became imbued with a passionate love for God and neighbor, and she took an avid interest in the material and spiritual well-being of black and native Americans.
Katharine grew up seeing her father pray for 30 minutes each evening. And every week, her stepmother opened their doors to house and care for the poor. The couple distributed food, clothing and provided rent assistance to those in need. The Drexels would seek out and visit women who were too afraid or too proud to approach the home in order to care for their needs in Christian charity.
If your father is an international banker and you ride in a private railroad car, you are not likely to be drawn into a life of voluntary poverty. But if your mother opens your home to the poor three days each week and your father spends half an hour each evening in prayer, it is not impossible that you will devote your life to the poor and give away millions of dollars. Katharine Drexel did that.
Believing that all people should have access to education, she continued the work earlier undertaken by the family of founding and endowing schools and churches for African Americans and Native Americans in the South and West. She later visited these establishments, touring by burro and stagecoach.
Born in Philadelphia in 1858, she had an excellent education and traveled widely. As a rich girl, Katharine also had a grand debut into society. But when she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death, and her life took a profound turn.
While in Rome (January 1887), she had a private audience with Pope Leo XIII to indicate a need for nuns to staff her mission schools. The pope challenged her to devote her life as well as her fortune to the missions.
On February 12, 1891, Katharine made her first vows as a religious and dedicated herself to working for the American Indians and African-Americans in the Western United States.
Mother Drexel began a vast building campaign with the founding of St. Catherine’s Boarding School for Pueblo Indians in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1894, followed by another school, for African American girls at Rock Castle, Virginia, in 1899. She opened more schools in Arizona and Tennessee (1903) and in 1915 founded a school for African Americans that would in 1925 become Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. By 1927 she had established convents for her congregation at Columbus (Ohio), Chicago, Boston, and New York City. She received high commendation from Pope Pius XII on her golden jubilee in 1941.
Katharine 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. While on a European tour, she met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming for her friend Bishop James O’Connor. The pope replied, “Why don’t you become a missionary?” His answer shocked her into considering new possibilities.
Back home, Katharine visited the Dakotas, met the Sioux leader Red Cloud and began her systematic aid to Indian missions. Katharine Drexel could easily have married. But after much discussion with Bishop O’Connor, she wrote in 1889, “The feast of Saint Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored.” Newspaper headlines screamed “Gives Up Seven Million!”
In 1889 she became a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In February 1891 she took her final vows and, with a few companions, founded the Blessed Sacrament Sisters for Indians and Colored People, of which she was superior general.
In 1910, Katharine also financed the printing of 500 copies of A Navaho-English Catechism of Christian Doctrine for the Use of Navaho Children.
The community received final papal approval in May 1913.
In 1915, Katherine founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic University in the United States for African-Americans.
After three and a half years of training, Mother Drexel and her first band of nuns—Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored—opened a boarding school in Santa Fe. A string of foundations followed. 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. Two saints met when Mother Drexel was advised by Mother Cabrini about the “politics” of getting her order’s Rule approved in Rome. Her crowning achievement was the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university in the United States for African Americans.
At the time of her death, she had used more than $12 million of her inheritance for her charitable and apostolic missions, working in conjunction with the U.S. Indian Office, through which she helped found the Society for the Preservation of the Faith Among Indian Children (or Preservation Society). By that time as well, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had grown to some 500 members in 51 convents, and they had established 49 elementary schools, 12 high schools, and Xavier University.
Mother Katharine died on March 3, 1955 at the age of 96. She is buried at her order's motherhouse. Neither of Katharine's sisters had any children, so after her death, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament lost the Drexel fortune that supported their ministries. However, the order continues to pursue Katharine's mission with the African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and in Haiti.
At 77, Mother Drexel suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire. Apparently her life was over. But now came almost 20 years of quiet, intense prayer from a small room overlooking the sanctuary. Small notebooks and slips of paper record her various prayers, ceaseless aspirations, and meditations. She died at 96 and was canonized in 2000.
Drexel was beatified in 1988 after the Vatican confirmed her first miracle, restoring a boy's hearing. A second miracle was attributed to her in January 2000 after a young girl was cured of her deafness following prayers to Drexel and having her ears touched by some of Drexel's possessions.
Katharine was canonized by Pope John Paul II making her the second American-born saint to be canonized by the Catholic church. She is the patron saint of racial justice and philanthropists.
Drexel was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 20, 1988, when her first miracle through prayer—healing the severe ear infection of teenage Robert Gutherman in 1974—was accepted. She was canonized on October 1, 2000, when her 1994 miracle of reversing congenital deafness in 2-year old Amy Wall was recognized.
The Vatican cited a fourfold legacy of Drexel:
A love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples;
courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities;
her efforts to achieve quality education for all;
and selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice. (She is known as the patron saint of racial justice and of philanthropists
Her feast day is observed on March 3, the anniversary of her death.
“If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them. Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”