Mother Katharine Drexel
This amazing woman was an heiress to a large bequest who became a religious sister and a brilliant educator.
Katherine was born in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, the second child of a prominent and wealthy banker, Francis Anthony Drexel and his wife, Hannah Langstroth. He mother passed away just five weeks after Katharine was born. Her father remarried to Emma Bouvier in 1860 and together they had another daughter in 1863, Louisa Drexel.
The girls received a wonderful education from private tutors and traveled throughout the United States and Europe. The Drexels were financially and spiritually well endowed. They were devout in the practice of their faith, setting an excellent example of true Christian living for their three daughters. They not only prayed but practiced what the Church calls the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
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.
Though Katharine made her social debut in 1879, she never let her family’s money adversely affect the way she lived her life and faith. She was an example of a Christian with a proper understanding that the goods of this earth are given for the common good.
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.
In 1884, while her family was visiting the Western states, Katharine saw first-hand the troubling and poor situation of the Native Americans. She desperately wanted to help them.
Katharine spent much of her time with Father James O’ Connor, a Philadelphia priest. He provided her with wonderful spiritual direction.
When her father passed away a year later, he donated part of his $15.5 million estate to a few charities and then left the remainder to be equally split amongst his three daughters.
He set up his will in a way to protect his daughters from men who were only seeking their money. If his daughters should die, the money was then to go on to his would-be grandchildren. If there were no grandchildren, the Drexel estate would be distributed to several different religious orders and charities, including the Society of Jesus, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, and the Christian Brothers.
As one of their first acts following their father’s death, Katharine and her sisters contributed money to assist the St. Francis Mission of South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation.
Katherine soon concluded that more was needed to help the Native Americans and the lacking ingredient was people.
In 1887, while touring Europe, the Drexel sisters were given a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. They were seeking missionaries to help with the Indian missions they were financing. The Pope looked to Katharine and suggested she, herself, become a missionary.
After speaking with Father O’ Connor, Katharine decided she would give herself and her inheritance to God through service to both Native Americans and African Americans. She wrote, “The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored.”
Katharine began her six-month postulancy at the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh in 1889.
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.
Taking the name Mother Katharine, she established a religious congregation called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored, whose members would work for the betterment of those they were called to serve.
From the age of 33 until her death in 1955, she dedicated her life and her fortune to this work. In 1894, Mother Katharine took part in opening the first mission boarding school called St. Catherine’s Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Other schools quickly followed – for Native Americans west of the Mississippi River, and for the blacks in the southern part of the United States.
In 1897, Katharine asked the friars of St. John the Baptist Province of the Order of Friars Minor to help staff a mission for the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico, and she would help finance their work with the Pueblo Native Americans.
In 1910, Katharine also financed the printing of 500 copies of A Navaho-English Catechism of Christian Doctrine for the Use of Navaho Children.
In 1915, Katherine founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic University in the United States for African-Americans.
By the time of her death, she had more than 500 Sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the country and she established 50 missions for Native Americans in 16 different states.
Katharine suffered a heart attack at 77-years-old and was forced to retire. She spent the remainder of her life in quiet and intense prayer. She recorded her prates and aspirations in small notebooks.
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.
Katharine was remembered for her love of the Eucharist and a desire for unity of all peoples. She was courageous and took the initiative to address social inequality within minorities. She believed all should have access to a quality education and her selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, helped many reach that goal.