Katharine Drexel (November 26, 1858 – March 3, 1955) was an American heiress, philanthropist, religious sister, educator, and founder. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000; her feast day is celebrated on March 3. She was the second American to be canonized as a saint and the first one born a U.S. citizen. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2011.
Katharine Mary Drexel was born as Catherine Mary Drexel in Philadelphia, the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. 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. A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863.
The girls were educated at home by private tutors. Their father believed they should learn geography first hand; accordingly, their parents took the girls on periodic tours of the United States and Europe. Three times a week, the Drexel family distributed food, clothing, and rent assistance from their family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family quietly sought them out. As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, "Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind."
As a young and wealthy woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1878. However, watching her stepmother's three-year struggle with terminal cancer taught her the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death. Her life took a profound turn. She had always been interested in the plight of Native Americans, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor. When her family traveled to the Western states in 1884, Katharine Drexel saw the plight and poverty 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 February 1885, Katharine and her sisters contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation.
For many years she took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska. When Katharine wrote him of her desire to join a contemplative order, Bishop O’Connor suggested, "Wait a while longer....... Wait and pray."
Drexel and her sisters Elizabeth and Louisa 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 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. Still, 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.
Drexel's father had been on the board of both St. John's Orphan Asylum for Boys and St. Joseph's Female Orphan Asylum. Louise was particularly concerned as to the future of the young men after they left the orphanage. She and Elizabeth founded the St. Francis Industrial School at Eddington, Pennsylvania, in honor of their father. Elizabeth died in 1890 from complications of childbirth.
In 1889, Louisa would marry General Edward Morrell. The Morrells "…actively promoted and advanced the welfare of African Americans throughout the country. The Morrells used their wealth to build magnificent institutions that served and aided African Americans' education and upward mobility. Gen. Morrell took charge of the Indian work, while Katharine Drexel was in her novitiate."
In January 1887, the sisters were received in a private audience by Pope Leo XIII. They asked him for missionaries to staff some Native American missions that they had been financing. To their surprise, the Pope suggested that Katharine become a missionary herself. Although Drexel had already received marriage proposals, "…after consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor, she decided to give herself totally to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans." Her uncle, Anthony Drexel, tried to dissuade her from entering religious life, but she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh in May 1889 to begin her six-month postulancy. Her decision rocked Philadelphia's social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: "Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million."
Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
On February 12, 1891, Drexel professed her first vows as a religious sister, dedicating herself to work among the Native American and African-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. She took the name Mother Katharine, and, joined by thirteen other women, soon established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The small community used the Drexel summer home St. Michel, in Torresdale until a convent was built. In 1892, the sisters moved into St. Elizabeth's Convent. Mother Frances Cabrini had advised Drexel about the "politics" of getting her new Order's Rule approved by the Vatican bureaucracy in Rome. A few months later, Philadelphia Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the new motherhouse under construction in Cornwells Heights, 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.
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 of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) 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 friars' work among the Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico. In 1910, Drexel funded the printing of 500 copies of A Navajo-English Catechism of Christian Doctrine for the Use of Navajo 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.
Drexel established 145 missions, 50 schools for African Americans, and 12 schools for Native Americans. Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic college in the US, also owes its existence to Drexel and the Sisters.
Death and legacy
Mother Katharine Drexel died at the age of 96, on March 3, 1955, at her order's motherhouse in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania, where she was buried until 2018.
Because neither of her biological sisters had children, after Mother Katharine's death, according to their father's will, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries. Nonetheless, the order continues to pursue its 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. Mother Drexel was canonized on October 1, 2000, one of only a few U.S. born saints and the first natural-born U.S. citizen saint (Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was born in what would become the United States, was 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.
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.
St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and Shrine
The Saint Katharine Drexel Mission Center and National Shrine is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The Mission Center offers retreat programs, historic site tours, days of prayer, presentations about 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.
Her tomb lies under the main altar in St. Elizabeth Chapel. With also artifacts and relics she used or had. Originally known as St. Elizabeth's Convent, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Much of the art displayed in St. Elizabeth Chapel are works by or about Native American, African and Haitian artists, and musicians.
On May 3, 2016, Sister Donna Breslin, president of the order, announced that the 44-acre property in Bensalem, including the motherhouse and shrine, and 2,200 acres in Powhatan, Virginia, would be offered for sale. The shrine closed at the end of 2017. St. Katharine's remains were moved to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.
Numerous Catholic parishes, schools, and churches bear the name of St. Katharine Drexel.
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Ione, California
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Martell, California
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Cape Coral, Florida
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Venice, Florida
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Weston, Florida
- St. Katharine Drexel Mission of Trenton, Georgia
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Cascade, Idaho
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Springfield, Illinois
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Sugar Grove, Illinois
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Frederick, Maryland
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Roxbury, Massachusetts
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Ramsey, Minnesota
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Alton, New Hampshire
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Burlington, New Jersey
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Buffalo, New York
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Chester, Pennsylvania
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Lansford, Pennsylvania
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Pleasant Mount, Pennsylvania
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Hempstead, Texas
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin
- St. Katharine Drexel Parish of Kaukauna, Wisconsin
- St Katharine Drexel Parish of New Orleans, f/k/a Holy Ghost Parish
- St. Joseph's Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel, Columbia, Virginia
- Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church's shrine of St. Katharine Drexel, Carencro, Louisiana
St. Katharine Drexel was instrumental in establishing Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, Beaumont, Texas, and Sacred Heart Catholic School, Port Arthur, Texas. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament staffed both schools.
St. Katharine Drexel helped establish St. Joseph Indian Normal School, now called Drexel Hall, on the campus of St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer, Indiana. The Indian Normal School operated for eight years, from 1888 to 1896.
St. Katharine Drexel founded St. Michael Indian School, serving grades K–12 in St. Michaels, Arizona, in 1902.
In 1912, she founded St. Mark School, the first in New York City for African-American Catholic children, personally funding it at the cost of $500,000. The school at the time would accommodate 500 pupils.
St. Katharine Drexel also founded St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Macon, Georgia, in 1913 with the help of Bishop Benjamin Kiely and Father Ignatius Lissner.
Schools named in her honor include:
- Katharine Drexel Elementary School of Broussard, Louisiana
- St. Katharine Drexel School of St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids, Minnesota
- St. Katharine Drexel School of St. Louis
- St. Katharine Drexel School of Philadelphia
- St. Katharine Drexel School of Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- St. Katharine Drexel School of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin
- St. Katharine Drexel Regional Catholic School of Holland, Pennsylvania
- St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory High School New Orleans
- St. Katharine Drexel School of Wichita, Kansas
- St. Katharine Drexel Adult Learning Center – Catholic Charities of Tulsa, Oklahoma
- St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory – Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia
- St. Katharine Drexel School (previously St. Germaine School) of Pittsburgh
Churches and chapels
- Katharine-Drexel Kapelle, Dornbirn, Austria—the birthplace of Drexel's grandfather Francis Martin Drexel
- St. Katharine Drexel Chapel and Retirement Center, El Reno, Oklahoma
- St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, New Orleans
- St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Mission, Maple, North Carolina
- St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, Martell, California
- St. Katharine Drexel Summer Chapel, Harpswell, Maine
- St. Katharine Drexel Chapel Drexel university campus Philadelphia, PA
- St. Katharine Drexel Chapel (on the campus of Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans)
The choir loft window in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Sioux, Saint Joseph's Indian School, Chamberlain, South Dakota, was donated by the Drexel Family.
Drexel Avenue, Oak Creek, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. (Drexel Towne Centre, Oak Creek, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.)
- The St. Katharine Drexel Region of the Secular Franciscan Order
- Katharine Drexel library located on Knights Road in Philadelphia, PA.
- Saint Katharine Drexel, patron saint archive
- Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
- Xavier University of Louisiana
- Tarry, Ellen (1958). St. Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc.
- "Mother Katharine Drexel and the birth of Xavier University". The Times Picayune. 2017-12-20. - By a contributing writer.
- Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Website
- Katharine Drexel at Find a Grave
- Recipient of the Saint Katharine Drexel medal: Sr. Sandra Smithson, aka Sr. Maria Crucis, OSF, March 3, 2011.
- Bio from St. Katharine Drexel Mission
- David Leighton, "Street Smarts: Generous nun the namesake for Drexel Road," Arizona Daily Star, March 4, 2014