Early Years in Philadelphia
Saint Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Marie, second daughter of Francis and Hannah Drexel of Philadelphia on November 26, 1858. Her mother died about a month after her birth. Her father, a well-known banker and philanthropist, married Emma Bouvier in 1860. Devout Catholics, they gave a great deal of their time and money to philanthropic activities. Catherine and her two sisters were educated privately and were encouraged to conduct a Sunday school for children of the employees of their family’s summer home. While conducting these sessions, Catherine developed a devotion to St. Frances of Assisi and she vowed that, like St. Frances, she would one day give all she had to the poor. Both parents instilled in their children the idea that their wealth was simply loaned to them and was meant to be shared with others, especially the poor.
Catherine’s life was jarred by the protracted illness, and then death in 1883, of her step-mother, to whom she was devoted; two years later, her father died. At that time she seriously considered entering a convent but was persuaded by her religious counselor, Bishop James O’Connor of Omaha, NE, not to make a hasty decision but rather “wait and pray.” At the time of his death, her father left the largest fortune recorded in Philadelphia at that time. His three daughters received bequests that provided them with an extremely generous income for life. The rest of his fortune was donated to his favorite charities. The sisters continued to use their great wealth to respond to the many requests for aid they received from churchmen throughout the country.
Religious Vocation – Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
In 1885, Catherine and her sisters traveled to the Western part of the United States, visiting Indian reservations. Having seen first-hand the poverty and suffering there, she began to build schools, supply food and clothing, and provide salaries for teachers on the reservations. She was also able to find priests to serve the spiritual needs of the people. In 1887 she established her first boarding school, St. Catherine Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
That same year, Catherine visited Rome to request Pope Leo XIII to provide missionaries to staff the schools she was funding. The Holy Father responded by suggesting that Catherine become a missionary herself. On February 12, 1891, in an arrangement with Bishop James O’Connor, Catherine began a novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, with the understanding that in two years she would found her own order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People; she would, she vowed, “be the mother and servant of these races.”
In late 1889, she received the religious habit and the name of Sister Mary Katharine. Thirteen companions joined her as the first Sisters of the new order. The motherhouse of the new order was established at St. Elizabeth’s Convent, Cornwells Height (Bensalem Township), PA. Mother Katharine, as she was now called, made the decision not to admit black women in part because laws in some Southern states would force them to house black and white nuns in segregated convents, and in part to avoid drawing worthy candidates away from two all black religious orders already established.
Establishment of Schools for Native and African Americans
Founding and staffing schools for both Native and African Americans throughout the country became a priority for Mother Katharine and her congregation. In 1894, she purchased 1,600 acres in Rock Castle, Virginia, on which to build a boarding school for black girls. The school opened in 1899 as St. Francis de Sales School. Nearby was St. Emma’s built in 1895 by her sister Louise. St. Emma’s was a boarding school of black boys. Both schools concentrated on vocational arts in the belief that this was the best way at the time to provide training for young blacks to become economically independent.
Soon thereafter, a school for Pueblo children was established in New Mexico. Mother Katharine made it a priority to visit all the schools she helped.
In 1901, Mother Katharine made a trip to visit St. Francis de Sales School and to discuss setting up small catechetical centers in nearby places in Virginia. This necessitated a considerable amount of train travel. Once in a coach between Richmond and Lynchburg, the train stopped at a small station marked Columbia. She noticed a gilt cross gleaming through the trees and said to her companion, Mother Mercedes, “Do you think that is a Catholic Chapel?” Mother Mercedes replied that she did not think so, as she had been told there was no Mass celebrated between Richmond and Lynchburg.
Mother Katharine arranged to visit the small private Wakeham Chapel beneath the cross she had spotted and discovered that no Masses had been held in years and there was only an elderly caretaker in residence. She told the caretaker that although she could not promise that Mass would be said in the Chapel, she would send a few of her Sisters from St. Francis de Sales there each week to teach catechism She fulfilled that promise that same year and soon arranged for Josephite Fathers to say Mass there. The Wakeham Chapel unofficially became a Public Chapel, known as St. Joseph’s, which is still in existence. Her Sisters remained part of St. Joseph’s until 1971.
Continuing Expansion of Educational Opportunities
In 1915, Louisiana relocated a black college, Southern University, out of New Orleans. Mother Katharine purchased the vacant campus and reopened the school as Xavier College (now Xavier University). The primary mission of the college was to train lay teachers who would then staff schools for black children in rural Louisiana. Xavier was the first and only Catholic college for African-Americans and a pioneer in co-education.
In 1922, Fr. Sylvester Eisenmann, a Benedictine priest, visited Mother Katharine at the motherhouse in Pennsylvania to beg for assistance. He did not want financial aid but rather a teacher for his small school in Marty, SD, near Yankton. Touched to tears by his story, Mother Katharine nevertheless felt she could not spare any of her Sisters to go and teach school. She did, however, promise to pray about his request overnight. The next day, she reversed her decision. Within two months’ time, Mother Katharine and three of the Sisters arrived at the St. Paul Mission in Marty to begin teaching. Within a decade more than 400 Native American children were being educated at St. Paul’s Mission by the 23 Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
A Life Dedicated to God
Having taken a vow of poverty, Mother Katharine lived the rest of her life with extreme frugality, wearing a single pair of shoes for ten years and using her pencils down to the erasers. During the same time, her income from her father’s trust amounted to more than $1,000 a day.
From the age of 33 until her death, she dedicated her life and personal fortune of $20 million to her work. She was a constant worker, personally reviewing each request for aid, often indicating her decision on a note on the letter of inquiry. She traveled tirelessly. Her strongest priority was the creation of church buildings and schools.
No believer in segregation, she recognized that in her time a segregated church or school was often the most that could be hoped for. She generally confined her response to pleas for aid to buying land, erecting buildings, as well as occasionally paying salaries. She had neither the time nor inclination to supervise. One result of her practice was that she almost completely avoided conflict with the priests and bishops in charges of the missions she sponsored. By 1942 she had established a system of 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools in 13 states.
In 1935, Mother Katharine suffered a severe heart attack and was confined primarily to a wheelchair. For the next twenty years, she lived her life in prayerful retirement at St. Elizabeth’s Convent. She died there on March 3, 1955 at the age of 96. At the time of her death, 501 members of her order were teaching in 63 schools and missions in 21 states, including Virginia.
Canonization of Saint Katharine Drexel
Mother Katharine’s dedication inspired her Sisters and admirers to begin the cause of her sainthood less than 10 years after her death. In 1987, she was credited with the miraculous healing of a man’s deaf ear. Pope John Paul II bestowed upon her the title “Blessed.” In 1999 her intervention was declared to have resulted in the cure of deafness in a 17-month-old child. She was canonized “Saint Katharine Drexel” on October 1, 2000. She is only the second American-born saint.
Our thanks to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for information about Saint Katharine Drexel. Learn more at their website: www.katharinedrexel.org.)