Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 26, 1858, Katharine Drexel was the second of three daughters of Francis Anthony Drexel. Francis was a nationally and internationally well-known banker and philanthropist. Francis’ first wife Hannah gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth and three years later to Katharine in 1858. Never fully recovered from childbirth, Hannah died five weeks after Katharine’s birth. In 1860 Francis married Emma Bouvier. In 1863 Louise was born. Family prayer was integrated into their daily life. Emma opened the doors of the Drexel home three afternoons a week to the poor. When they were old enough, the three girls helped her distribute clothing, food, medicine, rent money, etc. They learned that wealth was a gift to be shared with those in need.
The three Drexel girls were educated at home by tutors. They had the added advantage of touring parts of the United States and Europe with their parents. By word and example Emma and Francis taught their daughters that wealth was meant to be shared with those in need. Three afternoons a week Emma opened the doors of their home to serve the needs of the poor. When the girls were old enough, they assisted their mother. When Francis purchased a summer home in Torresdale, Pa., Katharine and Elizabeth taught Sunday school classes for the children of employees and neighbors. Their local pastor, Rev. James O’Connor (who later became bishop of Omaha), became a family friend and Katharine’s spiritual director.
When the family took a trip to the Western part of the United States, Katharine, as a young woman, saw the plight and destitution of the native Indian-Americans. This experience aroused her desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition. At Francis’ death in 1885, besides providing for his daughters, he left $14,000,000 to charity. This was the beginning of Katharine’s lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. The first school she established was St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1887).
Later, when visiting Pope Leo XIII in Rome, and asking him for missionaries to staff some of the Indian missions that she as a lay person was financing, she was surprised to hear the Pope suggest that she become a missionary herself. After consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor, she made the decision to give herself totally to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans.
Her wealth was now transformed into a poverty of spirit that became a daily constant in a life supported only by the bare necessities. On February 12, 1891, she professed her first vows as a religious, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament whose dedication would be to share the message of the Gospel and the life of the Eucharist among American Indians and Afro-Americans.
Always a woman of intense prayer, Katharine found in the Eucharist the source of her love for the poor and oppressed and of her concern to reach out to combat the effects of racism. 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, she felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.
The plantation at that time was an entrenched social institution in which black people continued to be victims of oppression. This was a deep affront to Katharine's sense of justice. The need for quality education loomed before her, and she discussed this need with some who shared her concern about the inequality of education for Afro-Americans in the cities. Restrictions of the law also prevented them in the rural South from obtaining a basic education.
Founding and staffing schools for both Native Americans and Afro-Americans throughout the country became a priority for Katharine and her congregation. During her lifetime, she opened, staffed and directly supported nearly 60 schools and missions, especially in the West and Southwest United States. Her crowning educational focus was the establishment in 1925 of Xavier University of Louisiana, the only predominantly Afro-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. Religious education, social service, visiting in homes, in hospitals and in prisons were also included in the ministries of Katharine and the Sisters.
In her quiet way, Katharine combined prayerful and total dependence on Divine Providence with determined activism. Her joyous incisiveness, attuned to the Holy Spirit, penetrated obstacles and facilitated her advances for social justice. Through the prophetic witness of Katharine Drexel's initiative, the Church in the United States was enabled to become aware of the grave domestic need for an apostolate among Native Americans and Afro-Americans. She did not hesitate to speak out against injustice, taking a public stance when racial discrimination was in evidence.
For the last 18 years of her life she was rendered almost completely immobile because of a serious illness. During these years she gave herself to a life of adoration and contemplation as she had desired from early childhood. She died on March 3, 1955.
Katharine left a four-fold dynamic legacy to her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who continue her apostolate today, and indeed to all peoples:
- her love for the Eucharist, her spirit of prayer, and her Eucharistic perspective on the unity of all peoples;
- her undaunted spirit of courageous initiative in addressing social iniquities among minorities — one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
- her belief in the importance of quality education for all, and her efforts to achieve it;
- her total giving of self, of her inheritance and all material goods in selfless service of the victims of injustice.
Here is an excerpt of Pope John Paul II’s homily during the mass of canonization in 2000:
Mother Katharine Drexel’s 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, 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.
Link to full text of Canonization Homily:
Link to Shrine
“In the second reading of today's liturgy, the Apostle James rebukes the rich who trust in their wealth and treat the poor unjustly. Mother Katharine Drexel was born into wealth in Philadelphia in the United States. But from her parents she learned that her family's possessions were not for them alone but were meant to be shared with the less fortunate. As a young woman, she was deeply distressed by the poverty and hopeless conditions endured by many Native Americans and Afro-Americans. She began to devote her fortune to missionary and educational work among the poorest members of society. Later, she understood that more was needed. With great courage and confidence in God's grace, she chose to give not just her fortune but her whole life totally to the Lord.
To her religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she taught a spirituality based on prayerful union with the Eucharistic Lord and zealous service of the poor and the victims of racial discrimination. Her apostolate helped to bring about a growing awareness of the need to combat all forms of racism through education and social services. Katharine Drexel is an excellent example of that practical charity and generous solidarity with the less fortunate which has long been the distinguishing mark of American Catholics.
May her example help young people in particular to appreciate that no greater treasure can be found in this world than in following Christ with an undivided heart and in using generously the gifts we have received for the service of others and for the building of a more just and fraternal world.”
Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
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