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Katherine Drexel

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Katherine Drexel

Saint Katharine Drexel, S.B.S.
St. Katharine Drexel
Born (1858-11-26)November 26, 1858
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died March 3, 1955(1955-03-03) (aged 96)
Honored in Roman Catholic Church
Beatified November 20, 1988 by Pope John Paul II
Canonized October 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II
Major shrine Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania
Feast March 3
Patronage philanthropists, racial justice

Saint Katharine Drexel, S.B.S., (November 26, 1858 – March 3, 1955) was an American heiress, philanthropist, religious sister, educator and foundress. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000 and her feast day is observed on March 3.


Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Marie Drexel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858, the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. Her family owned a considerable fortune, and her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was the founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia. 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, Louise, was born in 1863. The girls were educated at home by tutors. They had the added advantage of touring parts of the United States and Europe with their parents [1] Twice a week, the Drexels distributed food, clothing and rent assistance from their family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or lonely single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family sought them out, but always quietly. As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.” [2]

As a young and wealthy woman, she made her social debut in 1879. But when she had nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal cancer, she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death,and her life took a profound turn. She 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 Dishonour."[3]

When her family took a trip to the Western part of the United States in 1884, Katharine saw the plight and destitution of the native Indian-Americans. This experience aroused her desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition. This was the beginning of her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. After her father’s death in 1885, she and her sisters had contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. For many years Kate took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska. When Kate wrote him of her desire to join a contemplative order, Bishop O’Connor suggested, “Wait a while longer.. Wait and pray.” [2]

Catherine and her sisters were still recovering their father's death when they went to Europe in 1886. In January 1887 during a private audience with Pope Leo XIII, 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. She could easily have married, but after consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor, she made the decision to give herself to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans.[4] Her uncle, Anthony Drexel, tried to dissuade her from entering religious life, but in May 1889 she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh to begin her six-month postulancy. Her decision rocked Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million".[2][3]

When her father died in 1885, the high-powered banker left behind a $15.5 million estate that was divided among his three daughters—Elizabeth, Katherine, and Louise. About $1.5 million went to several charities, leaving the girls to share in the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $250 million.[2]

In 1935 Mother Katharine suffered a heart attack, and in 1937 she relinquished the office of superior general. Though gradually becoming more infirm, she was able to devote her last years to Eucharistic adoration, and so fulfill her life’s desire. She died at the age of 96 at Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania, on 3 March 1955.[5] where she is buried.

Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament

On February 12, 1891, she professed her first vows as a religious, dedicating herself to work among the American Indians and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern United States.[4] She took the name Mother Katharine, and joined by thirteen other women, she established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. A few months later, Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the new motherhouse under construction in Bensalem. In the first of many incidents that indicated her convictions for social justice were not shared by others, a stick of dynamite was discovered near the site.[2] Two saints met when Katharine was advised by Mother Cabrini about the “politics” of getting her Order’s Rule approved in Rome.[3]

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.[4] In 1913, the Georgia Legislature, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon school, tried to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers from teaching black students.[2]

. 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. 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.[3] The most famous foundation was made in 1915; it was Xavier University, New Orleans, the first such institution for Black people in the United States.[5][6] When Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window.[2]

In 1922 in Beaumont, Texas, a sign was posted by local Klansmen on the door of a church where the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had opened a school. “We want an end of services here, ... Suppress it in one week or flogging with tar and feathers will follow.” A few days later, a violent thunderstorm ripped through Beaumont, destroying a building that served as the Klan’s headquarters.[2]

Over the course of 60 years—up to her death in 1955 at age 96—Mother Katharine spent about $20 million in support of her work, building schools and churches and paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians.[2]

Francis Drexel crafted his will to prevent his daughters from falling prey to “fortune hunters.” His daughters controlled the income from the estate, and upon their deaths, the Drexel inheritance would flow to their children. Neither Elizabeth nor Louise, however, had children, and the will stipulated that if that were to happen, upon his daughters’ deaths, the money 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. Thus, after 1955, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries.[2]


Her cause for beatification was introduced in 1966; she was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II on 26 January 1987, and beatified on 20 November 1988.[5] Mother Drexel was canonized on October 1, 2000, one of only a few American saints and the second American-born saint (Elizabeth Ann Seton was first, as a natural-born US citizen, born in New York City in 1774 and canonized in 1975).

In 1988, the Vatican concluded that Robert Gutherman was miraculously cured of deafness in 1974 after his family prayed for Mother Drexel's intercession and subsequently determined that two-year-old Amy Wall had been miraculously healed of nerve deafness in both ears through Katharine Drexel's intercession in 1994.[2]


A second-class relic of St. Katharine Drexel can be found inside the altar of the Mary chapel at St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in the Day Chapel of Saint Katharine Drexel Parish in Sugar Grove, Illinois.


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 - 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.[4]

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament pursue their original apostolate of working with African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.

In 1897, Mother Drexel asked the friars of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, Ohio, to begin 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 work of the friars among the Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico.In 1910, she financed the printing of 500 copies of A Navaho-English Catechism of Christian Doctrine for the Use of Navaho 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, that province works on the Navajo reservation with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.[7]

St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and Shrine

The Saint Katharine Drexel Mission Center and National Shrine[8] is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The Mission Center offers retreat programs, historic site tours, days of prayer, presentations about Saint 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, and the accomplishments of Black and Native American people.

Her tomb lies under the main altar in St. Elizabeth Chapel.[9] Originally known as St. Elizabeth's Convent, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.[10] Much of the art displayed in St. Elizabeth Chapel are works by or about Native American, African and Haitian artists and musicians.


Numerous Catholic parishes, schools and churches bear the name of St. Katharine Drexel.


St Katherine Drexel Parish of [New Orleans, LA,f/k/a Holy Ghost Parish]


St. Katharine Drexel also founded St. Michael Indian School, serving K-12th grade in St. Michaels, AZ in 1902

Churches and Chapels

  • St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, New Orleans, LA
  • St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, Martell, CA
  • St. Katharine Drexel Summer Chapel, Harpswell, MA
  • St. Katharine Drexel Chapel (on the campus of Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans)[13]

See also

Biography portal
Saints portal



  • Tarry, Ellen (1958). St. Katharine Drexel - Friend of the Oppressed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc.

External links

  • Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Website
  • 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

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