Summary: St Katharine Drexel, an American of Austrian origin (canonised by John Paul II in 2000), inherited a fortune, but chose to spend it on the education and spiritual needs of Afro- and native Americans, founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to work for the indigenous and black population and lived a long life of devotion.
Patrick Duffy tells her story.
Of a banking family – loving and Catholic
Born in Philadelphia of a banking family of Austrian origin, Katharine was the second of three daughters. Her own mother died shortly after she was born, and two years later her father re-married. Her step-mother Emma Bouvier was particularly loving and the family was devoutly Catholic and well-educated. Her step-mother spent large amounts of money each year on the care of the poor in Philadelphia city.
Fr James O’Connor visiting in their home
A frequent visitor to the home was an Irish-born priest, Fr James O’Connor, who was teaching in the seminary at Philadelphia. He was concerned with the physical and educational poverty of the native Americans (so-called Indians) and worked hard to improve their condition.
Travels in Europe and the north-western states
Katharine travelled to Europe three times. Seeing the house of Catherine of Siena awakened in her an interest in religious life. She spoke of her interest to Father O’Connor, who advised a prudent delay. Later when he was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska, Katharine visited him in the north-west herself and saw the plight of the native peoples at first hand.
Audience with the Pope
At this time the Canadian authorities had already honoured their agreements with native peoples, but the American authorities did not. Some time later at an audience with Pope Leo XIII in Rome, Katharine asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming to help the now Bishop James O’Connor. The Pope replied, “Why don’t you become a missionary yourself?” When she got home that was what she did. But first she and her sisters, Elizabeth and Louise, founded a Drexel Chair of Moral Theology at Washington University (DC).
Education for native and African Americans
Katharine entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh and went through the formation process, nursing the sick in the Mercy hospital. In 1891 twelve postulants joined her religious congregation to work for the education and spiritual needs of native and African Americans. Even though she lived under a vow of poverty, she was a one-person administrator of $400,000 a year, which was the interest from a trust fund set up for her by her father before he died.
A school for native Americans in New Mexico
Katharine opened her first mission school for native Americans at Sante Fe in New Mexico in 1894. This was followed by additional schools for native Americans west of the Mississippi and schools for blacks in the South. In the large cities like New York, Chicago and Boston there was a demand for her nuns. She became known as “Mother Drexel” and in 1915 she established Xavier University in New Orleans – the first black university in America. She forbade any mention of her name when it was dedicated.
When Katharine was seventy-six, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and had to retire from active administration. When she died in Philadelphia in 1955 aged ninety-seven, her pall bearers represented several races. For the last twenty years she lived a life of prayer in a wheelchair. Her congregation – originally called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Coloured People, now called simply Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament – is still engaged on the work she began. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1988 and canonised her in 2000.