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Katherine drexelSummary:  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
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
atharine 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.

Later years
hen 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.

Summary: St Katherine Drexel came from a wealthy banking family in Philadelphia. She used her inheritance to set up schools for the education the native and African Americans. She also founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Coloured People.

Fr John Murray PP tells her story.

‘How hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,‘ Jesus said. The apostles, we are told, were astounded by these words of the Master. In that case who can be saved?’

God bless the apostles but they were certainly thinking within a time-honoured framework which said that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus was inviting them to see and think differently. When they saw many people putting in a lot of money into the treasury, Jesus saw the little old woman who put in a coin and told them that she had put in more than all the others.

Catherine DrexelIn 1858 Francis and Hannah Drexel were proud parents of a second daughter, Katherine, but sadly just one month later, Hannah passed away. Her father, who was a well-known and prosperous banker, married again a few years later and both parents instilled in their children the idea that wealth was meant to be shared with others, especially the poor. Indeed, her father even had one servant whose job was solely to look after the poor who came to their door in their house in Philadelphia in the United States -and there were plenty!

Catherine Drexel 2Katherine’s family background and later, her schooling with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, prepared her well for the vocation which lay ahead. Her stepmother allowed her and her sisters to run a Sunday school for the children of her father’s employees.

As she grew into a young woman, Katherine spent her time and her money doing good in obedience to a personal revelation that she felt came from Our Lady:
Freely you have received; freely give
.’ The cause which most interested her was the plight of the Native Americans and African-Americans, whose living and educational situations were often terrible. Before starting her own order she gave huge sums of money to anyone who was able to establish schools for them. ‘Use money, that tainted thing, to win you friends in heaven,’ Jesus had said. Katherine was certainly obedient to that word.

A key moment in the life of Katherine Drexel was a trip to Rome in 1887, as part of a tour of Europe. The family were privileged to receive an audience with the Pope, Leo XIII. In a moment of conversation, Katherine asked the Pope to please send more missionaries to Wyoming for her friend, Bishop James O’Connor. The Pope replied, ‘Why don’t you become a missionary?

The question ended her doubts about entering religious life, and Katherine, with the full approval of her family, began to use the money at her disposal to found a motherhouse for the young women who were around her and who were eager to pursue the vision Katherine had instilled in them. The year was 1891.Catherine Drexel 3

Initially Katherine’s order was called the ‘Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Coloured People’, which illustrated her dual love for the Eucharist and her deep concern for the poorest of the poor in American society at that time. Today it is simply known as the ‘Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament’.

Her work was to provide education and training for those who came from the disenfranchised peoples of the United States. The first mission school for Native Americans opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Other schools quickly followed under her direction for Native Americans west of the river Mississippi and for the African Americans in the southern part of the United States. Indeed, one college, Xavier University, became the first predominantly black Catholic institution in the States.

katherine Drex church


In 1935 Katherine suffered a severe heart attack but lived on to the ripe age of ninety-seven in prayerful retirement until her death on 3 March 1955. At the time of her death there were more than 500 sisters in the Order, teaching in sixty-three schools and institutes across the States.

Katherine was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 20 November 1988 and canonized by the same Pope on 1 October 2000 to become only the second native-born American saint, after Elizabeth Seton.

Catherine Drxel 4Ever loving God,
You called Saint Katharine Drexel
to share the message of the Gospel
and the life of the Eucharist
with the poor and oppressed
among the Native and African-American peoples.
Through her intercession may we grow
in the faith and love that will enable us to be united
as brothers and sisters in You.
We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
One God, forever and ever Amen.

St Katherine Drexel, friend to the poor, pray for us! 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

c/f www.messenger.ie/bookshop/

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