Katharine Marie Drexel
Missionary to the American Indians
By Anne Adams
Many of the greatest saints in the Roman Catholic Church came from a poverty that drew them closer to God and helped influence them to serve him. Yet it was different in one case for when Katharine Marie Drexel was declared a saint at the turn of the 21st century, childhood poverty was never an issue. As the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia banker, though Katharine left a life of wealth and privilege to become a nun, she retained her family’s compassion and concern for neglected and rejected persons.
Katharine Marie Drexel was born in November, 1858, into an influential and prosperous family. Her grandfather started out as a broker in Kentucky, and then he moved to Philadelphia and brought his two sons into the business. Soon the Drexel Company was a major financial power in the Philadelphia area.
However, despite their wealth, the Drexel family was not immune from personal tragedy. Weakened by the births of Katharine and her older sister, their mother Hannah died when Katharine was just a few weeks old. An aunt cared for them until Mr. Drexel remarried in 1860 to Emma Bouvier, whose family would later be represented in the White House by First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The second Mrs. Drexel was a devoted and loving mother to her stepdaughters who responded with deep affection.
While Emma Drexel arranged for the best tutors for both girls, she paid particular attention to their religious education. As a devout Catholic, Mrs. Drexel instructed the girls in the tenets of the faith, as well as the lives of the saints. In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Drexel felt that with their wealth came the responsibility to use their money to benefit others and it was a belief that the family personally demonstrated. Mrs. Drexel distributed food, clothing and coal as well as financial assistance from their home while Mr. Drexel privately assisted priests from other countries to settle into new lives in the U.S. With such an influence, Katharine matured into an intelligent and seriously religious young woman. However, when Emma died from cancer in 1883 Katharine was devastated and the loss expressed a prophetic intention. “If anything happens to Mama,” she told her sister, “I’m going to enter a convent.
However, that was yet to come.
When Katharine and her sister Louise accompanied Mr. Drexel to the West on a business trip they encountered the people Katherine would eventually seek to serve. After traveling first traveled by railroad, and then by Conestoga wagon Katharine saw first how American Indians lived.
Francis Drexel died in 1885, leaving a portion of his fortune to his favorite Catholic charities and the rest ($4 million or in $250 million in modern terms) in trust for his daughters. The girls naturally attracted not only potential suitors but also appeals from various charities and Katharine was particularly interested in one aid organization. She began supporting a group of Catholic missionaries working with native tribes in the west. Then, according to one story, when Katharine visited Pope Leo XIII in Rome seeking missionaries for her projects, she was surprised when the Pope suggested she herself become a missionary. With a new sense of purpose and dedication to God, she became a Sister of Mercy in May, 1889. Yet she retained her concern and compassion for others, particularly Indian and black peoples, two groups that were often victims of society’s prejudices and deprivations.
To fully serve Christ as his representative with these groups in 1891 she established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People as it was officially known. Then three years later she dispatched sisters to open and operate an American Indian school in Santa Fe.
Eventually the order established a hundred similar schools in the west and the south. However, there were some in these areas who did not welcome their efforts, particularly in the south, with the resurgence of “Jim Crow” segregation. Often during these years Katharine and her order alone represented and demonstrated the Church’s concern, and a major accomplishment of this purpose was the establishment beginning in 1915 of the Catholic historically black college that became Xavier University in New Orleans. Sometimes the Sisters encountered dangerous opposition that threatened their lives, such as in Texas in 1922 when the KKK threatened the local Catholic school and church. Yet after a tornado destroyed the Klan headquarters and two of their members died, the group was no longer a threat to the sisters and their work.
Mother Katharine Drexel, as she was known in her order, continued to guide the work of the sisters until a heart attack in 1935 confined to her order’s headquarters until her death in 1955. At that time her order included 500 sisters teaching in 63 schools through out the country.
During her lifetime Mother Drexel used some $20 million of her family fortune to fund the work of her order but that source ceased at her death. At that time the remaining funds in the trust set up by her father’s will for his daughters were distributed to various charities, as he had specified. One biographer described Katharine’s purpose for her inheritance, “In the Providence of God, Katharine was to live until her ninety-seventh year, and for the last ten years of her life … to be the lone income beneficiary of the will. She was to disburse its benefactions to the Indian and Colored races while she lived, and to instruct the sisters of her Community to trust in the Providence of God for His care …. She gave it all, while she lived. Above all, she counted on Divine Providence.”
Within a decade after Katharine’s death, the church began the procedures to name her a saint. She was beatified (the first step) in 1988 and then was canonized in October, 2000 as America’s second native-born saint.
Anne Adams, a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas, is the author of a new e-book “First of All, a Wife: Sketches of American First Ladies”. She has published in Christian and secular publications, taught history on the junior college level, and spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.