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St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine Drexel by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist's Narrative:

Katharine Drexel was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family. As a young woman she became aware of the suffering of Native Americans on their newly established reservations in the western part of the United States. She began using money from her inheritance to establish schools on the reservations and to send food and clothing to the people. In time she expanded her efforts to include impoverished Blacks in the southern and eastern states.

From the time she was 21 years old, Katharine had wanted to become a religious sister. Six years later the bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, encouraged her to found a religious community to work among Native American and Black peoples. She founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891. For 44 years she guided her new congregation, founding schools in New Mexico, Arizona, and throughout the eastern half of the country. In 1917 she founded what would become Xavier University in New Orleans.

In 1935 she suffered a severe heart attack and spent the remaining 20 years of her life in retirement and prayer.

Her feast day is March 3.

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On February 12, 1891, Drexel 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. She took the name Mother Katharine, and joined by thirteen other women, soon established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Mother Frances Cabrini had advised Drexel about the "politics" of getting her new Order’s Rule approved by the Vatican bureaucracy in Rome. A few months later, Philadelphia Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the new motherhouse under construction in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In the first of many incidents that indicated Drexel's convictions for social justice were not shared by all, a stick of dynamite was discovered near the site.

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, New Mexico. In 1897, Mother Drexel asked the friars of St. John the Baptist Province of the Order of Friars Minor in Cincinnati, Ohio, to staff 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, Drexel 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, they continue to work on the Navajo reservation with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In all, Drexel established 50 missions for Native Americans in 16 states.

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, Drexel also felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States. The turn of the 20th century was the height of Jim Crow laws as well as anti-Catholic sentiment, particularly in the Southern United States. 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. When Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window. Nonetheless, Drexel made possibly her most famous foundation in 1915--Xavier University, New Orleans, the first such institution for Black people in the United States.

In 1922 in Beaumont, Texas, Klansmen posted a sign 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 the local Klan headquarters. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, by 1942 Drexel and her order established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.

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 fulfilled her lifelong desire for a contemplative life. Over the course of six decades, Mother Katharine spent about $20 million of her private fortune building schools and churches, as well as paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians.

Born: November 26, 1858 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Died: March 3, 1955 of natural causes at the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Bristol Pike, Bensalem, Pennsylvania

Beatified: November 20, 1988 by Pope John Paul II

Canonized: October 1, 2000 at Rome by Pope John Paul II