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St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine Drexel by Brenda Nippert

Artist Narrative:

Katharine was born in Philadelphia to an extraordinarily rich family. They brought her up to be kind and generous especially to those less fortunate. As an adult, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to take care of oppressed Black and Native American children. She believed education was the key to making their lives better so she gave up her entire fortune – twenty million dollars – to help them. She had a noble vision of unity and equality for everyone. She opened schools and universities all over. Katharine gave her all, never thinking of herself and she taught her sisters to do the same.

She combined deep faith with American ingenuity to make her family's fortune really mean something. She fought prejudice in every way, even writing letters to the president to protest injustice. Finally, after spending all of her energy, Katharine's health failed, but even that didn't stop her. She spent the last years of her life in prayer for her order and their mission. As her life dwindled her mission blossomed, leaving over five hundred sisters to carry on her work.

Her feast day is March 3.

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Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 26, 1858. Her father, Francis Anthony Drexel, was a business partner of financier J.P. Morgan. Her mother, Hannah Jane (née Langstroth) Drexel, died a month after Drexel's birth; in 1860, her father was married again, to Emma Bouvier. In addition to their great wealth, her parents were known for their philanthropic endeavors.

Drexel was raised as a young heiress in Philadelphia, and was educated at home. However, having traveled throughout the United States, she was aware of the difficult circumstances faced by Native Americans and African Americans across the country. Drexel—who lost her stepmother in 1883 and her father in 1885—wanted to use her inherited wealth to help these groups.

Drexel supported several schools, including one that was located on a reservation in South Dakota. During a trip to Europe in 1887, she met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to recommend a religious order that could send missionaries to the institutions she was funding. He suggested that Drexel might undertake the missionary work herself.

Religious Life and Work
In 1889, Drexel entered religious life as a novice under the training of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She took her final vows in 1891. With the help of a few other nuns, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (later known simply as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament). The order would use Drexel's fortune to fund its work.

Drexel and 15 of her fellow sisters set up a school for Native Americans in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1894. This was followed by the creation of other schools throughout the Southwest, including ones on reservations. Drexel's order also opened many schools for African-American children. She founded a secondary school for African Americans in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1915. Ten years later, the institution became Xavier University.

Later Life and Death
Drexel suffered a heart attack in 1935; two years later, she gave up the leadership of her order. She died at the age of 96 on March 3, 1955, in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania. During her life she had given approximately 20 million dollars to help people in need.

Drexel's order had more than 500 members at the time of her death. With her assistance, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had opened 145 missions, 49 elementary schools and 12 high schools. Today, the order continues its missionary and educational work.

Canonization as a Saint
In the 1960s, the Catholic church began the process of considering Drexel for sainthood. She was beatified in 1988, after the Vatican found that prayers to Drexel had restored a teenager's hearing. In 2000, she was credited with a second cure; Pope John Paul II canonized her as Saint Katharine Drexel later that same year. Her feast day is March 3.