Katherine Drexel, born on November 26, 1858 in Philadelphia, was born into the wealthiest families in America. She was the daughter of an investment banker. Her family owned a considerable fortune. Her uncle was the founder of Drexel University. When her father died, he established a trust for his three daughters worth fourteen million dollars. Devout Catholics, all three of them regarded their fortune as an opportunity to glorify God through the service of others.
As a young and wealthy woman, she made her social debut in 1879. However watching her stepmother’s three year battle with cancer taught her money could not save her from pain and death. Her life took a profound turn. She had several marriage proposals. But she decided to give herself and her fortune to God. There were plenty of claims on her generosity. But Katherine felt a special dedication to those who were ignored by the Church, especially blacks and Native Americans. She was appalled by the treatment of Native Americans. She endowed scores of schools on Indian reservations and supported Catholic missions on reservations. She also established 50 missions for Native American in 16 states. In 1878 during a private audience with Pope Leo XIII she begged the pope to send priests to serve the Native Americans. He responded, “Why not become a missionary yourself?” It was another turning point.
Finding no existing religious orders corresponding to her sense of mission, she founded her own: The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. A few months later, the Philadelphia Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the motherhouse in Bensalem, PA. In the first of many incidents that indicated not all shared her concern for social justice, a stick of dynamite was discovered near the site. She insisted that her sisters rely on alms, while she reserved her fortune for initiatives such as the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic College established for black students. Such efforts on behalf of blacks drew the ire of the KKK who made multiple threats. Segregationalists harassed her work even burning a school in Philadelphia. But by 1942, Drexel and her order founded and established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.
In 1935, Drexel suffered a heart attack and in 1937 she relinquished the office of superior general. Though becoming gradually more infirm, she was able to devote the rest of her life to Eucharistic adoration and therefore fulfilling her lifelong desire for a contemplative life. Over the course of six decades, Mother Katherine spent about $20 million dollars of her fortune building schools and churches, as well as the paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians.
Mother Drexel, whose life spanned the era of slavery and the dawn of the civil rights movement, died on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Numerous schools, parishes and churches are named in her honor.
Mother Drexel: “Often in my desire to work for others…some hostile influence renders me powerless. My prayers seem to avail nothing…In such cases I must not grieve. I am only treading in my Master’s steps.”