Saint Katharine Drexel, was born in 1858, into a prominent Philadelphia family. Katharine became imbued with love for God and neighbor. She took an avid interest in the material and spiritual well-being of black and native Americans. She began by donating money but soon concluded that more was needed - the lacking ingredient was people. Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Black and Native American peoples, whose members would work for the betterment of those they were called to serve. From the age of 33 until her death in 1955, she dedicated her life and a fortune of 20 million dollars to this work. In 1894, Mother Drexel took part in opening the first mission school for Indians, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Other schools quickly followed - for Native Americans west of the Mississippi River, and for the blacks in the southern part of the United States. In 1915 she also founded Xavier University in New Orleans. At her death there were more than 500 Sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the country. Katharine was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 20, 1988.
Because of her lifelong dedication to her faith and her selfless service to the oppressed, Pope John Paul II canonized her on October 1, 2000 to become only the second recognized American-born saint.
Katharine Mary Drexel was born Catherine Mary Drexel in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth.
Hannah died five weeks after her baby's birth. For two years Katharine and her sister, Elizabeth, were cared for by their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel. When Francis married Emma Bouvier in 1860 he brought his two daughters home. A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863. Louisa would marry General Edward Morrell. The Morrells actively promoted and advanced the welfare of African Americans throughout the country. The Morrells used their wealth to build magnificent institutions that served and aided the education and upward mobility of African Americans. Gen. Morrell took charge of the Indian work, while Katharine Drexel was in her novitiate.
Private tutors educated the girls at their home. They toured parts of the United States and Europe with their parents. Twice weekly, the Drexel family distributed food, clothing and rent assistance from their family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or lonely single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family sought them out, but always quietly. As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”
As a young and wealthy woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1879. However, watching her stepmother's three-year struggle with terminal cancer taught her the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death. Her life took a profound turn. She had always been interested in the plight of Native Americans, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor.
When her family traveled to the Western states in 1884, Katharine Drexel saw the plight and destitution of the Native Americans. She wanted to do something specific to help. Thus began her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. After her father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters had contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. For many years she took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska. When Kate wrote him of her desire to join a contemplative order, Bishop O’Connor suggested, “Wait a while longer... Wait and pray.”
Katharine and her sisters Elizabeth and Louise were still mourning their father when they sailed to Europe in 1886. Their high-powered banker father left behind a $15.5 million estate and instructions to divide it among his three daughters - Elizabeth, Katherine, and Louisa - after expenses and specific charitable donations. However, to prevent his daughters from falling prey to “fortune hunters”, Francis Drexel crafted his will so that his daughters controlled income from his estate, but upon their deaths, their inheritance would flow to their children. The will stipulated that if there were no grandchildren, upon his daughters’ deaths, Drexel's estate would be distributed to several religious orders and charities- the Society of Jesus, the Christian Brothers, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Lutheran hospital and others. Because their father's charitable donations totaled about $1.5 million, the sisters shared the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $400 million.
In January 1887, the sisters were received in a private audience by Pope Leo XIII. They asked him for missionaries to staff some Indian missions that they had been financing. To their surprise, the Pope suggested that Katharine become a missionary herself. Although she had already received marriage proposals, after consulting her spiritual director, Drexel decided to give herself to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans. Her uncle, Anthony Drexel, tried to dissuade her from entering religious life, but she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh in May 1889 to begin her six-month postulancy. Her decision rocked Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million".
Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament:
On February 12, 1891, Drexel professed her first vows as a religious, dedicating herself to work among the American Indians and African-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 getting her new Order’s Rule approved by the Vatican. 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.
In 1917 a school to train teachers opened in New Orleans. In 1925, that school was chartered as Xavier University, the first Catholic university in the United States for African Americans.
In 1935 Mother Katharine had a serious heart attack. She spent the next 20 years in prayerful retirement.
She died on March 3, 1955. She is interred in the crypt of the Motherhouse Chapel in the St. Katharine Drexel Shrine. March 3 is recognized by the Catholic Church as St. Katharine’s Feast Day.
The process of canonization of Mother Katharine Drexel was begun in December 1964, when John Cardinal Krol officially introduced her cause in Rome. However, in order to be canonized the Church requires proof of at least two miraculous cures due to the intercession of the candidate.
Miracle Number One
In 1974 when Robert Gutherman was 14 years old he suffered a severe ear infection that destroyed the three bones in his right ear that are necessary for hearing. Not only did he suffer great pain, he found that he had completely lost hearing in that ear. His family began to pray to Katharine Drexel for relief of his pain. Several months later, after an unsuccessful surgery, the doctors found that not only had the three bones been fully restored, but he also had regained his hearing. Medical experts called the cure medically unexplainable and, in 1988, Pope John Paul II accepted the cure as the first miracle attributed to the intervention of Katharine Drexel. Katharine Drexel was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II on November 20, 1980 and became known as “Blessed Katharine Drexel”.
Miracle Number Two:
Amy Wall was born in 1992 with nerve deafness in both ears that was considered incurable. Amy’s family began praying to Blessed Katharine Drexel in November 1993, after learning that prayer to Blessed Katharine lead to the miraculous restoration of hearing to Robert Gutherman. In March 1994, a pre-school teacher noticed a change in Amy’s responses and the little girl was given new hearing tests. She was found to have normal hearing in both ears. On Jan. 27, Pope John Paul II accepted Amy’s cure as attributable to St. Katharine and began the process for her canonization.
On October 1, 2000, Katharine Drexel was Canonized by Pope St. John Paul II. The Canonization was attended by 150 of our parishioners.