The Stories of God’s People: Katharine Drexel

God’s people have amazing stories! As we approach All Saints Day, we’d love to share the story of some heroes of the faith and of the church that you may not know a lot about. These are people who God has used to shape His Church. We hope you’ll journey with us the next few weeks as we take this adventure together.

All who are part of God’s family on Earth and in Heaven represent the Communion of Saints. We are a big family, and we have one thing in common: We love Jesus, and desire to share His love with others. We are His Church.

In this series, it has been my hope to bring to light just a few ordinary people who had a big influence on the Christian Church. Up until this week, I’ve concentrated on people, all men, who were considered pivotal game changers in the early days of the church. This week, I thought we’d take a look at a woman, who was from the United States, and whose influence in the lives of Native Americans and African Americans is still making positive changes today.

Who was Katharine Drexel?

Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Marie Drexel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858. Her family owned a considerable fortune, and her uncle Anthony Joseph Drexel was the founder of Drexel University in Philadelphia. Her mother died five weeks after her Katharine’s birth, but her father remarried in 1860. Katharine and her two sisters were educated at home by tutors, and they had the added advantage of touring parts of the United States and Europe with their parents.

Twice a week, the Drexels distributed food, clothing and rent assistance from their family home. When widows or lonely single women were too proud to come to the Drexels’ home for assistance, the family went to them, always privately. As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”

As a young and wealthy woman, Katharine nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal cancer, but she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death, and her life took a profound turn.

How did Katharine Drexel begin supporting Native American missions?

She had always been interested in the plight of the Native Americans. When her family took a trip to the Western part of the United States in 1884, Katharine saw, first hand, their sufferings. This experience aroused her desire to do something specific to help alleviate their condition. This was the beginning of her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States.

After her father’s death in 1885, she and her sisters contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. For many years Katharine took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska. Katharine wanted to become a nun, but Fr. James instructed her to “wait and pray” to hear God, and His purpose for her life.

Katharine Drexel gives her life to God

In January 1887, while meeting with Pope Leo XIII to ask him for missionaries to staff some of the Native American missions that she was financing, she was surprised to hear the Pope suggest that she become a missionary herself. She later made the decision to give herself to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and African –Americans. Her family tried to talk her out from entering religious life, but in May 1889 she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh. Her decision rocked Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.”

Katharine knew that many African Americans were far from free, still living in substandard conditions as sharecroppers or underpaid menial laborers. She also knew that many were being denied education and constitutional rights. She felt a compassionate urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.
In 1917 she and her fellow nuns opened a boarding school, St. Catherine’s Indian School, in Santa Fe. By 1942 she had a system of African American Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. In all, she established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states. The most famous foundation was made in 1915; it was Xavier University in New Orleans, the first such institution for African Americans in the United States.

Why do we remember Katharine Drexel?

Katharine had an intense love of Jesus. She had a unique (for her day) perspective on the unity of all people. But she also had the courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities – many decades before the Civil Rights movement became popular in the United States. She believed in quality education for all. She is remembered for her selfless service for minorities, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of social injustice.

To this day, The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament pursue their original apostolate of working with African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.
“Katherine Drexel”, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Finney Jr., Peter, “The Legacy of Saint Katherine Drexel”, St. Anthony Messenger.
Foley OFM, Leonard, “St. Katherine Drexel”, Saint of the Day, Lives, Lessons, and Feast, (revised by Pat McCloskey OFM) Franciscan Media, ISBN 978-0-86716-887-7.
“Katherine Drexel: 1858-1955), Vatican News Service.
“Saint Katherine Drexel”, L’Osservatore Romano, p.2, 21 November 1988.
“XU Quick Facts”. Xavier University of Louisiana. Retrieved December 13, 2010.

Lisa-StrnadLisa Strnad is a weekly contributor to the What’s in the Bible and JellyTelly blogs. She is a homeschooling mom of two, who works independent contractor in Christian media as a writer, marketing consultant, and public relations specialist. She speaks to Christian women’s groups on the issues of motherhood, home schooling and raising a child with special needs. Lisa and her family make their home in Nashville. Her blog, Talking Like A Girl, is currently being restructured.

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We visited the convent where she lived and they had a simple display of some of her stuff there...What was most moving was a small, unassuming pile of pencils all sharpened to almost the tips. She never saved anything for herself and was always giving to others. :)