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Feast Day Mini-Study: Saint Katherine Drexel November 26, 1858 - March 3, 1955

A woman born into stature and a faith-filled home, raised to be a social figure in society based on the wealth and philanthropy of her family, groomed with kindness and a love of God and neighbor, turns the tables on what was supposed of her, what was expected of her, turns her life, and fortune, over to God!

St. Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 26, 1858, the second daughter to her father, Francis Anthony, who was a wealthy international banker and his wife, Hannah Langstroth, who lost her life only 5 weeks after Katharine’s birth. Katharine and her older sister, Elizabeth, gained another sister, Louisa, from their father’s second wife, Emma Bouvier, who was a very loving and nurturing mother and an exceptional influence on the girls’ lives.

The girls were privately tutored and received an excellent education as you would imagine, which included extensive travel throughout the United States and Europe. It was on these trips that a special compassion grew in Katharine’s heart. A compassion for Native Americans and African Americans, two impoverished groups she knew she wanted and needed to help.

The girls were already being raised with a heart of charity as their family accepted homeless into their home and provided financial help and goods, like food and clothing, to those in need on a weekly basis. Their parents, Francis Anthony and Emma, set a good example of living a Christian life and the girls were formed in this way. They lived a life of prayer and charity, and used the gift of their wealth to aid others when and where they could, and taught their daughters to do the same.

Katharine was blessed to receive spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Conner. She spent a lot of her time with Father O’Conner and sought his advice on many things. Katharine made her social debut in 1879. Many of course expected her to marry and many asked for her hand in marriage, typical for an heiress. Katharine had another proposal growing her heart, a desire to join a contemplative order. Father O’Conner suggested she wait and pray.

Then, an event began to transpire in Katharine’s life that would change her forever. Her mother, Emma, was diagnosed with and battled cancer for three long years, ultimately losing her life in 1883. Katharine was devasted. She learned through this experience that no amount of money or even good works, can prevent suffering in one’s life.

A trip with her family to the Western states in 1884 really confirmed in her heart what she already knew, that she needed to help the Native Americans. This was the beginning of many missions and missionaries in the United States for Native Americans.

Francis Anthony died in February of 1885 and his fortune was willed to his three daughters. As a smart business man, Francis wrote up his will in a way that protected his daughters from men who may only be looking to marry them for their money and would provide even his future grandchildren, should there be any, with a fortune. If his daughters produced no children, his Drexel estate would be distributed to different religious orders and charities, including the Society of Jesus, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Lutheran Hospital, the Christian Brothers, and others. The girls themselves ended up sharing an inheritance of $14 million dollars.In current dollars, that would be equivalent to $400 million.

One of the first things the girls did with their inheritance was contribute money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation.

During a trip to Europe in 1887, the sisters were blessed with a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. The women asked him for missionaries to help staff some of the Native American missions they were financing. The Pope suggested that Katharine become a missionary herself-the women were quite surprised. Katharine however was receiving confirmation of a seed already growing in her. She entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh in May 1889 and professed her first vows as a religious sister on February 12, 1891. She dedicated herself to working with Native Americans and African Americans in the western and southwestern United States. The social sphere was blind-sided by the news evident by this headline in The Philadelphia Public Ledger, “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.”

In the midst of Katharine becoming Mother Katharine and establishing her own religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, her younger sister Louisa married General Edward Morrell in 1889. The Morrells worked very hard to advance the welfare of African Americans and used their wealth to build institutions that educated them and created upward mobility for them. General Morrell even continued the work with the Native Americans while Katharine was a novitiate.

Louise and her older sister, Elizabeth, founded St. Francis Industrial School in Eddington, PA, in honor of their father, Francis. The school was a ‘next step’ for young men after they left orphanages that they outgrew. Sadly, shortly after, Elizabeth and her baby died from complications during childbirth in September 1890.

All three Drexel daughters were mirroring the life that their parents had lead and what they instilled in them, charity and good will towards those who are in need. Word spread about their desire to help from all over the United States.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament opened the boarding school, St. Catherine’s Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mother Katharine staffed a mission to the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico on a 160-acre piece of land she purchased, with the Order of Friars Minor from Cincinnati, Ohio. She also funded their work among the Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico.

In all, St. Katharine Drexel established 145 missions, 50 schools for African Americans, and 12 schools for Native Americans, in addition to finding Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic college in the United States.

St. Katherine Drexel died on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96 and is the second American born Saint to be canonized. The Sisters of Mercy no longer exist on the Drexel fortune, yet they continue their work with African Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and in Haiti.

McCann, RSM, Sister Eleanor, Biography of St. Katharine Drexel,
Catholic Online/Saints&Angels, Wikipedia,, Katharine Drexel, updated: March 3, 2022

For Reflection:

-St. Katharine Drexel is an excellent example for us, especially during the Lenten season. Giving up everything for God and others. Examine your conscience.  How can you give up more? How can you help others? Ask St. Katherine Drexel to help you in these areas. 

-St. Katharine Drexel had a special mission for those less fortunate. She didn’t only help a little, she actually built schools and institutions that educated and helped to create a life for those in need. Schools and institutions that are still active today! We are not all blessed with a fortune like the Drexels, but in what way can you take helping the less fortunate to a different level? Are you tithing to the Catholic Church? Can you tithe more during this Lenten season?

-St. Katharine Drexel and her sisters were blessed with parents who were actively living their faith and not only taught their daughters through their actions but engaged them in a life of prayer and charity. For parents, are you living your faith for your children to see? Are you teaching them the faith, that they may take it with them into their adulthood? What more can you do? For everyone, are you living your faith in your workplace, school, and social circles? When you do, you will be asked about it, and you may have the opportunity to help shape and form someone’s life towards Christianity. Are you a good representation of the Catholic faith? Take this into prayer.

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