KATHARINE DREXEL (1858-1955)
in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America, on November 26,
1858, Katharine Drexel was the second daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel and
Hannah Langstroth. Her father was a well known banker and philanthropist. Both
parents instilled in their daughters the idea that their wealth was simply
loaned to them and was to be shared with others.
the family took a trip to the Western part of the United States, Katharine, as a
young woman, saw the plight and destitution of the native Indian-Americans. 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. The first school she
established was St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1887).
when visiting Pope Leo XIII in Rome, and asking him for missionaries to staff
some of the Indian missions that she as a lay person was financing, she was
surprised to hear the Pope suggest that she become a missionary herself. After
consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor, she made the
decision to give herself totally to God, along with her inheritance, through
service to American Indians and Afro-Americans.
wealth was now transformed into a poverty of spirit that became a daily constant
in a life supported only by the bare necessities. On February 12, 1891, she
professed her first vows as a religious, founding the Sisters of the Blessed
Sacrament whose dedication would be to share the message of the Gospel and the
life of the Eucharist among American Indians and Afro-Americans.
a woman of intense prayer, Katharine found in the Eucharist the source of her
love for the poor and oppressed and of her concern to reach out to combat the
effects of racism. Knowing that many Afro-Americans were far from free, still
living in substandard conditions as sharecroppers or underpaid menials, denied
education and constitutional rights enjoyed by others, she felt a compassionate
urgency to help change racial attitudes in the United States.
plantation at that time was an entrenched social institutionin which the
coloured people continued to be victims of oppression. This was a deep affront
to Katharine's sense of justice. The need for quality education loomed before
her, and she discussed this need with some who shared her concern about the
inequality of education for Afro-Americans in the cities. Restrictions of the
law also prevented them in the rural South from obtaining a basic education.
and staffing schools for both Native Americans and Afro-Americans throughout the
country became a priority for Katharine and her congregation. During her
lifetime, she opened, staffed and directly supported nearly 60 schools and
missions, especially in the West and Southwest United States. Her crowning
educational focus was the establishment in 1925 of Xavier University of
Louisiana, the only predominantly Afro-American Catholic institution of higher
learning in the United States. Religious education, social service, visiting in
homes, in hospitals and in prisons were also included in the ministries of
Katharine and the Sisters.
her quiet way, Katharine combined prayerful and total dependence on Divine
Providence with determined activism. Her joyous incisiveness, attuned to the
Holy Spirit, penetrated obstacles and facilitated her advances for social
justice. Through the prophetic witness of Katharine Drexel's initiative, the
Church in the United States was enabled to become aware of the grave domestic
need for an apostolate among Native Americans and Afro-Americans. She did not
hesitate to speak out against injustice, taking a public stance when racial
discrimination was in evidence.
the last 18 years of her life she was rendered almost completely immobile
because of a serious illness. During these years she gave herself to a life of
adoration and contemplation as she had desired from early childhood. She died on
March 3, 1955.
left a four-fold dynamic legacy to her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who
continue her apostolate today, and indeed to all peoples:
her love for the Eucharist, her spirit of prayer, and her Eucharistic
perspective on the unity of all peoples;
her undaunted spirit of courageous initiative in addressing social iniquities
among minorities — one hundred years before such concern aroused public
interest in the United States;
her belief in the importance of quality education for all, and her efforts to
her total giving of self, of her inheritance and all material goods in selfless
service of the victims of injustice.
Katharine Drexel was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 20, 1980.