Katharine Drexel

Katharine Drexel (November 26, 1858 – March 3, 1955) was an American heiress, philanthropist, religious sister, educator, and founder. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000; her feast day is celebrated on March 3. She was the second American to be canonized a saint and the first one born a U.S. citizen. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2011.[1]

Katharine Drexel
St. Katharine Drexel
Born(1858-11-26)November 26, 1858
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedMarch 3, 1955(1955-03-03) (aged 96)
Bensalem, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
BeatifiedNovember 20, 1988 by Pope John Paul II
CanonizedOctober 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II
Major shrineCathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Philadelphia, U.S.
PatronagePhilanthropy, racial justice

Early lifeEdit

Katharine Mary Drexel was born as Catherine Mary Drexel in Philadelphia, the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth.[2] 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.[3] A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863.

The girls were educated at home by private tutors. Their father believed they should learn geography first hand; accordingly, their parents took the girls on periodic tours of the United States and Europe.[4] Three times a week, the Drexel family distributed food, clothing, and rent assistance from their family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family quietly sought them out.[5] As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, "Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind."[6]

As a young and wealthy woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1878. 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.[7] 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.[8] After her father died in February 1885, Katharine and her sisters 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."[6]

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 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.[6]

Her father had been on the board of both St. John's Orphan Asylum for Boys and St. Joseph's Female Orphan Asylum. Louise was particularly concerned as to the future of the young men after they left the orphanage. She and Elizabeth founded the St. Francis Industrial School at Eddington, Pennsylvania in honor of their father.[9] Elizabeth died in 1890 from complications of childbirth.

In 1889, 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."[10]

Religious vocationEdit

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 Drexel had already received marriage proposals, "…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."[11] 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".[7]

Sisters of the Blessed SacramentEdit

St. Benedict the Moor School, St. Augustine (c. 1898), paid for by St. Katharine Drexel

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.[11] She took the name Mother Katharine, and, joined by thirteen other women, soon established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The small community used the Drexel summer home St. Michel, in Torresdale until a convent was built. In 1892, the sisters moved into St. Elizabeth's Convent. Mother Frances Cabrini had advised Drexel about the "politics" of getting her new Order’s Rule approved by the Vatican bureaucracy in Rome.[7] 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.[6]

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 (Franciscans) 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.[12]

In all, Drexel established 145 missions, 50 schools for African Americans, and 12 schools for Native Americans. Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic college in the US, also owes its existence to Drexel and the Sisters.[13]

Death and legacyEdit

Mother Katharine Drexel died at the age of 96, on March 3, 1955, at her order's motherhouse in Cornwells Heights, Pa., where she was buried until 2018.[14]

Because neither of her biological sisters had children, after Mother Katharine's death, pursuant to their father's will, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries.[6] Nonetheless, the order continues to pursue their original apostolate, working with African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.


Her cause for beatification was introduced in 1966. Pope John Paul II formally declared Drexel "Venerable" on January 26, 1987, and beatified her on November 20, 1988, after concluding that Robert Gutherman was miraculously cured of deafness in 1974 after his family prayed for Mother Drexel's intercession.[14] Mother Drexel was canonized on October 1, 2000, one of only a few U.S. born saints and the second natural-born U.S. citizen saint (Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born U.S. citizen canonized, in 1975). Canonization occurred after the Vatican determined that two-year-old Amy Wall had been miraculously healed of nerve deafness in both ears through Katharine Drexel's intercession in 1994.[6]

The Vatican cited fourfold aspects of Drexel's legacy:

  • a love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples;
  • courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities – one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
  • her belief in quality education for all and efforts to achieve it;
  • and selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.[11]

St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and ShrineEdit

Entrance to the Drexel shrine in Bensalem, PA

The Saint Katharine Drexel Mission Center and National Shrine is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.[15] The Mission Center offers retreat programs, historic site tours, days of prayer, presentations about Katharine Drexel, as well as lectures and seminars related to her legacy. Furniture, photo displays, and other artifacts tell the story of St. Katharine Drexel, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Elizabeth's Convent

Her tomb lies under the main altar in St. Elizabeth Chapel. With also artifacts and relics she used, or had.[16] Originally known as St. Elizabeth's Convent, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.[17] Much of the art displayed in St. Elizabeth Chapel are works by or about Native American, African and Haitian artists, and musicians.

As of May 3, 2016, Sister Donna Breslin, president of the order, announced that the 44-acre property in Bensalem, including the motherhouse and shrine, as well as 2,200 acres in Powhatan, Virginia, will be offered for sale. The shrine closed at the end of 2017. St. Katharine's remains were moved to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, where she and her family worshiped when she was a child.[18]


Numerous Catholic parishes, schools, and churches bear the name of St. Katharine Drexel.



St. Katharine Drexel was instrumental in the establishment of Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, Beaumont, Texas, and Sacred Heart Catholic School, Port Arthur, Texas. Both schools were staffed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Katharine Drexel helped establish St. Joseph Indian Normal School, now called Drexel Hall on the campus of St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer, Indiana. The Indian Normal School operated for eight years, from 1888 to 1896.

St. Katharine Drexel founded St. Michael Indian School, serving grades K–12 in St. Michaels, Arizona, in 1902.

In 1912, she founded St. Mark School, the first in New York City for African-American Catholic children, personally funding it at the cost of $500,000. The school at the time would accommodate 500 pupils.

St. Katharine Drexel also founded St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Macon, Georgia in 1913 with the help of Bishop Benjamin Kiely and Father Ignatius Lissner.

Schools named in her honor include:

Churches and chapelsEdit

The choir loft window in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Sioux, Saint Joseph's Indian School, Chamberlain, South Dakota, donated by the Drexel Family.


Drexel Avenue, Oak Creek, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. (Drexel Towne Centre, Oak Creek, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.)


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ National Women's Hall of Fame, Katharine Drexel
  2. ^ "Saint Katharine Drexel | Biography, Facts, & Miracles". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-08-22.
  3. ^ Larkin, Tara Elizabeth. "Drexel, St. Katharine Mary", Pennsylvania State University, Fall, 2006 Archived 2014-10-17 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Katherine Drexel profile, katharinedrexel.org; accessed October 19, 2014.
  5. ^ Online, Catholic. "St. Katharine Drexel – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online". Catholic Online. Retrieved 2017-08-22.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Peter Finney Jr., "The Legacy of Saint Katherine Drexel", St. Anthony Messenger; October 2000; accessed October 19, 2014.
  7. ^ a b c Foley OFM, Leonard, "St. Katherine Drexel", Franciscan Media
  8. ^ "Katharine Drexel". www.vatican.va. Retrieved 2017-08-22.
  9. ^ Loughlin, James. "Francis Anthony Drexel." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 5 August 2019  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  10. ^ Edward and Louisa Morrell profile, stedward.faithweb.com; accessed 19 October 2014.
  11. ^ a b c "Katherine Drexel: 1858–1955", Vatican News Service; accessed October 19, 2014.
  12. ^ McCloskey OFM, Pat, "Mother Drexel and the Cincinnati Friars", St. Anthony Messenger
  13. ^ Torres, Justin. "St. Katharine Drexel". Philanthropy Roundtable. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  14. ^ a b "Saint Katherine Drexel", L'Osservatore Romano, p. 2, November 21, 1988
  15. ^ National Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel
  16. ^ Saint Elizabeth Chapel, National Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel
  17. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  18. ^ Babay, Emily; O'Reilly, David (May 4, 2016). "Bensalem shrine to St. Katharine Drexel to be sold". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
  19. ^ St. Katherine Drexel Parish, Cape Coral, Florida
  20. ^ SKD Parish Beaver Dam, WI
  21. ^ St. Joseph's Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel, Columbia, Virginia Archived 2014-07-11 at Archive.today, richmonddiocese.org; accessed October 19, 2014.
  22. ^ Pope, John. "Xavier University chapel will 'create an air of beauty and mystery'". Times Picayune. Retrieved August 11, 2012.
  23. ^ David Leighton, "Street Smarts: Generous nun the namesake for Drexel Road," Arizona Daily Star, March 14,2014
  24. ^ "FLP – Katharine Drexel Branch". Free Library of Philadelphia.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit