St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine Drexel is the first natural-born US citizen to be canonized as a saint. She is famous for her philanthropic efforts, especially those regarding race relations in the United States. Among many other schools and parishes, Katharine founded Xavier University of Louisiana.

Lifetime: 1858 to 1955
Region: Pennsylvania, United States
Patronages: Philanthropy; Racial justice
Iconograpy: Habit; Glasses; Black and/or Native American child(ren)
Feast Day: March 3

Katharine was born into a wealthy family, the daughter of an investment banker whose mother died giving birth to her. She had one older sister, and after her father remarried, one younger sister, and all three were educated at home by private tutors. As children the sisters traveled often throughout the US and Europe, as their father wanted them to learn geography firsthand. Three times a week, the family also distributed food, money, and clothing to the needy in their neighborhoods.

Katharine entered the public eye when she was 20, and was expected to become a socialite, but when her stepmother died of cancer, Katharine’s life took a turn. Watching her stepmom die over three years of suffering despite all their family’s wealth showed Katharine that money couldn’t save her. Then, several years later, Katharine’s family traveled to the Western US and she witnessed firsthand the horrible conditions many Native Americans were forced to live under. After her father’s death when Katharine was in her late 20s, she and her sisters began funding missions in Native American Reservations.

Her father’s death also gave Katharine and her sisters access to millions of dollars (nearly half a billion, adjusted to today’s value). All three of them wanted to use their money to help poor people, especially Native American and African Americans.

Katharine used some of her share of the inheritance to build a school in the West, which she hoped to serve as a boarding school for Native American girls. However, for years the school suffered from shortages of teachers, and ended up being a school for boys instead.

The Drexel sisters met with the Pope to request missionaries to help with their missions, but the Pope suggested instead that Katharine become a missionary herself – giving up her own share of the inheritance. More surprisingly, despite having received several marriage proposals, and being advised against it by her uncle, Katharine did indeed join a convent. She joined the Sisters of Mercy, a move so shocking to many in her circles that it made newspaper headlines.

A few years later, Katharine founded her own order, called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (now just Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament). Between the wealth that she brought to the order and her own authority and perseverance, Katharine was finally able to staff St. Catherine’s as she had always hoped.

In total, Katharine, with her order, founded 145 missions including 12 schools for Native Americans and 50 for African Americans, one of those being the only historically African American Catholic university in the United States (since, at the time, schools were required by law to be segregated by race).

Katharine died at the age of 97. Unfortunately, because of stipulations in her father’s will, her remaining inheritance could not pass to the convent, and they were unable to continue to support their missions. However, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are still active today, and continue to work in schools and churches around the country, still with the same focus on helping poor Black and Native American communities they were founded under.

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