Drexel, Katharine Marie, St.
DREXEL, KATHARINE MARIE, ST.
Foundress of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (later Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament); b. Nov. 26. 1858, Philadelphia, Pa.; d. March 3, 1955, Cornwell Heights, Pa.; beatified Nov. 20, 1988; canonized Oct. 1, 2000, the second U.S.-born saint, after Elizabeth Seton.
Granddaughter of Francis Martin Drexel, founder of a Philadelphia banking house, Katharine's Protestant mother, Hannah Jane (Langstreth) Drexel, died when Katharine was an infant; two years later her father Francis Anthony Drexel married Emma M. Bouvier, who became a devoted mother to Katharine, her elder sister Elizabeth, and their stepsister Louise. Katharine was educated at home by private governesses, traveled in Europe and the U.S., was a Philadelphia debutante in 1879, and took part in many social activities.
The Church called upon the wealthy Drexel family to help implement the decrees of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), which legislated for missionary activity among Native and African-Americans. Katharine had inherited a fortune at the death of her stepmother (1883) and father (1885). While recovering from an illness in a German spa in 1886, she recruited many priests and nuns for the Native American missions. During a visit to Rome she asked Leo XIII to recommend a religious order to which she could give her fortune on condition that it be used only for African- and Native Americans. When the pope challenged her to be their missionary herself, her vocation was decided. On Nov. 7, 1889 she began her novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh, Pa., and in 1891 she and a few companions founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People in a convent made over from the old Drexel summer home at Torresdale, Pa. Within a year there were 21 sisters.
Requests for help soon came from Southern centers for Blacks and from Native American missions in the Southwest. Mother Katharine built and maintained missions and staffed them with sisters. Later she opened schools and convents in Columbus, Oh.; Chicago, Ill.; Boston, Mass.; and Harlem, New York City. In 1915 she established Xavier University in New Orleans, La., which has been the only predominantly African-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States since its founding. By 1927 the university's growth led Mother Drexel to plan larger quarters. The new site and buildings, costing $600,000, were dedicated by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty in 1932. In 1935 Mother Drexel suffered a heart attack, but she continued her work, which included long day-coach trips to her 49 foundations in the Northeast, Midwest, and Deep South. At her golden jubilee in 1941, a letter from Pius XII described her work as "a glorious page in the annals of the Church." Although an invalid during her last years, she devoted herself to prayer until her death at 96. Her body is enshrined in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Pa.
At her death there were more than 500 sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the country. She had spent more than $12 million of her inheritance on work for the disadvantaged minorities of the U.S. and the advancement of human rights. At the beginning of the 21st century, her work continued at 48 sites in 12 states and Haiti. Katharine's cause, introduced in 1964 by John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, culminated Jan. 27, 2000, when the restoration of hearing to 17-month-old Robert Gutherman (May 1994) was declared a miracle wrought through her intercession.
Feast: March 3 (U.S.A.).
Bibliography: k. burton, The Golden Door: The Life of Katharine Drexel (New York 1957). c. m. duffy, Katharine Drexel (Philadelphia 1966). g. d. kittler, Profiles in Faith (New York 1962). p. lynch, Sharing the Bread in Service: Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (Bensalem, Pa. 1998). e. tarry, Katharine Drexel, Friend of the Neglected. (New York 1958).