Drexel, Mary Katharine (1858–1955)

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Drexel, Mary Katharine (1858–1955)

American founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order devoted almost entirely to work with Native Americans and African-Americans. Name

variations: Mother Mary Katharine. Born Mary Katharine Drexel on November 26, 1858, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Cornwall Heights, Pennsylvania, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament on March 3, 1955; daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel (a banker from Austria) and Hannah Jane Langstroth, who died five weeks after Mary's birth; sister of Elizabeth Drexel and Louise Drexel ; educated privately with her sisters; never married; no children.

Mary Katharine Drexel was born on November 26, 1858. Five weeks later, her mother passed away. In 1860, her father married Emma Bouvier who raised Mary as well as her elder sister Elizabeth and her younger sister Louise. Emma reared the Drexel children on a model of "Christian womanhood" and philanthropy, opening her home three times a week to give aid to the poor of Philadelphia. Following the death of their stepmother in 1883 and the death of their father in 1885, the Drexel sisters resolved to use their $14 million inheritance to continue their parents' philanthropic activities.

Particularly interested in relieving the plight of Native Americans, Mary Katharine Drexel sought to enhance the educational opportunities on the reservations of the American West. In 1886, she traveled to Europe to examine the latest in teaching techniques. Meeting with Pope Leo XIII in 1887, she asked for nuns and priests to work with the Native Americans. His response, "Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?," began a process of prayer and reflection for Drexel. In 1887, she wrote her family's priest and spiritual guide, Father James O'Connor, telling him of her resolution to join a convent and dedicate herself to Christ. The local bishop, knowing of her concerns, suggested the establishment of a new order for service to Native Americans and African-Americans. Using the Sisters of Mercy as a model, Drexel entered their novitiate in Pittsburgh on May 6, 1889. In July of 1890, Pope Leo XIII gave her his apostolic blessing, and on February 12, 1891, she took her vows as the first sister of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.

By December 1892, a novitiate and mother-house had been established in Cornwall Heights, Pennsylvania, and in 1894 the Rules and Constitution for the Order were established. In June of that same year, the first four sisters left for St. Catherine's School, a boarding school for the Pueblo in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A Decree of Definitive Approbation was granted by the College of Cardinals in 1907.

A formal papal Decree of Approbation was granted by Pope Pius X in 1913. Drexel's order continued its work in both urban and rural settings, establishing a school for African-American girls in Virginia, a manual arts school in Arizona, and a mission in Harlem, New York. In 1915, she began work with Archbishop Francis Janssens to organize a teachers college in New Orleans for African-Americans; ten years later, in 1925, Xavier University received a charter. Following two successive heart attacks in the 1930s, Drexel began to withdraw from the administrative side of her order and turned to a contemplative life. She died on March 3, 1955, from pneumonia and heart failure, at St. Elizabeth's, the motherhouse of her order. At the time of her death, the order had 501 nuns at 51 different convents. In addition to Xavier University, the order ran 61 schools, and three social-service houses. In 1964, the Roman Catholic Church opened the cause of her beatification, and her writings were approved by the church in 1973, another step toward her canonization She was canonized on October 1, 2000.


Duffy, Consuela Marie. Katharine Drexel: A Biography. Philadelphia, PA: P. Reilly, 1966.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.


All of Drexel's papers are housed at St. Elizabeth's, the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Cornwall Heights, Pennsylvania.

suggested reading:

Burton, Katherine. The Golden Door: The Life of Katharine Drexel. NY: Kennedy, 1957.

Amanda Carson Banks , Senior Information Officer, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee

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Drexel, Mary Katharine (1858–1955)

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