A wealthy socialite in post-Civil War Philadelphia wouldn’t have seemed a likely candidate for religious life or to become the foundress of an order to teach minority children, not to mention becoming a saint. But that is precisely what God called St. Katharine Drexel (1858 – 1955) to do. Abandoning the expectations of a lifestyle of the rich and famous, in what some have called a riches-to-rags story, Drexel discovered a mission in contrast with her immigrant grandfather’s mission to live the American dream. Her life would defy society’s expectations in nearly every imaginable way.
Drexel was born to a wealthy Philadelphia banker and philanthropist in 1858. Five weeks after her birth, Katharine’s mother died, and she and a sister were raised for a time by her father’s brother and his wife. Drexel’s father remarried, and the new couple taught their now three daughters to be generous and unselfish with their wealth. In those early years, Drexel learned that wealth should be used well, to promote the common good.
After their father’s death, the three Drexel heiresses went on a trip out West. The young Katharine was disturbed greatly by the poverty and sufferings of the Native Americans. She returned home resolved to help them in some way. When the heiress sisters had an audience with Pope Leo XIII on a visit to Rome in 1886, Drexel boldly asked the pontiff to send missionaries to the Native Americans. Much to her surprise, the pope answered her request by saying, “Why not, my child, become yourself a missionary?” It wasn’t long until she did, giving up the worldly life society expected of her.
Drexel’s vocation was discerned with the help of her mentor and spiritual director, Bishop James O’Connor. Although she pondered a contemplative life, Bishop O’Connor eventually tried to convince Katharine to begin a missionary order to serve the ill-treated American Indians and blacks dear to her heart. Drexel was unconvinced initially and wrestled with the idea, but she finally agreed. After 20 months as a novice in a Pittsburgh convent, the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament made her vows in 1891. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini gave support and advice to Drexel as she wrote an acceptable rule for her order.
Drexel weaved together social activism with prayer and trust in God’s providence in a most wonderful way. She overcame many obstacles in the pursuit of justice, exercising her prophetic voice to expose the sin of racism. It was a difficult task, but her missionary zeal fed her desire for justice and equality.
Drexel’s priority for her order was to establish and staff what would be nearly 60 institutions at the service of Indians and blacks throughout the United States. Drexel financed with her own wealth a variety of educational, health care and social service institutions among minority populations — a notable example of which was her assistance to the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton as he established the first black Catholic parish in Chicago. One of her proudest moments was the 1925 opening of the first college for black Catholics in America, Xavier University in New Orleans.
After a series of health complications, Drexel resigned leadership of her order in 1937 and spent the remainder of her life nearly immobile. In the nearly two decades to follow, she fulfilled her heart’s desire for quiet adoration and contemplation. On March 3, 1955, St. Katharine Drexel died peacefully at age 96 in her order’s motherhouse in suburban Philadelphia.
Drexel’s legacy lives on since she was declared a saint in the Jubilee Year 2000 by Pope St. John Paul II. At her canonization, St. John Paul II noted that Drexel’s holy life serves as a timeless reminder “that no greater treasure can be found in this world than in following Christ with an undivided heart and in using generously the gifts we have received for the service of others and for the building of a more just and fraternal world.”
St. Katharine Drexel is a saint for racial justice, and her feast day is March 3.
Michael Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.