Katharine Drexel grew up in the luxury of nineteenth-century high society, the daughter of wealthy but devout parents.
Along with her parents and sisters, Katharine resided in a stately home in Center City Philadelphia, “summered” at delightful country estates outside the city, made extensive tours of both the United States and Europe, and studied at home with the best private tutors.
At the age of thirty, however, this prayerful and business-savvy woman decided to channel her considerable wealth and talent into service for those who had been marginalized by American society: Native and African Americans. Long before the Civil Rights movement was born, “Mother Drexel” dedicated herself to overcoming the evils of racial discrimination and poverty. Her compassion for the suffering and her love for Christ had enabled her to detect those injustices before the rest of the nation awakened to them.
Beyond social justice, Mother Katharine wanted souls for Christ, whom she loved so deeply. Her interior life, centered on devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, was the fuel that enabled her to work unceasingly for her less fortunate brothers and sisters. During the last two decades of her life, after she had retired, her intense desire for a quiet contemplative life was finally realized.
A Spirit of Generosity
Katharine Mary Drexel was born on November 26, 1858; four weeks later her mother died. Katharine’s older sister Elizabeth was just three years old at the time. Katharine’s father, Francis A. Drexel—who presided over an international banking empire that his father had launched—remarried two years later. Emma Bouvier Drexel, the daughter of a prestigious Catholic family in Philadelphia, embraced the two girls as her own and soon gave birth to a third daughter, Louise. Tragedy struck again in 1879, when Emma—who had taught the girls to be generous—was diagnosed with cancer. For three years, Katharine nursed her stepmother through intense physical pain, and it was during this time that the idea of a religious vocation first visited her.
Emma’s death in early 1883 revealed to Katharine the transitory nature of earthly life in a dramatic way. On a European tour in 1884, as she gazed at the beauty of the great cities, she wrote to her spiritual director, Bishop James O’Connor:
Like the little girl who wept when she found that her doll was stuffed with sawdust and her drum was hollow, I, too, have made a horrifying discovery. . . . I have ripped both the doll and the drum open and the fact lies plainly and in all its glaring reality before me: All, all, all (there is no exception) is passing away and will pass away.
This sentiment intensified when Katharine’s father died unexpectedly in 1885. Ten percent of his vast fortune was given to his favorite Catholic charities; the remaining $14 million—a staggering amount of money a century ago—was put in a trust, the annual income to be divided among the three daughters. Newspapers reported that the inheritance of each of them equaled about $1,000 a day.
Now Katharine was in a position to begin her own charitable works. Two missionaries approached her about the need for financial assistance to Catholic missions to the Indians. Katharine had always been interested in bringing Christ to the Native Americans, and she was moved by the dire poverty that the missionaries described. She began giving large amounts to support the building of Catholic missions and schools for them and made several visits out West to ensure that the money was being spent wisely.
“A Void in My Heart”
In the meantime, Katharine continued to wrestle with her desire for a religious vocation. Bishop O’Connor was dead set against such a decision. “You are doing more for the Indians now, than any religious, or even any religious community has ever done, or perhaps, ever could do for them in this country.” He advised her to “think, pray, wait.”
Katharine found the bishop’s direction increasingly difficult to follow. “As far as I can read my heart, I am not happy in the world,” she replied. “There is a void in my heart that only God can fill. Can God obtain full possession of my heart while I live in the world?” She longed for the contemplative life, leaving others to dispense her wealth while she prayed, did penance, and above all, received the Eucharist daily.
The three Drexel sisters went on another tour of Europe in 1887, during which Pope Leo XIII granted them a private audience. Katharine was trying to find an order of priests to staff the Indian missions, and she summoned the courage to plead with the pope. He responded, “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?”
Finally, Katharine could no longer contain the deepest desire of her heart. In November 1888, she wrote Bishop O’Connor to say that she could refuse the Lord no longer. “It appears to me, Reverend Father, that I am not obliged to submit my judgment to yours, as I have been doing for two years, for I feel so sad in doing it . . . so restless because my heart is not rested in God.” The bishop capitulated. Katharine had held up “under the long and severe tests” to which he had subjected her, and he withdrew his opposition.
A New Congregation
A few months later, Bishop O’Connor suggested that Katharine establish a new order for “the Indians and colored people.” Katharine was overwhelmed. “The responsibility of such a call almost crushes me, because I am so infinitely poor in the virtues necessary,” she wrote. After praying for another month, however, she acceded to the bishop’s suggestion. In May 1889, Katharine entered the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh for formation. Her doubts accompanied her, but Bishop O’Connor assured her, “I am not surprised to find you dreading and shrinking somewhat from the responsibility of the undertaking. If you did not, I should feel very nervous about your success.”
Before her profession as the first member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Katharine lost the man who had been her constant support. In May of 1890, after a long illness, Bishop O’Connor died. A close friend of Bishop O’Connor’s, Archbishop P. J. Ryan of Philadelphia, stepped in to fill the void. When Archbishop Ryan received Katharine’s vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on February 12, 1891, she added a fourth: “to be the mother and servant of the Indians and colored people.”
Katharine selected a site nineteen miles outside of Philadelphia to build the motherhouse for the community, even as she mourned the unexpected death of her sister Elizabeth, who had only recently married. While the motherhouse was under construction, Mother Katharine and her thirteen new members moved to the Drexel summer home and began their training. The rule being drafted for the new community permitted daily Communion, something uncommon at that time, but a grace Katharine had deeply desired. In 1894, after extensive formation in prayer, humility, and service, nine sisters were sent to staff a school Katharine had funded as a laywoman: St. Catherine’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Active Apostolate
Thus began the work that Mother Katharine would oversee for the next forty years. She crisscrossed the country numerous times—often under grueling conditions—to direct the building of missions and schools and to encourage her sisters to draw ever closer to Jesus. In her mind, Catholic education served a twofold purpose: It equipped minority children with the necessary skills to lift themselves out of poverty, and it formed their faith, bringing them Christ through the Eucharist.
From the missions in the West, Mother Katharine went south to help educate black children who were barred from attending school with white children. In Nashville, she had to use a third party to purchase an estate in a white part of town to avoid community opposition to a school for black girls. When the plans for the school were revealed, an uproar ensued. There was even an attempt to build a street through the estate to render it useless! Quietly but determinedly, Katharine continued her work, and the school opened without incident.
From the South, the congregation eventually moved north to establish schools in the urban ghettos of cities such as New York and Chicago. The eighteen thousand letters stored at the motherhouse are a testament to the business negotiations, projects, and plans that Mother Katharine undertook during those years. Busy as she was, however, Mother Katharine did not neglect the contemplative life she valued so highly. When her sisters had left the motherhouse chapel, she often remained behind with arms extended in the form of a cross, her eyes fixed on the crucifix, tears streaming down her face.
The demanding pace Mother Katharine set for herself ended in 1935, when at the age of seventy-seven, she suffered a severe heart attack. She spent the last twenty years of her life in quiet prayer and intercession. The privilege of Mass in her room was granted, and the altar at which she had received her First Communion was installed there. She died peacefully on March 3, 1955, leaving a congregation with ministries all over the country serving Native and African Americans. One of the last meditations she wrote expressed the driving force behind all her work:
Practical conclusion: Love! Love! Let us give ourselves to real pure love. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is a devotion which alone can banish the coldness of our time. The renewal which I seek and which we all seek is a work of love and can be accomplished by love alone.
Katharine took the words of Jesus literally to “sell what you possess give to the poor . . . and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Faithful to her vow of poverty, Katharine wrote letters on scrap paper and drank day-old coffee to save money. At her death in 1955, Mother Katharine had used the money she inherited to establish 145 Catholic missions and 12 schools for Native Americans, and 50 schools for blacks, most of which were staffed by the congregation she founded.
Beatified in 1988, Mother Katharine Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. In his homily on that occasion, the Holy Father said of her:
With great courage and confidence in God’s grace, she chose to give not just her fortune but her whole life totally to the Lord. To her religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she taught a spirituality based on prayerful union with the Eucharistic Lord and zealous service of the poor and the victims of racial discrimination. Her apostolate helped to bring about a growing awareness of the need to combat all forms of racism through education and social services.
Katherine Drexel is an excellent example of that practical charity and generous solidarity with the less fortunate which has long been the distinguishing mark of American Catholics. May her example help young people in particular to appreciate 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.
A selection from In the Land I Have Shown You: The Stories of 16 Saints and Christian Heroes of North America (The Word Among Us Press, 2002).