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Katherine Drexel

Roman Catholic Saint

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Katherine Drexel Facts

Known for: founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, work with Native Americans and African Americans, second American-born person to be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint
Occupation: religious, saint
Dates: November 26, 1858 - March 3, 1955
Founded: Sisters of the Blessed Sacrement for Indians and Colored People
Also known as: St. Katherine Drexel, Mother Katherine, Katharine Drexel

Katherine Drexel's Feast Day is March 3, and is celebrated in the United States.

Katherine Drexel Biography:

Katherine Drexel's mother died when Katherine was only five weeks old. She and her sister were sent to the care of an aunt for two years, until her father remarried. Though her mother had been a Quaker, her father and stepmother were committed Catholics. Her father was a prosperous businessman, a partner of J. P. Morgan, and Katherine and her elder sister were educated privately, traveling extensively in Europe and America. Her debut in Philadelphia was in 1879. Her parents were also generous with both time and money in philanthropy, including more than $1.5 million for schools and churches, many for Native Americans and African Americans.

Katherine's stepmother died in 1883, her father in 1885, and Catherine began considering a life as a nun. She began funding mission schools in the American West, recruiting priests and nuns to serve in the missions that served Native Americans. Pope Leo XIII, in a private audience, challenged her not to just give money to serving Native and African Americans, but to give her life to the cause herself.

Katherine Drexel entered a convent in Pittsburgh in 1889, and, with family money, founded an order two years later, which she served as superior general. With the blessing of Pope Leo XIII, she and several other sisters began the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, with Mother Katherine taking her vows in 1891. Her family's summer house in Torresdale served as a novitiate. The first building was dedicated in 1892 in honor of the memory of Katherine's sister, Elizabeth, who had died in childbirth. Soon the convent had grown to more than 20 sisters. She helped to open the order's first western school in 1894, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pope Pius X formally approved the new order in 1913.

She helped to found Xavier University in New Orleans, a Roman Catholic college for African Americans, in 1915. While they went along with supporting segregated schools where such were the only choices, Mother Drexel and the order also supported racial integration and civil rights. In 1922, when the Ku Klux Klan threatened the order for their work in Texas, the nuns prayed -- and a tornado destroyed the local KKK building and killed two KKK members.

Katherine Drexel funded the order primarily with family money, income from a trust left by her father, which increased after the early death of her sister. She mostly responded to requests for funds; she did not take part in the operation of the schools and other institutions other than the religious order itself. In Mother Katherine's lifetime, she gave at least $12 million of money from her own trust to fund the order and target funds to aid for Native Americans and African Americans. The order established houses beyond the original Pennsylvania house, in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Columbus (Ohio).

In 1935, Catherine Drexel was stricken by a heart attack. She continued some traveling and working for a few years, but gave up her position as superior general in 1937, taking the title of vicar general. In 1941, the order celebrated her golden jubilee. In those years, she and the order funded investigations by the NAACP in the south, and Mother Drexel wrote to Franklin Roosevelt on the exploitation of black workers.

Still living by her vow of poverty, she remained living among the sisters until she died in 1955 at 97. She was buried in a crypt below the convent chapel in the mother house near Philadelphia.

At the time of her death, the order had about 500 members in more than 50 houses, operating more than 60 schools, a university and four other operations.

In 1964, the Roman Catholic Church began considering Katherine Drexel for sainthood. Beatification came in 1988. She was canonized under Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000, after documentation of a miracle of restoration of the hearing of a 17-month-old child in 1994. She was the second American-born saint; Elizabeth Ann Seton, canonized in 1975, was the first.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Hannah J. Langstroth, Quaker, died when Katherine Drexel was five weeks old
  • Stepmother: Emma M. Bouvier, Catholic
  • Father: Francis Anthony Drexel, banker and Catholic
  • Siblings: one elder sister, Elizabeth, who died in childbirth, and a stepsister, Louise

Education:

  • educated privately

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