The late 1800s saw a steep rise in American banking, commerce and industry. A new, ultrawealthy class arose, personified by families named Astor, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Collectively, historians have tagged the men who created this wealth “Robber Barons,” reflecting their often cut-throat business tactics. These men and their families also donated vast sums of money to establish charitable foundations, endow universities, and found lending libraries, eventually furthering education and spreading that wealth.
Francis and Hannah Drexel, of French extraction, were members of a wealthy Philadelphia banking family. By marriage and family connections, the Drexels were linked to several prominent figures in finance and politics.
Catherine Mary Drexel was born Nov. 26, 1858. Complications caused Hannah’s death five weeks later. Catherine and older sister Elizabeth were cared for by their Uncle Anthony and Aunt Ellen for two years while Francis recovered from his grief. He brought his girls home after marrying Emma Bouvier in 1860. A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863.
The girls lived pampered lives, educated at home by private tutors. The family, however, enjoyed an active spirituality, Francis leading them for a half-hour of prayer each evening. Their 90-acre summer home in Torresdale, just outside Philadelphia, was dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.
Deeply Catholic and intensely philanthropic, Francis and Emma opened their home at 1503 Walnut St. in Philadelphia three times each week to assist the poor, family members providing food, clothing and rental assistance to the needy. They also discreetly sought out widows and single women too proud to come to their door. Their charitable donations would today total $11 million.
Catherine made her social debut in 1878 at the age of 19. Soon after, she helped nurse Emma through a painful, three year-long battle with terminal cancer. Her stepmother’s great faith in the face of death deeply affected Catherine.
Although she had considered religious life as early as age 14, her spiritual adviser, Father James O’Connor, believed the wealthy young woman would find life as a nun too difficult. At the time Catherine agreed, confiding to her journal, “I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries.”
In 1884, Francis Drexel took his daughters to the American Southwest. It became another pivotal event in Catherine’s life.
With her sisters, the young woman was appalled by the destitution of American Indians driven off their own lands and relegated to the poverty of reservations. Her sense of outrage heightened after reading Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, “A Century of Dishonor,” an exposé of federal apathy regarding the squalor.
She wrote her priest friend, now Bishop O’Connor, of her desire to join a contemplative order of nuns. The bishop advised restraint, “Wait a while longer . . . wait and pray.”
Francis Drexel died in 1885, leaving a $15.5 million estate to be divided among Elizabeth, Catherine and Louise. Almost immediately, the three heiresses made a sizeable donation to the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. Even so, Catherine felt unfulfilled. Becoming acquainted with the discrimination aimed at blacks in the South, she yearned to do something more.
In January 1887, she and her sisters were received in private audience with Pope Leo XIII. The sisters begged the pope to send him more missionaries to help Native Americans. “Why don’t you become a missionary?” the pope asked Catherine.
The challenge galvanized her into action. In 1887, she established St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She visited the Dakotas, meeting the Sioux leader Red Cloud, and organized aid to several Indian missions. She continued the work of founding and endowing schools in the South and West, regularly touring these establishments by stagecoach or burro.
Philadelphia society was shocked when she became a novice in the order of the Sisters of Mercy. Now known as Sister Katharine, she found in her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament the wellspring of her love for the oppressed and strength to combat the effects of racism. She desired to start an order of nuns devoted to blacks and Indians.
In February 1891, with 15 companions as members of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters for Indians and Colored Peoples, the foundress took her final vows as Mother Katharine, superior general of the new order. Added to the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience the sisters took another vow, not to “undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races.”
Mother Drexel immediately provided a refuge for orphaned black children at the Drexels’ summer estate. She arranged for sisters to take classes at Drexel University, founded by her uncle, preparing them for life in the still-wild West.
Mother Katharine was an outspoken advocate for the rights of poor blacks and Indians. She petitioned Congress to increase aid to reservation schools; wrote newspaper editors, taking exception to biased reporting on Indian affairs; and also organized a letter-writing campaign supporting a federal anti-lynching law.
Her outspoken advocacy caused a backlash. As the order’s motherhouse was under construction in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, the nuns discovered a stick of dynamite nearby. The order’s school in Rock Castle, Virginia, was destroyed by arsonists in 1899. The same fate for their school in Texas was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan in 1922.
Nonetheless, despite harassment, by 1942 the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament ran a network of 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans, and 50 schools for African Americans in 16 states throughout the South and West. These Catholic schools offered religious instruction and vocational training since, Mother Katharine knew, education was the key to opportunity. There was never a requirement to be Catholic for students to enroll.
With a $750,000 grant, Mother Katharine founded Xavier University in New Orleans in 1915. Xavier was opened primarily to train teachers for staffing the order’s flourishing network of schools. It is the only historically black Catholic college in the United States. By that time, the order had grown to some 500 sisters in 51 convents.
In 1938, at the age of 77, Mother Katharine suffered a heart attack. Then a stroke left her mostly immobile, forcing her to give up leadership of her order.
Able to see the chapel’s altar and tabernacle through a window in her room she continued in eucharistic adoration and impassioned prayer. Small notebooks and slips of paper record her ceaseless aspirations, and meditation until she died on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96.
Her cause for beatification was introduced in 1966. Pope St. John Paul II formally declared Drexel “Venerable” on Jan. 26, 1987, and beatified her on Nov. 20, 1988. Mother Drexel was canonized on Oct. 1, 2000, her feast day being March 3.
Pursuant to their father’s will, because she died without issue, Mother Katharine’s fortune passed not to the order she founded, but to various charitable and religious institutions designated in the will. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their work.
In 2016, the order announced that the 44-acre property in Bensalem, including the motherhouse and shrine built to house Mother Drexel’s remains, as well as 2,200 acres in Powhatan, Virginia, were offered for sale.
St. Katharine’s remains were moved to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, where she and her family attended Mass. Nonetheless, the order continues to pursue their original apostolate, working with African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.
Sean M. Wright is a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, California. An Emmy-nominated television writer and a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@AOL.com.