Biography

Biography of Saint Katharine Drexel

The Drexel household was a happy one, in a large but simple home at 1503 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Francis Anthony Drexel was hard-working and a successful banking partner with his brother, Anthony. Emma M. Bouvier Drexel, his wife, proved to be very loving, faith-filled and a caring parent to their three daughters, Elizabeth, Catherine (Katie) and Louise. It was here that these young women realized that their lavish wealth was to be shared, not only with neighbors in need, but also with Missionaries throughout the world who were serving the poor and destitute.

When they moved to the Torresdale section of Philadelphia they befriended Fr. James O’Connor, pastor of the Church of Saint Dominic. Soon he was ordained a bishop and sent to Nebraska. His pastoral work to the Native Americans made it necessary for him to seek financial help from the Drexel family. Kate, now known as Katharine, who was following the plight of the native groups, saw the injustices they were suffering at the hands of the federal government. She noted, as well, the severe racial injustices and torture of black people in the South, for whom she grieved. Clearly, priests were needed for both races to offer pastoral care and spiritual conversion to Christianity. On one of her final trips abroad, she begged and was granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII to make a request for missionary priests. The Holy Father, asked her to personally become a missionary which sealed her own desire to enter Religious Life. On her return to America, at the suggestion of Bishop O’Connor, she went to the Novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in May 1889, at age 29.

She entered for the purpose of founding a new congregation which would serve the Native American and African American people, tending especially to their conversion to the Catholic faith. Her deep love for the Blessed Sacrament was at the heart of her mission. She would not only take the three vows of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience, but a fourth vow of Service to the “Indian and Black Races.” While in the Novitiate, Katharine gave focused attention to her personal religious development and even excelled, but often reflected on her past visits to the Native Americans, and to Sioux Chief Red Cloud. Her novice director, Mother Mary Inez, RSM, guided her toward her goal and also helped in the formation of 10 novices and three postulants who would travel with her to their own Novitiate in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania. When Mother Katharine professed her vows, February 12, 1891, in the presence of Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia, the Foundation of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament became a reality.

As a consecrated religious, Mother Katharine Drexel, SBS wasted no time in moving onward to the West and South establishing missions. By 1940, more than 30 Foundations were made in 17 states, where 400 of her sisters were serving. These great accomplishments happened in spite of the trials of the Great Depression, vicious activities of the KKK and the challenges of World War II. These hardships, compounded with the fierce winters, and long, arduous journeys which Katharine continued to make, all contributed to her declining health. Her final years came after several heart attacks which then confined her to the Motherhouse, which she called “her little Nazareth.” She lived there from her 84th year until her last breath. She died peacefully at age 96 on March 3, 1955.

“All is vanity except knowing, loving and serving God. This alone can bring peace to my soul.”

Mother Katharine lived these very words, the heart of her spirituality. The Church recognized her holiness, which was confirmed by two miracles or cures to persons not able to hear, attributed to God through her intercession. She was beatified November 20, 1988, then canonized a saint on October 1, 2000.

 

St. Katharine Drexel, pray for us.

Sister Eleanor McCann, RSM
Pastoral Associate
Cathedral Parish of Saints Peter and Paul, Philadelphia

ST. KATHARINE DREXEL’S FATHER
Francis Anthony Drexel

Katharine Drexel’s father was a nationally and internationally well known banker. He learned the banking business in Drexel & Co. founded by his father in Philadelphia. He had three daughters, Elizabeth, Katharine and Louise. At his death in 1885, besides providing for his daughters, he left $14,000,000 to charity.

ST. KATHARINE DREXEL’S BIRTH MOTHER
Hannah Langstroth Drexel

Married in 1854 to Francis Anthony, Hannah gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth and three years later to Katharine in 1858. Never fully recovered from childbirth, Hannah died five weeks later.

ST. KATHARINE DREXEL’S MOTHER
Emma Bouvier Drexel

In 1860 Francis married Emma in Old St. Joseph Church. In 1863 Louise was born. Family prayer was integrated into their daily life. Emma opened the doors of the Drexel home three afternoons a week to the poor. When they were old enough, the girls helped her distribute clothing, food, medicine, rent money, etc. They learned that wealth was a gift to be shared with those in need.

ST. KATHARINE DREXEL’S SISTER
Elizabeth Drexel Smith

Interested in assisting orphans. Elizabeth began St. Francis de Sales Industrial School for orphaned boys. In January 1890, she married Walter George Smith. During an extended honeymoon in Europe, she became pregnant and seriously ill. Somewhat better, in September she and Walter returned home to awaited the birth of their first child. Again becoming gravely ill, Elizabeth and the baby died on Sept. 26, 1890.

ST. KATHARINE DREXEL’S SISTER
Louise Drexel Morrell

Louise’s outreach focused on African Americans, however, when she married Edward Morrell in 1889, they both promoted the rights of Native American and Black people. They built St. Emma, an industrial school, later a military academy, on property in Virginia as a boarding school for black boys. On property across Deep Creek, St. Katharine build St. Francis de Sales, a boarding school for black girls.

DREXEL DAUGHTERS
Family Portrait

Katharine, Louise and Elizabeth. Emma always dressed Louise in white or blue. Katharine and Elizabeth always lovingly regarded Emma as their mother. The term “step-mother” was never used by them. Emma cherished each of “her” girls.