Katharine Mary Drexel was born in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, the second child of Francis A. and Hannah Langstroth Drexel. Mrs. Drexel died five weeks after Katharine’s birth. For two years, Katharine and her oldersister Elizabeth were cared for by their aunt and uncle, Mr. And Mrs. Anthony J. Drexel. In 1860, Francis Drexel married Emma Bouvier, and in 1863 a daughter, Louise, was born. The three children were raised in a home of deep faith and tender love.
When Katharine was twenty-one, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Katharine nursed her through three years of intense suffering. During this time, the thought of religious life came to her constantly and forcibly. After her mother’s death, she wrote for counsel to Bishop O’Connor. As to her call to the religious life itself, he advised her to “Think, pray and wait.”
Mr. Drexel died in 1885. By the terms of his will Katharine and her sisters were, during their lifetime, beneficiaries of the income from his estate. Through the great Indian missionary, Monsignor Joseph Stephan, Katharine became acquainted with the sufferings of the American Indians. With her two sisters, she visited the reservations to see conditions and needs. She began to build schools on the reservations, supplying food, clothing, furnishings, and salaries for teachers. She found priests to serve the spiritual needs of the people. As she became aware of the suffering of the Black people of the South and East, she extended her charity to them. Throughout her lifetime, through the “Bureau of Colored and Indian Missions”, she encouraged and financially supported missions throughout this country and abroad.
In 1889 she obtained Bishop O’Connor’s consent to become a religious. Her preference was for a cloistered life, but he encouraged her to found an institute to work for the Indians and Colored People. She hesitated at the idea of founding a religious institute, but came to accept this as her vocation. On November 7, 1889, she received the religious habit and the name Sr. Mary Katharine. At Bishop O’Connor’s death, Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan of Philadelphia became her spiritual guide.
On February 12, 1891, Katharine Drexel pronounced her vows as the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. With thirteen companions, she returned to Saint Michel. In 1892 they moved to Saint Elizabeth’s Convent in Cornwell Heights, PA. The burden of administration and guidance of her congregation in the Eucharistic spirit, the total gift of self, rested on her for forty-four years.
Missionary work began with the opening of a boarding school for black children, and then one among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. In 1902, Saint Michael’s School, on the Navajo Indian reservation, was opened. As the years passed, boarding and day schools were opened in the East, the Midwest, and in the rural and urban areas of the South and Southwest. In 1917, a school to prepare teachers was established in New Orleans, which received a charter in 1925 as Xavier University of New Orleans.
In 1935, Mother Katharine suffered a severe heart attack, and for the next twenty years lived in prayerful retirement. Her interest and love for the missions deepened, until her death on March 3, 1955. She is interred in the crypt of the Motherhouse Chapel, the Saint Katharine Drexel Shrine.
In the opinion of her contemporaries, she was truly saintly. It was her belief that she was singled out by God’s grace. She was a source of inspiration and a model for imitation.
The Cause for Canonization was formally opened in 1964 by John Cardinal Krol. It has come full circle with the canonization of Saint Katharine by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000.
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