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Fri, 11.26.1858

Katherine Drexel, Catholic Educator born

Katherine Drexel

*Katharine Drexel was born on this date in 1858.  She was a white-American heiress, philanthropist, catholic sister, and educator.  

Katharine Mary Drexel was born Catherine Mary Drexel in Philadelphia, the second child of investment bankers Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth.  Her mother died five weeks after her baby's birth. For two years, their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel, cared for Katharine and her sister, Elizabeth. When Francis married Emma Bouvier in 1860, he brought his two daughters home.  A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863.  

The girls were educated at home by private tutors. Their father believed they should learn geography firsthand; their parents took the girls on periodic tours of the United States and Europe.  The Drexel family distributed food, clothing, and rent assistance three times a week from their family home in Philadelphia. When widows or single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family quietly sought them out.  As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, "Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind."   As a wealthy young woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1878. However, watching her stepmother's three-year struggle with terminal cancer taught her that Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death. Her life took a profound turn.

She had always been interested in the plight of Native Americans, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor.  When her family traveled to the Western states in 1884, Drexel saw the plight and destitution of the Native Americans. She wanted to do something specific to help. Thus began her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. After her father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation.

Their father left behind a $15.5 million estate and instructions to divide it among his three daughters after expenses and specific charitable donations. However, to prevent his daughters from falling prey to "fortune hunters," Francis Drexel crafted his will so that his daughters controlled income from his estate, but upon their deaths, their inheritance would flow to their children. The will stipulate that if there were no grandchildren, upon his daughters’ deaths, Drexel's estate would be distributed to several religious orders and charities: the Society of Jesus, the Christian Brothers, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Lutheran hospital, and others.

Because their father's charitable donations totaled about $1.5 million, the sisters shared the income produced by $14 million, about $1,000 daily for each woman. In 21st-century dollars, the estate would be worth about $400 million.  Her father had been on the board of St. John's Orphan Asylum for Boys and St. Joseph's Female Orphan Asylum. Louise was particularly concerned about the future of the young men after they left the orphanage. She and Elizabeth founded the St. Francis Industrial School at Eddington, Pennsylvania, in honor of their father.  

Elizabeth died in 1890 from complications of childbirth.  In 1889, Louisa married General Edward Morrell. The Morells actively promoted and advanced the welfare of blacks throughout the country. The Morells used their wealth to build institutions that served and aided Blacks' education and upward mobility. Gen. Morrell took charge of the Indian work while Katharine Drexel was in her novitiate.

On February 12, 1891, Drexel professed her first vows as a religious, dedicating herself to work among the American Indians and Blacks in the western and southwestern United States. She took the name Mother Katharine and, joined by thirteen other women, soon established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The small community used the Drexel summer home, St. Michel, in Torresdale until a convent was built. In 1892, the sisters moved into St. Elizabeth's Convent. Mother Frances Cabrini had advised Drexel about the "politics" of getting her new Order’s Rule approved by the Vatican bureaucracy in Rome.  A few months later, Philadelphia Archbishop Ryan blessed the cornerstone of the new motherhouse under construction in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.

In the first of many incidents that indicated Drexel's convictions for social justice were not shared by all, a stick of dynamite was discovered near the site.  Requests for help and advice reached Mother Katharine from various parts of the United States. After three and a half years of training, she and her first band of nuns opened a boarding school, St. Catherine's Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1897, Mother Drexel asked the friars of St. John the Baptist Province of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) in Cincinnati, Ohio, to staff a mission among the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico on a 160-acre tract of land she had purchased two years earlier.  A few years later, she also helped finance the friars' work among the Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico.  About a hundred friars from St. John the Baptist Province started Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in 1985.

Headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they continue to work on the Navajo reservation with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  Drexel established 145 missions, 50 schools for blacks, and 12 for Native Americans. Xavier University of Louisiana, the only catholic Historically Black College (HBCU) in the US, also owes its existence to Drexel and the Sisters. Mother Katharine Drexel died at the age of 96 on March 3, 1955, at her order's motherhouse in Cornwells Heights, Pa.  She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000; her feast day is March 3. She was the second American to be canonized as a saint and the first-born U.S. citizen. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2011.  

Because neither of her biological sisters had children after Mother Katharine's death, according to their father's will, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries. Nonetheless, the order continues to pursue its original apostolate, working with African Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.  

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