St. Katharine Drexel: American Foundress, Religious, Heiress, and Philanthropist
November 26, 1858—March 3, 1955
St. Katharine Drexel
By: Sister Maria Teresa Acosta
A member of The Catholic Foundation board, the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and a pastoral assistant at Annunciation Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs.
The second American-born saint to be canonized in the Catholic Church was also born into one of the most elite, yet charitable and philanthropic, families in the United States in the mid-1800’s.
Born Catherine Mary Drexel in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, St. Katharine was the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. When Hannah died five weeks after Catherine’s birth, she and her sister were cared for by her aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel, founder of Drexel University. When Francis re-married Emma Bouvier in 1860, he brought his two daughters home. A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863.
Katharine and her sisters grew up in a truly Christ-centered home. They witnessed the example of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy lived directly by their devout Catholic parents, who three times a week, opened their home to distribute food, clothing, and medication to those in need. They understood well that the gifts given by God on this earth are not ours, but are for the glory of God and the common good of all. Both parents were devoted to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother; daily prayer was an indispensable part of their lives.
Suffering also marked the Drexel family. Francis Drexel lost Katharine’s mother at childbirth; his second wife Emma also died at a young age due to cancer; and his daughter Elizabeth and baby died in 1890 during childbirth. Caring for her stepmother for 3 years during her battle with cancer was a turning point for Katharine. She learned well that no amount of money could shelter anyone from pain and suffering.
On a special trip to Europe in January 1887, Katharine and her sister were received in a private audience by Pope Leo XIII. They asked him for missionaries to staff some Indian missions that they had been financing. The Pope suggested that Katharine become a missionary herself. After consulting her spiritual director, Father O’Conner, Drexel decided to give herself to God, along with her inheritance, through service to Native and African Americans, founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to carry out this mission.
Mother Katharine exemplified the life and virtues of a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. Even while controlling and dispersing her personal wealth, she remained so personally detached from it that she wrote with pencils until they were 2-inch stubs (a pile of which are on display at her Shrine), and personally mended and patched her own shoes until there was little left of the originals. The mission students who observed her visits could not believe that Mother Katharine was the legendary “rich nun,” because she would share in “all the dirtiest jobs.”
Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was everything to her. Along with daily Mass and Communion, her sisters were required to spend at least half an hour daily before the Tabernacle, in addition to brief visits before beginning, and at the end, of each day’s work. Whenever travel did not impede her, Mother Katharine rose from bed early to spend an hour or more before the Blessed Sacrament. She frequently reminded her sisters that their love for the Native and African American children they served must emanate from their love of the “Divine Prisoner of the Tabernacle.”
Mother Katharine died at the age of 96 at her Order’s Motherhouse. She was buried there until 2018, when her relics were transferred to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. St. John Paul II raised her to the altars on October 1, 2000.
“All is vanity except knowing, loving and serving God. This alone can bring peace to my soul.”
St. Katharine Drexel, pray for us!