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, Katherine (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
Cathedral Parish of Saints Peter and Paul, Philadelphia
Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel
Sunday from 8:00 AM to 7:30 PM
Monday – Friday from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM
Saturday from 9:00 AM to 6:30 PM