Katharine Drexel’s decision to leave high society and spend her life dedicated to service of American Indians and African Americans shocked those who were not aware of her ardent desire to be involved in the missions. Katharine was born in 1858 to an extremely wealthy family in Philadelphia. Her mother died five weeks after her birth, and her father remarried two years later. The family raised Katharine and her two sisters in a very loving environment with a strong Catholic faith. Katharine’s father and stepmother taught by example that wealth is meant to be shared with those most in need. Twice per week, the Drexel family distributed food, clothing, and rental assistance from their home.
While traveling with her family to the western states in 1884, Katharine was moved by the destitution and poverty of the Native Americans. Not long after this trip, her father died and left his estate and fortune to his three daughters, an amount that would be worth about $400 million today. Katharine and her sisters began financially supporting the missions and missionaries in the United States. While on a European tour in 1887, Katharine obtained a private audience with Pope Leo XIII and asked him for missionaries to be sent to the Native Americans. Pope Leo XIII responded, “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?” His question convicted Katharine to give her life and inheritance to God through service to American Indians and African Americans. She rejected several marriage proposals in favor of her desire to enter religious life. Her decision astounded Philadelphia social circles and local newspapers; the Philadelphia Public Ledger carried the headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent – Gives Up Seven Million.”
Katharine entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh, where she received formation and professed first vows. She later established a new religious congregation called The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and was joined by thirteen other sisters. The community, dedicated to administering care to the American Indians and African Americans in the western and southwestern United States, has devotion to Eucharistic Adoration at its heart. Mother Katharine focused on the importance of joyful service and said, “If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them. Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Mother Katharine sought to change racial attitudes in the United States, which were growing more and more hostile after the passing of Jim Crow laws. Despite numerous threats and oppression from the government, Mother Katharine continued opening schools to teach black students, including Xavier University in New Orleans. By 1942, her sisters had founded a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, with an additional 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools. Over the course of 60 decades, she poured $20 million of her own fortune into building schools and churches, and paying the salaries of the teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians. Mother Katharine died at the age of 96 in 1955 and was canonized in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.