A Philadelphia nun, Mother Katharine Drexel, will likely be declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church some time this year or next, making her only the second native-born American to achieve this honor. Students of philanthropy may be interested to learn that Katharine already has another distinction—she may well be the only American whose philanthropic work was ever recognized by an income tax exemption through a special act of Congress.
Born into one of the largest fortunes in 19th century America, Drexel chose to walk away from it all for a convent life of vowed poverty. Her considerable fortune was funneled into charity, mostly for the education of blacks and American Indians. While her sense of charity was extraordinary, it was not out of keeping with the philosophy of a remarkable family which believed wealth carried an obligation of sharing.
Katharine Mary Drexel was born in Philadelphia in 1858 as the second child of Francis and Hannah Drexel. Katharine’s father was the eldest son of Francis Drexel, an Austrian artist who had migrated to America and eventually founded the successful investment banking firm of Drexel and Company.
Hannah Drexel died a month after the birth of Katharine, her second child, and Francis remarried in 1860. His new wife, Emma Bouvier Drexel, took his two little girls and raised them as her own. Eventually, the couple had a third child, Louise.
Emma was easily the most important influence in the lives of the young Katharine and her sisters. Emma (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the great granddaughter of her brother, John Bouvier) was a woman of profound Catholic piety, and charity was an integral part of her faith. Twice a week, hundreds of poor Philadelphians would assemble at the back gate of the Drexel home on Walnut Street. Emma, aided by her daughters and a paid assistant, would fulfill requests for clothing, shoes, food or rent, depending upon the needs of the family.
The three children lived a largely sheltered life of private education at home and participated in family vacations that might include a European tour or visits to the various scenic wonders of America. As they neared womanhood, vacations were permitted to the summer homes of very close friends or relatives, and while Francis Drexel would often accompany his daughters, Emma would remain at home, citing the needs of her various charities.
A “Spendthrift” Will
The idyllic existence of this close-knit family was shattered in 1879 when Emma was diagnosed with cancer. The disease progressed slowly and painfully until her death four years later. It was only then that the full extent of her personal charity became public knowledge—she had been quietly paying the rent for more than 150 Philadelphia families.
Francis Drexel survived his wife by only two years, dying in 1885 of a sudden heart attack. His death left his three grief-stricken daughters heiresses to one of America’s most impressive fortunes. At $15.5 million, an enormous sum in the late 19th century, it was the largest estate filed in Philadelphia up to that time. Under the terms of his will, 10 percent of the estate was distributed immediately to 29 (mostly Catholic) charities.
The remaining $14 million was willed to the three sisters, none of whom were married. Francis Drexel, wary of fortune hunters who might take advantage of his daughters, had written what was known as a “spendthrift will.” The sisters would receive only the income of the estate; their children, if any, would eventually inherit the principal. If any died childless, the income from her share would pass to the surviving sister or sisters.
During this critical period in their lives, the three sisters relied on their uncle, Anthony Drexel, for advice. Anthony guided them as they embarked on a path of philanthropy, a field with which he was quite familiar. He himself was in the process of founding the Drexel Institute of Technology. This school, through an initial endowment of $3 million, provided women and men of modest means with practical training in useful occupations. It has since grown into Drexel University, one of the nation’s premier engineering schools.
Prior to their father’s death, the Drexel sisters had been continuing their mother’s charities. Now, with their increased income, they expanded their benefactions, and while each supported the work of the others, they tended to have individual areas of special concern.
Because Francis Drexel had a special interest in Catholic orphanages for boys, Elizabeth, his eldest daughter, concentrated on this field. She built the St. Francis Industrial School in the Philadelphia suburb of Eddington. This residential school took adolescent boys from the orphanages and gave them training in a variety of occupations. This was an improvement over the previous practice which saw the children placed as apprentices with masters who all too often exploited them for cheap labor. Louise gravitated to the field of “Negro” education.
Katharine, from her teen years, had a special interest in the plight of American Indians. Almost by coincidence, her spiritual advisor, Rev. James O’Connor, was named Bishop of Omaha, a diocese which encompassed a number of Indian reservations. Through O’Connor, Katharine was put in touch with several prominent missionaries to the Indians, and began a life work of sponsoring churches and schools in Indian Territory, a work that expanded to include the much larger field of similar institutions for oppressed blacks. While education and material advancement of minorities was one of the goals of her outreach, the primary motive was evangelization. Katharine, a pious Catholic, wished to introduce her faith to these largely unchurched peoples, and the schools were a means toward this end.
Becoming a Missionary
But something entirely different was going on in her personal life. Shortly after Emma Drexel’s death, Katharine began to give serious consideration to entering the convent. This desire became more intense after the death of her father. This would mean renouncing her fortune for a life of vowed poverty, shut off from most contact with the outside world.
Had she lived, Emma Drexel would probably have advised against such a choice—it was her stated opinion that women of wealth could do far more good through remaining in the world and devoting their time and talents to charitable works.
Nor did Katharine receive much encouragement from Bishop O’Connor, who told her she would not be able to make the adjustment from a world of luxury to the rigorous life of a nun. Then too, he believed, should she enter the convent, she would have to relinquish her growing role as the prime financial backer for the Catholic Indian missions.
Katharine was building schools which were then administered by religious congregations aided by a government tuition subsidy. The federal government, under a policy initiated by President Ulysses S. Grant, saw religious-operated schools, Protestant and Catholic, as a practical path for the advancement of the Indian tribes.
In 1886-87 the “All Three,” as the sisters styled themselves, toured Europe, with visits to a number of boys’ training schools after which Elizabeth could pattern her St. Francis.
During an audience with Pope Leo XIII, Katharine asked for European missionaries to Indian Territory, “Why not, my child, become a missionary yourself?” the Pope countered.
Katharine was startled; this was not a step she was quite ready to take. But it appears to have helped strengthen her resolve to enter a convent. Finally, in late 1888, Bishop O’Connor consented to her becoming a nun but suggested she found her own congregation which would work exclusively among Indians and blacks. In 1891, after her own formation as a nun, her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored came into being. While Katharine continued to aid other charities, the bulk of her future funds would be funneled into schools conducted by the Pennsylvania-based congregation.
Learning To Use Straw Buyers
Mother Katharine Drexel, as she was now known, opened St. Catherine’s School in Santa Fe, her congregation’s first school for Indian children, in 1894. That same year she purchased an estate in Rock Castle, Virginia, where she built St. Francis de Sales School, a boarding school for black girls which complemented St. Emma’s, a nearby boys’ school which Louise had founded.
Many other schools and missions would follow through the South, the West, and the urban slums of the East. Very often there was such extreme prejudice and community opposition, that property for the schools would have to be purchased through a third party.
Most of the parents who sent their children to Katharine’s schools were not Catholic, but the state of public education, especially for blacks in the South, was so deplorable that the schools were welcomed by the black community.
Katharine realized her Sisters could not begin to fill the vast need by themselves. She seized an opportunity when, in 1915, Louisiana relocated a black college, Southern University, out of New Orleans. Through a straw buyer she purchased the vacant campus and reopened the school as Xavier College (now Xavier University). In its early years the primary mission of the college was to train lay teachers who would then staff schools for black children in rural Louisiana. Xavier was the first and only Catholic college for African Americans, and a pioneer in co-education. It continues to this day as a respected, though now integrated, institution of higher learning. It is worth noting that while Katharine was pouring millions into her schools, her own lifestyle was one of poverty. A Xavier graduate noted how she without hesitation bought a bus for the school’s sports teams, but traveled on the street car when she visited the campus.
Katharine’s charities outstripped her considerable fortune, especially after the introduction of the federal income tax, which at one point was gobbling up a third of her income. In a move that would be hard to imagine with today’s Alternative Minimum Tax, Congress in 1924 passed a bill providing that any person who had given at least 90 percent of their income to charity for the preceding 10 years would be exempt from federal taxes. The bill was widely understood to include no one but Katharine Drexel.
Katharine Drexel continued in her mission to Native Americans and African Americans until her late seventies when failing health forced her retirement. She lived on in her quiet cloister until her death in 1955, at the age of 96. By then her congregation could count 61 missions, mostly schools, throughout the country, although she had financed many more. In all Katharine Drexel had distributed some $20 million, more than the total of the trust fund bequeathed to herself and her two sisters.
As the Catholic Church considers her canonization, it is on grounds of holiness, not philanthropy. But philanthropy itself can be a manifestation of holiness, especially when those endowed with fortune understand, as Katharine did, that we are all but stewards, and that wealth is meant to be shared.
Lou Baldwin is a reporter with the Catholic Standard in Philadelphia.