Katharine Drexel was born in 1858 into one of America’s wealthiest families—the namesake founders of Drexel University and the Drexel Burnham Lambert investment firm. Her parents were of French Catholic extraction, and devout and deeply charitable. The family opened its grand home to hundreds of poor Philadelphians twice a week, providing food, clothing, and rent money. This was only part of the family’s annual giving, which was roughly equivalent to $11 million today.
Katharine felt a calling to religious life as early as 14, and it intensified during a trip through the American West, where she was troubled by the poverty of Native Americans. After her father died in 1885, the young woman took her multimillion-dollar inheritance and began funding schools and missions for New Mexican Indians. During an audience in 1887 with Pope Leo XIII she urged that more missionaries be sent to help Native Americans. The Pope replied, “Why not, my child, become a missionary yourself?” In 1889 Katharine bade farewell to Philadelphia high society and became a nun with the Sisters of Mercy.
Two years later, Drexel founded her own order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and made a special vow not to “undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races.” She converted her family estate into a home for African-American orphans, using it also to train young novices before they departed as missionaries to the western U.S. Drexel developed a network of 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans, and 50 schools for African Americans throughout the South and West. Staffed by laypersons and often attached to a local church, the schools offered religious instruction and vocational training. Students did not have to be Catholic to enroll.
In 1915, Drexel provided a $750,000 grant that allowed the sisters to found Xavier University in New Orleans—the only historically black Catholic college in the United States (and one that, among other educational contributions, has produced a quarter of the black pharmacists in America over the last century). Katharine led the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament until 1938. During her lifetime she is estimated to have given away half a billion dollars in present-day funds to support her order. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
- Philanthropy Hall of Fame profile, philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/great_men_and_women/hall_of_fame/st._katharine_drexel
- Ellen Tarry, Saint Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed (Farrar Strauss, 1958)