Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia is known for many things: heiress to a banking fortune, fierce advocate for the poor, foundress of the American religious order Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and canonized saint in the Catholic Church. Her greatest accomplishment may have been her role in the struggle for racial justice in America.
Drexel’s birth in 1858 was traumatic; her mother died a month later and doctors expected to lose the baby as well. But the weak baby grew stronger and eventually was sent, with an older sister, to live with relatives. After her father’s remarriage she and her sister came home, and it would be years before the girls realized that their father’s new wife, Emma Bouvier, was not their biological mother. They were soon joined by a third sister.
Drexel’s family was one of the wealthiest in America, and Katharine was related to some of the most prominent figures in American financial and political history. Her great-grandfather founded the firm that eventually became Drexel Burnham Lambert. Her grandfather partnered with J. P. Morgan to found the banking giant Drexel, Morgan & Co., later renamed J. P. Morgan. Her uncle founded Drexel University. Through various marriages and family connections, Drexel is also related to Nicholas Biddle—the great Philadelphia banker, president of the Second Bank of the United States, and scourge of Andrew Jackson.
The Drexels were a French-Catholic family, deeply religious and intensely philanthropic. Her father had an active prayer life; her mother opened up the family house three times every week to feed and care for the poor. They gave roughly the equivalent of $11 million to charitable causes annually. The family lived on a 90-acre estate not far from Philadelphia; dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, the house was dominated by a large stained-glass window depicting the angel.
Katherine Drexel led a pampered childhood, and few expected more from her than a world tour, marriage, children, and fashionable pursuits. At 14, she considered entering the religious life, but was discouraged by her parents and by her spiritual adviser, Bishop James O’Connor, who believed that the wealthy young woman would not adjust to the privations of the convent. “I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life,” she confided in her journal. “I have never been deprived of luxuries.” But she felt a calling nonetheless. As a young woman, accompanying her parents on a trip to the American West, Drexel was struck by the poverty of Native Americans, who were then being forced from the rapidly shrinking frontier onto reservations.
At the death of Katharine’s parents, the three Drexel sisters inherited the bulk of their massive estate. Picking up the thread of her earlier trip to the West, Katharine began to devote a significant amount of her personal fortune to missionary and charity work among American Indians, starting with the establishment of the St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe in 1887. Later, she visited Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican to ask him to send missionaries to staff the Indian missions she had financed. He turned the request back on her: the missionary she needed, the Pope suggested, was herself. After consulting with her spiritual director, and to the disbelief of Philadelphia society, she decided to become a Catholic nun and devote her inheritance and talents to missionary and charitable work among Native Americans and African Americans.
Drexel entered religious life in 1889 with the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. The death of her sister in 1890 momentarily shook her resolve, but in 1891 she and 15 companions took their vows and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians. Added to the normal vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience was a special vow, not to “undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races.”
Drexel postponed sending sisters to missions in the American West until she felt they were well prepared. The first step for the order was to open a home for parentless African-American children at the family’s estate; the home both provided a refuge for these orphans, and training for her young novices before they were sent off into the still-wild West. Ahead of her time when it came to racial attitudes, she was the same when it came to the education of women, and arranged for the Sisters to take classes at Drexel University, founded by her uncle, so they could be prepared to teach their young charges when the time came.
To Katharine, education was the key to opportunity. The bulk of the order’s efforts went into developing a network of 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans, and 50 schools for African Americans throughout the South and West. These Catholic schools were staffed by laypersons, often attached to a local church or chapel, and offered religious instruction and vocational training. Unlike many religious mission schools, students did not have to be or become Catholic to enroll, and the schools expressly renounced assimilation as a goal.
In 1915, with a $750,000 grant from Drexel, the Sisters would also found Xavier University in New Orleans. The only historically black Catholic college in the United States, Xavier was designed to train teachers who could staff the order’s burgeoning network of schools. Much of the cost of opening these schools, as well as Xavier, was covered by Drexel’s personal fortune, and it is estimated (there is no official figure) that she gave nearly $20 million during her lifetime to support the work of her order, or more than $500 million today.
Drexel was also actively involved in public affairs and an outspoken advocate for the rights of poor blacks and Native Americans. She supported petitions to Congress to increase aid to reservation schools; wrote letters to newspaper editors whose reporting on Indian affairs she found to be biased; and started a letter-writing campaign in support of a federal anti-lynching law.
The wealthy heiress displayed a hard-headed pragmatism when dealing with local authorities in the segregated South. Adopting the maxim “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Drexel decreed that the order’s churches in the South, instead of the customary roped-off section in the rear for blacks, would have two long pews running front to back for the races. This tactic kept the Sisters within the letter of local segregation laws—and protected the schools from closure—while flouting their racist intentions. She also used dummy corporations and other legal shell games to hide her land purchases until the schools were too entrenched for local authorities to close. Nonetheless, there were regular conflicts with local bigotries: the order’s mother house in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, received a bomb threat when it was under construction; an order school in Rock Castle, Virginia, was destroyed by arson in 1899; and the Ku Klux Klan threatened the same for another in Texas in 1922.
Katharine’s travels and work continued until 1938, when a stroke left her almost completely immobile and forced her to give up leadership of the Sisters. Because she died without issue, the corpus of her father’s estate passed not to the order she founded, but to various charitable and religious institutions designated in his will.
In January 2000, Pope John Paul II decreed that a girl from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, had been cured of lifelong deafness by the intercession of Katharine Drexel. Later that year, in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope canonized Drexel, the second native-born American to be named a saint. (Upon her canonization, Katharine’s uncle’s university, which had educated the earliest members of her order, offered the formerly deaf girl and her siblings full scholarships.) The lavish ceremony would likely have pained Katharine Drexel, servant of the poor, whose only request when Xavier University was founded was that the school make no mention of her bequest, and who, at the college’s dedication, sat in the back of the room, quiet and unnoticed.
~ Justin Torres