Drexel, Saint Katharine

Saint Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) began the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in the 1890s, a Catholic order committed to the education and welfare of Native and African Americans (and, today, to the people of Haiti). Mother Drexel devoted her life and immense fortune to this cause and, under her leadership, the sisters built, funded, supplied, and staffed over sixty schools and missions throughout America. One of these institutions is Xavier University in New Orleans, the first black coeducational Catholic institution of higher education in Louisiana. Mother Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II in January 2000, as the second native-born American saint.

Biographical Highlights

Responding to needs she perceived among African Americans and Native Americans, Katharine Drexel devoted her life and immense fortune to providing education for those who wished to take advantage of it. As a child, Drexel was exposed to the philanthropic impulses of her parents and the concerns of the many influential Catholic clergy close to her socially-prominent family. After investing significant personal time and resources in charitable acts, she realized her call to a vocational life in 1889. She founded her own Catholic Order dedicated to working with and for the people she saw as America's forgotten, ignored, and debased peoples: Native Americans and African Americans. During her lifetime and under her leadership, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians built, funded, supplied, and staffed over sixty schools and missions throughout America. For instance, the Sisters founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first and only black coeducational Catholic institution of higher education at the time. While living a life of poverty, Mother Katharine gave millions of dollars to support these efforts1.

However, her influence exceeded the impact of her financial offerings. Katharine Drexel respected the common humanity and citizenship of Native Americans and African Americans, she provided free quality education to nurture new community leaders, and she was untiring in the face of obstacles and calm when confronted by bigotry. She died in 1955, and her contemporaries initiated the process of canonization in 1964. She was beatified in 1988 and canonized by Pope John Paul II on 27 January 2000, following Elizabeth Seton as the second native-born American to be canonized.2

1The actual amount donated by St. Katharine is differently reported. Mary Oates (1993) gives a figure over $40 million, while the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament report over $20 million (2003).
2The Catholic Church has a strict sequence of requirements for canonization. A person can be declared "venerable" after exhibiting a moral life of faith; he or she may be beatified after the Pope determines that an incredible and unexplainable event that occurred in the individual's life was miraculous; and, finally, the person may be canonized after participating in a second miraculous event.

Historic Roots

In Philadelphia on 26 November 1858, Katharine Mary Drexel was born to parents Francis and Hannah. The birth had been dangerous; both mother and daughter were at risk, and their doctor did not hold much hope for the weak baby's survival. However,

Katharine grew stronger as her mother grew weaker and not long after her baptism on 29 December, her mother died. Along with elder sister Elizabeth, Katherine was sent to live for a short time with an aunt. When their father remarried, he brought the children home. As they were so young, neither child realized until later in life that their father's new wife, Emma Bouvier, was not their real mother. A younger sister, Louise, was born in 1863; thus began a life-long companionship and shared compatibility of interests between the three sisters.

Drexel and her sisters were educated at home by a variety of tutors and spent summers helping their mother teach Sunday school to the poor local children at their summer home. When she was twelve, their father had bought a ninety-acre farm in Torresdale, not far from Philadelphia. They had remodeled the farmhouse into a beautiful mansion, with cottages on the grounds for their servants, and all sheltered by impressive, old oak and elm trees. The estate was named St. Michel after the Archangel Michael, and dedicated to him with a glorious stained-glass window towering above the stairs in the house. As well as escaping the formality of their town life at St. Michel during the summers of their childhood, the three girls enjoyed interesting trips every fall and a special extended tour of Europe. The sisters managed to find some balance and a less insular awareness in their admittedly privileged lives through exposure to the philanthropic efforts of both parents who encouraged them to step outside their own experience and to exercise compassion for others.

After the death of their parents, the three daughters inherited their family's vast fortune, which had been accrued through two generations of successful and shrewd banking ventures. They began to involve themselves directly in charitable work. Encouraged by friends in the clergy, they started contributing to the support of Native American missions in the West, eventually visiting these missions in person. This visit profoundly affected them and strengthened their commitment to assisting Native American peoples.

During this time, Katharine experienced a growing sense of her vocation to a religious life. She had always been intensely spiritual and felt increasingly called to devote her life to prayer and contemplation. However , she was conflicted by the need she had seen in the Native American communities in the West and greatly concerned by the lack of help committed to them. She delayed hasty entrance to a cloistered life on the advice of her spiritual mentors and undertook a visit to Europe to reflect on her future and to petition the Pope for prayers and aid for the Native-American and African-American peoples. Noticing her fervor and aware of her wish to enter a contemplative religious life, the Pope suggested that perhaps the mission, the active force for good she was seeking, had actually already been found: perhaps she might undertake the work of helping these people herself.

To the astonishment of Philadelphian society, the initial disappointment of her uncle, and the encouragement of prominent Catholic clergy and the Pope, Drexel started her novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy in May 1889. Her intent was to found an Order committed to the welfare of Native and African Americans. The death of her sister, Elizabeth, and her life-long spiritual mentor, Bishop O'Connor, while she prepared to take her vows momentarily shook her resolve. She found the strength to continue her studies and, in 1891, she pledged her life to others, uttering the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and adding a unique promise not to "undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races" (Oates 1993, 211).

As the leader and founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians, Mother Katharine Drexel reluctantly postponed sending sisters to missions in the West until she felt they were better prepared. To train her novices, she opened a home for African-American children at St. Michel; she aimed to provide the children with a caring and permanent living environment and, at the same time, allow novices to receive immediate help and support regarding concerns related to their young charges. Mother Drexel also arranged for her novices to take classes at the Drexel Institute, a coeducational vocational school founded by her uncle, as she felt it was imperative that Sisters be thoroughly prepared to tend to the educational, practical and spiritual needs of the children.

Throughout her life , Mother Drexel supported petitions to Congress to improve governmental aid for Native American schools. Working in harmony with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she gradually funded, built, and staffed churches and schools for Native and African Americans throughout the United States. She traveled extensively to search for property that could serve as appropriate sites for churches and schools, gracefully challenged the prejudice and bigotry of some who were opposed to her work, and encouraged those she educated to use their skills to benefit their communities. All the while, she continued to lead her Order and visit her Sisters and the schools and missions they ran.

The plight of African Americans in the South became a major concern of Mother Drexel's. In partnership with Archbishop Blenk and in recognition of a desperate hunger for education in the rural areas of Louisiana, in 1915, Drexel founded Xavier Academy. Later, the academy would become Xavier University, the first coeducational Catholic Black institution of higher education in New Orleans. Graduates of the college left prepared to teach in the rural schools Mother Drexel had built throughout the area, receiving salaries also paid by her.

The schools established or aided by Mother Drexel and her Order were Catholic day schools, often attached to a local church or chapel and offering a curriculum that provided a mixture of practical skills and religious instruction. Students did not need to be Catholic to attend the schools nor were they expected to renounce their beliefs, unlike in many similar schools in which assimilation was the goal. Indeed, although the beliefs of school administrators and teachers differed from the Native Americans, for example, students clamored to attend encouraged by the adults in their own communities. The schools sometimes had more students than they could handle.

Mother Drexel's vocation toward the citizens to which she had dedicated her life extended beyond the immediate work of her Order. She challenged the biased reporting of newspapers, started her own magazine to educate people about her Order and its work, organized a letter-writing campaign in support of the anti-lynching bill, and continued her hectic schedule until health problems in the mid 1930s left her a semi-invalid. Until her death in 1955, she continued to be involved in her Order. Yet, Drexel's her term as Superior General had come to an end in 1938, when one of her deputies reluctantly assumed the mantle.

According to the terms in her father's will, in 1945, Mother Drexel inherited the entire Drexel fortune upon the death of her remaining sister, Louise. However, when Katharine died, the estate's wealth passed to numerous charities identified by her father. Because the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had not been founded during his lifetime, it was not a beneficiary of the money that had supported their efforts for more than 50 years.

Upon her death, mourners flocked to the chapel where her body rested before being taken to the cathedral in Philadelphia for the funereal mass. The cathedral could not contain all those who gathered to pay tribute. Mother Drexel's coffin left the cathedral borne upon the backs of six men: two white, two African American, and two Native American.


Mother Katharine believed that education was the key to social and economic improvement. Through her personal efforts and the institutions she founded, she and her congregation publicly highlighted the importance and right of education for all. They fought to discredit the common belief that African Americans and Native Americans could not benefit from an education, and provided free opportunities for those who were denied education through apathy, ignorance, or blatant discrimination. Her philosophy was to provide well-trained teachers who cared for students' mental, physical, and spiritual welfare and delighted in their development. Drexel believed in a common American citizenship regardless of race and stressed the importance of fostering leaders within communities who could then guide, mentor, and empower others.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Every day of Mother Katharine's ordained life was spent giving and serving others. The founding of her Order allowed her principles to continue after her death and, today, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have extended her initial mission to include the people of Haiti.

In recognition of Mother Katharine's philanthropy, federal tax law was amended in 1921 so that those who gave over ninety percent of their annual income to charity would be exempt from taxation (Oates 1993).

The importance of women's religious philanthropy is highlighted by the example of Mother Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Nuns enjoy lives of service; they choose to live selflessly by offering their time, effort, talents and skills to others and, in Mother Drexel's circumstances, her fortune. The education of American women, and the betterment of social services and education for African and Native Americans owe much to the tireless, altruistic energies and efforts of these women who committed their lives to the service of others in honor of their religious beliefs.

Key Related Ideas

African American education : The education of African Americans during and following the abolition movement can largely be attributed to various Christian denominations and to the efforts of heroic black women who helped found educational facilities, trade schools, and scholarship funds. "African-American women have been instrumental in assisting runaway slaves, educating fellow women, forming social organizations and advocating for civil rights. A number of nonprofit groups, such as the National Council of Negro Women worked to better living conditions for African Americans and contributed to great changes in the social services and educational opportunities for African-Americans" (Wilborn-Phillips "African-American").

Altruism : "The idea that one is obliged to do as much as possible to increase the pleasure of others. It has been defined by some in three components, including 1) a desire to give, 2) empathy and 3) having no motive of receiving anything from the behavior. The empathy component is engaged when an individual perceives the need of another" (Boswell "Motivation").

Civil rights : The rights belonging to a citizen of a country; in America, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments and subsequent acts of Congress ensured specific fundamental freedoms and privileges including the right to legal, economic, educational, and social equality.

Native American Education : The goal of most educational institutions available to Native Americans in the nineteenth century was that of assimilation and elimination of native cultures. Some exceptional teachers existed, such as individuals like Mother Drexel, who possessed a respect for the cultures of those she served. Yet, reservation schools and East Coast Boarding Schools worked to "de-Indianize", to promote Christianity, and to teach skills that would allow Native-American children to provide trade services to white society (Styron "Native American Education") . Often, the result of these educational processes was children who grew up to become adults who no longer spoke their native languages or practiced native religion; they no longer fit into the traditional culture of their peoples living on reservations and were alienated from white society because of racism.

In the late 1800s, George Grant was a Presbyterian minister who traveled across northwestern Canada. He observed various Native American tribes and wrote:

"As the Indian has no chance of existence except by conforming to civilized ways, the sooner that the Government or the Christian people awake to the necessity of establishing schools among every tribe the better. it may be two, three or more generations before the old habits of a people are changed; but, by always taking hold of the young, the work can be done." (Ibid.)

Many legislators and clergy in the United States held similar attitudes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, Captain Richard Pratt provided the following motto for the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania: "Kill the Indian, save the Man" (Ibid.). "Initially, the process of education fell to missionaries who opened up schools on Native lands, and then eventually, boarding schools were opened on the East Coast where Native children were sent to be taught trades and farming skills" (Ibid.).

Religion and philanthropy : The connections between religious teachings and philanthropy are deep and diverse. The holy writings of each of the world's major religions promote various forms of helping others and the commitment of one's personal resources to benefit the community, the needy, and/or the congregation. For example, stewardship (the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care) is inherent to Judeo-Christian and Muslim teachings. In congregations, stewardship of resources often means the expectations of congregants to make regular contributions to their institutions and to contribute through their congregations or individually to help others in need. Many other forms of philanthropic action are promoted through religious denominations, such as a concern with social justice in the Catholic and Jewish faiths.

As a part of the nonprofit sector, religious congregations and institutions are considered philanthropic institutions by the American government. In addition, more than seventy percent of the American population is affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque; for this reason, it is often to and through religious institutions that Americans give their time and money.

Important People Related to the Topic

Anthony Benezet (1713-1784): An educator and reformer, Benezet began teaching at the Friends' English Public School in Philadelphia, now called the William Penn Charter School. "[H]e also tutored slave and free African-American students, as well as rich and poor white students, in his home at night. His interaction with both white and black students led him to the realization that black students were as competent as white students in their ability to learn; therefore, justifying his claim that the popular notion of white superiority was ludicrous" (Adkins "Anthony Benezet"). After having left teaching for a time, Benezet returned to it during his last years of life, to open and teach in a school for African-Americans (today, the institution is called the Benezet House Association).

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955): Educator, activist, and government official, Bethune founded a training institute for African-American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. This later became the four-year college known as Bethune-Cookman College (Hall-Russell and Kasberg 1997).

Vine (Victor) Deloria Jr. (1933- ): A Standing Rock Sioux, Deloria is one of the most well-respected and well-known Native American activists and educators. He is a law professor and the leading scholar on American Indian law and policy, philosophy and history (Biography Resource Center). Through his many books, Deloria promotes Native American nationalism and understanding of their history, philosophy, and how public policy has affected American Indian rights.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963): A prominent African-American scholar, writer, and pacifist. DuBois was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Pan African Movement. "Du Bois became an international figure as he created a connection -between the subjugated status of African Americans and other people in colonized countries around the world" (Talbot "Frederick Douglass).

Quakers: A religious denomination that believes divine revelation comes from the Christian within. Quakers are known for their dedication to social issues surrounding those less fortunate. They were instrumental in the abolition of slavery in numerous ways, including congregants using their homes as "stops" on the Underground Railroad and members providing schooling for young and adult blacks.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896): Stowe is most well-known as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin , a novel which realistically portrayed slave life and caused great controversy and social upheaval during her time. She wrote numerous fictional novels, children's books, geographical and biographical writings, and periodicals. Stowe was a committed abolitionist and the sister of Catharine Beecher, an education reformer (Ibid. ).

Mary Eliza Church Terrell (1863-1954): A teacher, suffragist and civil rights activist. Terrell was an outspoken African-American woman who taught, wrote, lectured, and served in support of helping African American women. She was the first black woman appointed by the Washington D.C. Board of Education. She also served on the Executive Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was co-founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women (established in 1896; Gondola "Mary Eliza").

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University ): Best known for its founder, Booker T. Washington, and the many accomplishments of alumni, George Washington Carver. Because of its well-respected aeronautics engineering program, the Tuskegee campus provided a training ground for black pilots during World War II. The pilots became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Related Web Sites

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Web site provides biographical information on Katharine Drexel, at http://www.katharinedrexel.org/ . This site explains her legacy and describes the current work undertaken by the sisters of her Order.

Xavier University's Web site , at http://www.xula.edu/ , illustrates the continued impact of Mother Drexel's work.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

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This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Indiana University at Bloomington. It is offered by Learning To Give and Indiana University at Bloomington.