|Monument Statue of St. Katharine Drexel|
Katharine Drexel (aka Catherine Marie Drexel) was born on November 26, 1858. She was the second of two daughters born to Francis Anthony and Hannah Langstroth Drexel. When she was 4 years old, her mother passed away and her father married Emma Bouvier.
After investing significant personal time and resources in charitable acts, she soon realized her call to a vocational life in 1889. She founded her own Catholic Church called Katharine Orthodox, which was later renamed St. Katharine Orthodox. She dedicated her life to Native Americans and African Americans, who were being ignored and forgotten.
When she was born, her mother and she were at high risk of dying. Unfortunately, her mother died, but Katharine was all right. As a child, she grew up with her older sister, Elizabeth, and was sent to live with their aunty after their mother died on Katharine's baptism day. Their father, Francis Anthony, a wealthy railroad entrepreneur, remarried. His new wife, Emma, was a philanthropist. She gave birth to a baby girl named Louise in 1863. Katharine and Elizabeth couldn't remember their biological mother much, so they got along well with Emma and Louise. When Katharine got older, her sisters and she 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 Katharine was twelve, her father bought a ninety acre farm in Torresdale, not far from Philadelphia. They bought that land for their servants to live on. They 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.
|St. Michel farmhouse|
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 those missions in person. During that 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. She was so conflicted by the need she had seen in the Native American communities in the West that her spiritual mentors 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. From the encouragement of prominent Catholic clergy and the Pope, she 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. 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).
Throughout her life she supported petitions to Congress to improve governmental aid for Native American schools. In partnership with Archbishop Blank and in recognition of a desperate need of education in the rural areas of Louisiana, in 1915, she founded Xavier University. It was the first coeducational Catholic Black institution of higher education in New Orleans. The school sometimes had more students than it could handle. 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. According to her father's will, in 1945, she inherited the entire Drexel fortune even though Louise was alive. However, when she died on March 3, 1955 from a heart attack, the estate's wealth passed to numerous charities identified by her father.
|St. Katharine Drexel coin|
When she was alive she believed that education was the key to social and economic improvement. Her congregation and she 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. She 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.