St. Katharine Drexel Gave Up Everything She Had to Follow Christ

Throughout her life, Mother Drexel’s chief motivation was to help more souls know and love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Katharine Drexel
St. Katharine Drexel (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) was born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Her mother died five weeks after her birth. With her two sisters she was reared by her father, a successful international banker, and stepmother Emma. Both were devout Catholics and loving parents. The family was generous with the poor — three times a week they opened their lavish home to the needy, offering them food, clothing, medicine and other necessities.

From the earliest ages the Drexel children were taught to pursue personal holiness through daily Mass, meditation, the Rosary and other devotions, as well as by acts of penance and sacrifice. Katharine kept notes on her efforts to grow in virtue. For example, in 1878, she wrote, “I am resolved during this year to try to overcome impatience and give attention to lessons. I, Katie, put these resolutions at the feet of Jesus, Mary and Joseph hoping that they will find acceptance there. May Jesus, Mary and Joseph help me to bear much fruit in the year 1878.”

When she was in her 20s, Katharine lost both parents, and inherited a portion of the family’s vast wealth. At this time, she became aware of the plight of the American Indians, many of whom suffered from dire poverty and a lack of education. She would devote the remainder of her life to assisting them. In two private audiences with Pope Leo XIII, she begged him to send more missionaries to the Indians. During one of these meetings, the Holy Father suggested to an astonished Katharine that she, herself, become such a missionary.

Although Katharine enjoyed an opulent lifestyle, she became disillusioned with the things of the world. She wrote a long-time friend, Bishop James O’Connor, of her desire to enter religious life:

“Like the little girl who wept when she found that her doll was stuffed with sawdust and her drum was hollow, I, too, have made a horrifying discovery and my discovery like hers is true. I have ripped both the doll and the drum open and the fact lies plainly and in all its glaring reality before me: All, all, all (there is no exception) is passing away and will pass away.”

The bishop thought Katharine could do more for the Church in her position in society and worried she might have difficulty in renouncing her wealth. She responded, “The question alone important, the solution of which depends upon how I have spent my life, is the state of my soul at the moment of death. Infinite misery or infinite happiness! There is no half and half, either one or the other.”

Bishop O’Connor relented, and advised her to found a community to work among Indians and Blacks, declaring, “God has put in your heart a great love for the Indian and the Negroes.” In 1891, joined by 13 others, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mother Drexel went to work opening mission churches and boarding schools for Black and Indian children throughout the U.S. At times, prejudice hindered her work. When members of the Nashville, Tennessee, city council, for example, wondered if Blacks were capable of higher education, she responded, “I cannot share these views with regard to the education of the Race. I feel that if among our Colored People we find individuals gifted with capabilities, with those sterling qualities which constitute character, our Holy Mother the Church who fosters and develops the intellect only that it may give God more glory and be of benefit to others, should also concede to the Negro the privilege of higher education.”

In 1915, she founded a teachers’ college in Louisiana, which would eventually become Xavier University of New Orleans, and one of the first American colleges to admit Black students.

Throughout her life, Mother Drexel’s chief motivation was to help more souls know and love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

She died in 1955, and was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000. Her community’s motherhouse for decades was located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, which included a St. Katharine Drexel shrine, elements of which included Mother Drexel’s remains and museum dedicated to her memory. Due to a lack of vocations the motherhouse closed and the property sold at the end of 2017; the St. Katharine Drexel Shrine is now part of the Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia.

St. Katharine Drexel is honored in the liturgy on March 3.