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St. Katharine Drexel

Born: 11-26-1858 - Died: 5-3-1955

By Corinne P. Sze  

Katharine Drexel was born shortly before the American Civil War to a deeply religious, Roman Catholic family distinguished by material success, philanthropy, and recurrent tragedy. She was the second of three daughters born to Francis Anthony Drexel, a banker of international renown and partner of J. P. Morgan. Her mother, Hannah Langstroth Drexel, died in the weeks following Katherine's birth. About a year later, Francis Drexel married another wealthy Philadelphian, Emma Bouvier, who was a much loved mother to his older daughters and bore him a third.

Both parents imparted to their daughters a family tradition of strong religious faith and an abiding sense of duty to those less fortunate. With a gift of $3 million, Katharine’s uncle, Anthony J. Drexel, founded the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) in 1891 to provide practical training to students of modest means. Her father was especially interested in Catholic orphanages for boys, and her stepmother Emma was known for her many benefactions to the poor and needy.[1]

In 1883 Katharine’s stepmother, Emma Bouvier, died and was followed in death two years later by her father, leaving the largest estate recorded in Philadelphia up to that time. In his will Drexel designated thirty, mostly Catholic charities, which were each to receive forthwith a share of 10 percent of the net residual value of his estate. The income from the remaining nine-tenths, or $14 million, was to be divided among his three daughters under the terms of a trust arrangement, designed to thwart fortune hunters, known as a “spendthrift will.”[2]

If any of the sisters died without children, her share of the income would go to the surviving sisters. If, at the death of the last sister, there were no surviving issue, the estate would be divided among the same charities receiving the original 10 percent. When Mother Katharine died in 1955 at age ninety-seven, she was the sole income beneficiary of the will. Thus, the estate was divided among a group of charities that did not include the religious order she had founded and to which she had given her income while alive, because it did not exist at the time of her father’s death.

Katharine and her sisters continued their parents’ generous tradition of charity, each adopting a special area of concern. Katharine’s was Indian education from the start, with that of African Americans soon added. Not long after her father’s death, two priests, one of whom was the director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, visited the sisters seeking support for the establishment of Catholic Indian schools under the contract system, especially in light of the loss of missions the federal government had given to Protestant missionaries under President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy.[3]  By 1907 the Drexel sisters had given some $1.5 million to the Catholic Indian Missions Bureau.[4] (12)

In the aftermath of their father’s death, with Katharine in fragile health, the sisters embarked on a European tour; their charitable concerns never far from their thoughts. Having learned through Father James O’Connor, Bishop of Omaha, of the serious staffing problems at Catholic mission schools because of a shortage of priests, young Katharine, took it upon herself to importune Pope Leo XIII during a private audience for more missionary priests to serve American Indians. In response, the pontiff suggested that she become a missionary. [5] Next, the sisters toured the United States seeing for themselves the conditions of Indian reservations. As result of this experience, Katharine began to sponsor Indian schools directly. She later discovered, however, that more schools only exacerbated the already critical shortage of teaching staff.

In 1889, four years after her father’s death, Drexel entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. In becoming Sister Mary Katharine, she forsook the ease of family wealth and social position to undertake a rigorous life of vowed poverty and self-abnegation. Two years later, she founded a religious order named the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. As Mother Mary Katharine, she dedicated her life and her fortune to the establishment and support of schools and missions for the education the United States' least advantaged peoples. In 1924 Congress passed a bill, understood to apply only to her, providing that anyone who gave at least 90 percent of their income to charity for the preceding ten years would be exempt from federal tax.[6]

The first mission of the new order was established in Santa Fe in 1894 when Mother Mary Katharine and her sisters took over St. Catherine’s, the school that Katharine Drexel had financed in 1886-87. Soon she was also founding schools for African American children in the south and east. During her lifetime, she staffed and directly supported nearly sixty schools and missions. In 1917 she founded Xavier University, the only historically Black, Roman Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.[7] Even before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Sisters faced opposition to their efforts to provide equal educational opportunities for Blacks, and they were in the thick of that turbulent period, enduring scorn, racial epithets, and physical threats from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1935 Mother Katharine suffered a debilitating heart attack that required her to curtail her activities. She died twenty years later, on 3 March 3, 1955. During her lifetime she had donated more than $20 million to establish and support the schools and missions of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

In 1964 John Cardinal Krol formally opened the Cause for Canonization on her behalf. In 1987, the year the St. Catherine's Indian School celebrated its one hundredth anniversary, the pope proclaimed her “venerable.” This first of three steps to sainthood meant that the church officially recognized her life as a model for other Christians to emulate. She was beatified the following year, becoming Blessed Mother Katharine, and in the fall of 2000, canonized in Rome by Pope John Paul II.


[2] Duffy 72-75.

[3] Under the peace policy, government Indian agencies were assigned to religious groups, either Catholic or Protestant. In practice, the policy brought many Catholic Indians under the jurisdiction of Protestant denominations. In response, the Church formed the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions to represent Catholic interests in Washington, DC.

[4] Duffy 77-89.

[5] Father O’Connor had been pastor of the parish that included the Drexel’s summer home outside Philadelphia. After leaving Pennsylvania, he continued to correspond with the family and remained a spiritual advisor to Katharine (Duffy 57-58; 95-100; 104-107).


[7] www.


Sources Used:

Albuquerque Journal North 13 June 1992. 7 July 1993. 7 April 1998.

“Blessed Katharine Drexel: A Life Summary.” Bensalem, Pennsylvania: Blessed Katharine Drexel Guild, 1999.

Coan, Charles F. A History of New Mexico. 3 vols. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1925.

Duffy, Sister Consuela Marie, SBS. Katharine Drexel: A Biography. Bensalem, Pennsylvania: Blessed Mother Katharine Drexel Guild, 1966.

Faulk, Odie B. John Baptist Salpointe: Soldier of the Cross. Tucson: Diocese of Tucson, 1966.

“History in Situ: St. Catherine’s School.” La Gaceta. 3.4 (October 1965) 1-2.

Hudspeth’s Santa Fe City Directory. 1928-9, 1930-1, 1932-3. 1934-5. 1936-7.

Hyer, Sally. One House, One Voice, One Heart: Native America Education at the Santa Fe Indian School. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Marriott, Alice. María: The Potter of San Ildefonso. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1948.

Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

Payne, Jerry. “St. Catherine’s: 100 Hundred Years of Excellence.” Padres Trail 49.3 (Fall 1987) 1-16.

“Saint Catherine Indian School, Santa Fé, New Mexico.” Mission Fields at Home 5.3 (December 1932) 46.

“St. Catharine Indian School.” File. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library. Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Salpointe, J. B. Soldiers of the Cross: Notes on the Ecclesiastical History of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. 1898. Albuquerque: Calvin Horn, Publisher, Inc., 1967.

Sanborn Maps 1890, 1898, 1902, 1908, 1913, 1921, 1930, 1942, 1948, before 1971.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Profiles: Cultural Identity through Centuries of Change. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 1998.

Santa Fe County Deeds.

Essay taken from "St. Catherine's Industrial Indian School," State Register of Historical Places, April 2001.