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Saint Catherine’s Industrial Indian School


Situated on a hill northwest of the Santa Fe Plaza, overlooking two cemeteries, is perhaps the largest adobe building in the Southwest. With more than three stories and a façade of sturdy gables and a spindly bell tower, the 1887 Main Building is the oldest structure on the campus of Saint Catherine’s Industrial Indian School.

Established in 1894, under the direction of Mother Katharine, a wealthy heiress from Philadelphia, Saint Catherine’s Industrial Indian School became the first in a nationwide system of schools for the education of Native Americans and African Americans. It started in the Main Building and grew to include a campus of more than 20 buildings, with athletic fields and a farm. 

Born in 1858, Katharine Drexel grew up in a family marked by wealth, deeply held religious values and a tradition of philanthropy. Her father, Francis Anthony Drexel, an internationally renowned banker and partner of J. P. Morgan, instilled in Katharine and her two sisters, as stated in the nomination, “an abiding sense of duty to those less fortunate.” In his will, Drexel specified that upon his death $1,500,000 of his estate would be divided between approximately 30 Catholic charities. The will went on to specify that income from the remaining nine-tenths of his estate, representing approximately $14 million, would be spread between his three daughters. By 1907, the three Drexel sisters had contributed over $1.5 million to the Catholic Indian Missions Bureau.

Upon her father’s death in 1885, Katharine and her sisters embarked a European tour. In Rome, Katharine took it upon herself to arrange a private visit with Pope Leo XIII to discuss the need for missionary priests to serve American Indians. The pope, listening to her, suggested she herself become a missionary. Soon after, Katharine sponsored Catholic Indian schools with her own money.

A year after her father’s death, Katharine, through a donation to the Catholic Indian Bureau, financed the construction of a large school building on land owned by the land by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The school, named for Drexel’s patron saint, St. Catherine of Siena, was meant serve as a boarding school for Indian girls. Dedicated on June 16, 1886, future Archbishop J. B. Salpointe conducted the cornerstone laying ceremony; on April 11, 1887, former Archbishop Jean B. Lamy emerged from retirement to bless the building.

Two weeks later, the building received its first students. They were not young girls, however, but 60 boys from an Indian school in Bernalillo. Despite its imposing edifice, Saint Catherine’s faltered at the start due to a chronic shortage of teachers. To fill this void, the Sisters of Loretto managed the school for two years, followed by members of the Benedictine Fathers of Kansas, followed by a series of lay instructors. Even with this outside help, the school continued to founder.

In 1889, Katharine became a novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By becoming a nun, she, as stated in the nomination, “forsook the ease of family wealth and social position to undertake a rigorous life of vowed poverty and self-abnegation.” Two years later, Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, now the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. As the superior of the organization, Mother Katharine used her inheritance and dedication to build and staff mission schools throughout the South and Southwest. The Sisters, under Mother Mary Katharine’s direction, established nearly 60 schools, including Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically African American, Catholic University in the United States.

Saint Catherine’s closed in 1893 due to an insufficient water supply for the school’s agriculture. By that time, the Santa Fe Indian School, founded in 1890 and housed in modern campus three miles to the south, offered an alternative. The next year, Mother Katharine and the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament took over the school Drexel had financed in 1886-87. Bringing sisters from Philadelphia, the school reopened as an industrial Indian school; meaning it offered both academic instruction and “industrial” or vocational training in such trades as tailoring, carpentry, farming, blacksmithing and laundry. Soon girls were admitted, and by 1898, a two-story adobe dormitory behind the main building had been erected to accommodate them. Other buildings, including a two-story structure holding the carpentry and shoe shops and a red-brick chapel and convent, began to fill in the campus.

While Hispanic children were guaranteed in New Mexico’s 1910 state constitution the right to “enjoy perfect equality with other children in all public schools,” education of Native American children remained much as did during the territorial period — under the direction of federal government or religious charities. As such, Saint Catherine’s played an important role beyond the territorial era. By early statehood, the school enrolled approximately 150 pupils, offering education through eighth grade. The school continued in this role until 1998, when it closed its doors. Katharine Drexel, who died in 1955, was canonized on October 1, 2000 a saint.

Surrounded by razor wire fence, Saint Katharine’s first work of charity is today threatened, as the City of Santa Fe and the campus’s owner, a cemetery developer, debate what to do with the 18-acre property. But at least for now, the Main Building stands, testament to Katharine Drexel’s vision and the education of Native American children, before and after statehood.

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Additional description: At over three stories tall, the massive Main Building dominates the campus. Its thick adobe walls rest on stone foundations strengthened by adobe buttresses. It is essentially a rectangle framed by two projecting front-gable wings. Dressed stone quoins outline the gabled wings; stone material is also used for the windowsills. The center of the building is crowned by a small wooden bell tower, out of scale with the immensity of the mass below. Inside, the building is rather modest, but there is some territorial period wood trim and marble fireplaces that suggest its age. In one room is a mural, “Our Lady of Guadalupe of the Americas,” painted by Edward O’Brien. Suggesting the influence of Diego Rivera, the mural meditates on images of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Spanish and the Roman Catholic Church’s impact on the Americas and contains at least one image of Mother Katharine — what the building can no longer communicate, the mural does.