Katharine Mary Drexel was born Catherine Mary Drexel in Philadelphia on November 26, 1858, the second child of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth.
Hannah died five weeks after her baby's birth. For two years Katharine and her sister, Elizabeth, were cared for by their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel. When Francis married Emma Bouvier in 1860 he brought his two daughters home. A third daughter, Louisa, was born in 1863. Louisa would marry General Edward Morrell. The Morrells "…actively promoted and advanced the welfare of African Americans throughout the country. The Morrells used their wealth to build magnificent institutions that served and aided the education and upward mobility of African Americans. Gen. Morrell took charge of the Indian work, while Katharine Drexel was in her novitiate." Private tutors educated the girls at their home. They toured parts of the United States and Europe with their parents. Twice weekly, the Drexel family distributed food, clothing, and rent assistance from their family home at 1503 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When widows or lonely single women were too proud to come to the Drexels for assistance, the family sought them out, but always quietly. As Emma Drexel taught her daughters, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”
As a young and wealthy woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1879. However, watching her stepmother's three-year struggle with terminal cancer taught her the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death. Her life took a profound turn. She had always been interested in the plight of Native Americans, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor.
When her family traveled to the Western states in 1884, Katharine Drexel saw the plight and destitution of the Native Americans. She wanted to do something specific to help. Thus began her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States.After her father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters had contributed money to help the St. Francis Mission on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. For many years she took spiritual direction from a longtime family friend, Father James O’Connor, a Philadelphia priest who later was appointed vicar apostolic of Nebraska. When Kate wrote him of her desire to join a contemplative order, Bishop O’Connor suggested, “Wait a while longer....... Wait and pray.”
Katharine and her sisters Elizabeth and Louise were still mourning their father when they sailed to Europe in 1886. Their high-powered banker father left behind a $15.5 million estate and instructions to divide it among his three daughters after expenses and specific charitable donations. However, to prevent his daughters from falling prey to “fortune hunters”, Francis Drexel crafted his will so that his daughters controlled income from his estate, but upon their deaths, their inheritance would flow to their children. The will stipulated that if there were no grandchildren, upon his daughters’ deaths, Drexel's estate would be distributed to several religious orders and charities—the Society of Jesus, the Christian Brothers, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Lutheran hospital and others. Because their father's charitable donations totaled about $1.5 million, the sisters shared the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $400 million.
In January 1887, the sisters were received in a private audience by Pope Leo XIII. They asked him for missionaries to staff some Indian missions that they had been financing. To their surprise, the Pope suggested that Katharine become a missionary herself. Although Drexel had already received marriage proposals, "…after consultation with her spiritual director, Bishop James O'Connor, she made the decision to give herself totally to God, along with her inheritance, through service to American Indians and Afro-Americans." Her uncle, Anthony Drexel, tried to dissuade her from entering religious life, but she entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Pittsburgh in May 1889 to begin her six-month postulancy. Her decision rocked Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million".
Mother Katharine Drexel died at the age of 96, on March 3, 1955, at her order's motherhouse in Cornwells Heights, Pa., where she is buried.
Because neither of her biological sisters had children, after Mother Katharine's death, pursuant to their father's will, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries. Nonetheless, the order continues to pursue their original apostolate, working with African-Americans and Native Americans in 21 states and Haiti.
Her cause for beatification was introduced in 1966. Pope John Paul II formally declared Drexel "Venerable" on January 26, 1987, and beatified her November 20, 1988, after concluding that Robert Gutherman was miraculously cured of deafness in 1974 after his family prayed for Mother Drexel's intercession. Mother Drexel was canonized on October 1, 2000, one of only a few U.S. born saints and the second natural-born U.S. citizen saint (Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born U.S. citizen canonized, in 1975). Canonization occurred after the Vatican determined that two-year-old Amy Wall had been miraculously healed of nerve deafness in both ears through Katharine Drexel's intercession in 1994.
The Vatican cited fourfold aspects of Drexel's legacy:
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