On Wednesday, March 3, the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who abandoned her family’s fortune to found an order of sisters dedicated to serving the impoverished African American and American Indian populations of the United States.
Katharine was born November 26, 1858, into the affluent Philadelphia Drexel family. Despite their wealth, the family was very pious and Katharine was taught charity at an early age. Her mother opened up the family house three times a week to feed and care for the poor and her father had a deep personal prayer life. During the summer months, Katharine and her sisters would teach catechism classes to the children of the workers on her family’s summer estate.
The young heiress was considering a vocation to the contemplative life when she was given the opportunity to travel to Europe and have an audience with the Pope. During the audience, she asked Pope Leo XIII to send missionaries to Wyoming. He replied by asking her why she didn’t found an order to do exactly that.
Upon her return home, Katharine began working as a layperson for the improvement of the conditions and education of African Americans and Native Americans. Eventually her work led her to found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who are dedicated to sharing the message of the Gospel and the Life of the Eucharist with African Americans and American Indians.
During her lifetime, she oversaw the opening and maintenance of almost 60 schools and missions, mostly located in the western and southwestern United States. She is well known for founding Xavier University, in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1925.
Katharine was forced into retirement for the last 20 years of her life due to a severe heart attack. Though she was not able to actively lead the order, she left the sisters with her charism of love and concern for the missions.
She died on March 3, 1955 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000.