Saint Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) was an American heiress who gave up a fortune in order to serve native Americans and blacks. She was born in Philadelphia to a wealthy and religious family, and from an early age her parents’ example encouraged her own concern for the poor.
After nursing her stepmother through a long illness, Katharine realized that wealth could not preserve one from suffering and death. During a European tour, when young Katharine met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send more missionaries to the U.S., the pope startled her by saying, “Why don’t you become a missionary?” This is what Katharine did, giving away her fortune and founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
In 1894 Mother Drexel, as Katharine became known, opened the first mission school for Indians in New Mexico; its success quickly led to the founding of numerous other schools by her order, including schools for native Americans west of the Mississippi River and schools for blacks in the southern U.S. One of Katharine’s greatest achievements was the establishment in 1915 of Xavier University in New Orleans — the first American university for blacks.
By 1942 she had a system of black Catholic schools in thirteen states, along with fifty mission schools for Indians in sixteen states — despite the opposition of segregationists (who burned one of her schools in Pennsylvania). At the age of seventy-seven, Mother Drexel was forced to retire after suffering a heart attack; she spent the remaining nineteen years of her life in constant prayer and meditation.
1. As Jesus said, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Luke 12:48). Katharine understood this; instead of living a life of luxury and pleasure, she chose one of sacrifice and service.
2. Donating money can be a way of avoiding a personal commitment. Even though she gave away over $12 million, Katharine realized that this wasn’t enough: Jesus was asking her not merely to give money, but to devote her entire life to the service of His people.
Other Saints We Remember Today
St. Cunegunda (1033), Empress, wife of St. Henry II