Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia in 1858, the daughter of a wealthy international banker. Her mother tragically died when Katharine was only five weeks old, but her father remarried a woman, Emma Bouvier, who shared his values with regard to their substantial fortune. Three days a week, the Drexel home was opened to the poor, and Katharine saw her father in deep prayer for a half hour every evening. The family sought out the needy, offering assistance of food, shelter and clothing to those too afraid or too proud to come to the Drexel home.

Katharine and her two sisters were well educated and, even after making her social debut in 1879, Katharine did not let her social and economic advantages blind her to the teachings of her faith. However, it was when she nursed her stepmother through three years of terminal cancer that the foundation of faith that had been laid came to a turning point; she saw first-hand that all the money in the world could not keep anyone safe from illness, pain and death.  Although she could easily have married well and lived a comfortable life, her actual path began to lead elsewhere.

Katharine had always been appalled by the plight of the Native and African Americans in the United States, so when she had an opportunity to meet Pope Leo XIII during a private audience in 1887, she asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming to help with the work there. His answer shocked her: “Why don’t you become a missionary?” It was a possibility that she had never considered before, and she soon made the decision to become a religious and give her fortune to help Native and African Americans. The newspapers in Philadelphia were astounded.  “Gives up Seven Million!” the headlines practically screamed.

In 1891, Katharine Drexel took her first vows as a religious and began the vocation she would pursue for the rest of her life — working with and for Native and African Americans. The congregation she founded, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, soon began opening schools in the western and southern United States. Their work was not always welcomed; segregationists went so far as to burn one of her schools in Philadelphia. Mother Drexel, as she was now known, was not deterred, however, and in 1915 the Blessed Sacrament Sisters founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university in this country for African Americans.

At the age of 77, Mother Drexel suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire from active ministry. At the time of her death in 1955 at the age of 96, there were more than 500 Blessed Sacrament sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the United States. Though their numbers, like many other religious orders, have diminished, the sisters still work with the poor, challenging racism and other forms of injustice throughout the country.

St. Katharine Drexel’s feast day is celebrated March 3; she is the patron saint of racial justice.

Sources for this article include: