St. Katherine Drexel (1858-1955)
Dubbed by journalists as the “millionaire nun”, St. Katherine Drexel died Mar. 3, 1955 but left behind a profound legacy of a true Christ-filled life. On Nov. 26, 1858, Catherine Mary was born to Francis Martin Drexel, a noted Philadelphia banker, and Hannah Langstreth Drexel. Shortly after Catherine’s birth, her mother died and then Francis married Emma Bouvier, who became a very devoted mother to Catherine and her sister, Elizabeth. She had no formal education in schools having been instructed by governesses at her home in Philadelphia. Her intellectual faculties were extensively developed by her numerous travels abroad and in the United States as well as her participation in many social activities.
At the death of her stepmother (1883) and her father (1885), she inherited a sizable fortune, which she ultimately used for her missionary endeavors in the community of sisters, which she established. During a personal visit with Pope Leo XIII in 1883 Catherine asked His Holiness what could be done for the “Indians and Colored People” in the United States. The Pope answered, “Daughter, why don’t you become a missionary?” She left in tears. Upon returning to Philadelphia, she consulted her spiritual director, Bishop James O’Conner of Omaha, Nebraska about entering a cloistered contemplative community because of her contemplative nature and because she was attracted to this way of life and their daily reception of Holy Communion. At that time, religious communities, other than contemplatives, could approach Communion only three times weekly. The bishop insisted that Catherine establish her own community to respond to the specific request of the Pope and assured her permission would be given her community of daily reception of Holy Communion. To prepare for this task, she entered the novitiate of Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, PA. Although it was customary for sisters to adopt a new name other than their baptismal name, she assumed the name Katherine. As head of the community she often signed the correspondence to those who knew her as “M.K.D.”, Mother Katherine Drexel.
New Foundation-Her own foundation, known as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, but now officially called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, was canonically founded on Feb. 12, 1891. Because of her considerable financial holdings reconciliation was necessary with the vow of poverty. Archbishop Patrick Ryan of Philadelphia settled the issue and informed Katherine, “You can retain the possession and the administration, but you have to promise in case of my requiring it, that you would renounce your possessions”.
In her lifetime she expended nearly twenty million dollars from the income of her parents estate by establishing sixty missions to care for the education of Native and African Americans to whom she and her sisters dedicated their lives. She focuses her work and her love of the nation’s poorest and most oppressed. She met with fierce opposition in her work, never, however, fleeing a battle, but conducted her battles with refinement and style such that she won respect by her enemies. One of her greatest triumphs was her establishment of Xavier University in New Orleans, the only Catholic university for blacks in America.
When she died in 1955, at the age of 97, she left a great legacy of solid accomplishments. She founded 49 convents for her sisters, set up training courses for catechists and teachers, and built 62 schools and Xavier University. At the time of her death, her reputation for holiness was so all pervasive that people in great numbers began visiting her burial place at the motherhouse in Cornwell Heights (Bensalem), PA and insisted that her beatification and canonization be under taken. John Cardinal Krol, archbishop of Philadelphia, opened the cause in 1964 and the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints on Nov. 9, 1973 approved her writings. The results of the preliminary searching inquiry were sent to Rome, and Pope John Paul II officially introduced the cause of this holy woman (the official beginning of the apostolic process) on Nov. 17, 1979. Pope John Paul II beatified her on Nov. 20, 1988 and her feast day is Mar. 3. She was canonized in the year of the Jubilee, 2000.
From Mother Katherine Drexel’s Draft of the Constitutions of Her Congregation-1. The primary object which the Sisters of this religious Congregation purpose to themselves is their own personal sanctification.2. The secondary & special object of the members of the Congregation is to apply themselves zealously to the service of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by endeavoring to lead the Indian & Colored Races to the knowledge & love of God, & so make them living temples of Our Lord’s Divinity.