(Mother M. Francis Xavier McCann and St. Katharine Drexel with Navajo men and two Franciscans near St. Michaels, Ariz, where the Sister of the Blessed Sacrament teach at St. Michael Indian School. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.)
Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia into a wealthy family in 1858. Her mother died when she was only five-weeks old, and her father remarried a kind woman who became a devoted mother. Her parents taught her from an early age that their wealth was not their own and should be shared with others. Katherine received a private education at home and traveled widely throughout the United States and Europe. Her parents distributed food, clothing, and rent assistance to the poor from their home.
When they heard of someone too ashamed to come for help, they assisted them quietly, as their stepmother taught them, “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind.”
In Katharine’s travels, she saw first-hand the difficult situation of African Americans and Native Americans and was determined to use her wealth for good to assist them. At about age 27, when her parents died, Katharine inherited a vast fortune. She immediately began to contribute money for schools and missions, establishing a school for Native Americans in Sante Fe, N.M., for African Americans in New Orleans, La., and to assist the mission at St. Francis on the Rosebud Reservation, and many other places.
Although she had received several marriage proposals, Katherine determined to give her whole life and fortune to God for the good of others. She spoke to her spiritual director, Bishop James O’Connor of Omaha, Neb., about her desire to join a contemplative religious community, but he directed her to spend more time in prayer about this.
While in Europe, Katharine and her sisters had an opportunity for an audience with Pope Leo XIII. She asked him to recommend a religious community who could serve in the missions she was supporting financially. The pope recommended that Katharine become a missionary herself. Despite the objections of family members, Katharine entered the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, Pa. Soon after, with thirteen other women, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who were dedicated to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and to serving African and Native Americans.
Mother Katherine suffered a heart attack in her late 70s, and as she became more infirm, she dedicated her remaining years to prayer and adoration of the Eucharist. She died in 1955 at the age of 96 and was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000. Although harassed for years by segregationists, at the time of her death, St. Katharine’s community had more than 500 sisters serving in more than 60 schools and missions around the country. Her life was a testimony to mercy.
Prayer to St. Katharine
God of love, you called Saint Katharine Drexel to teach the message of the Gospel and to bring the life of the Eucharist to the Native American and African American peoples; by her prayers and example, enable us to work for justice among the poor and the oppressed, and keep us undivided in love in the Eucharistic community of your Church. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.