Born Catherine Mary Drexel, Katharine entered life as the second child of Francis Drexel, a successful investment banker in Philadelphia. Her mother would pass away only five weeks after giving birth and her father remarried two years later to Emma Bouvier.
Emma Bouvier was a strong supporter of charity missions, teaching her children love and kindness. Despite coming from a live of wealth and privilege, the family was devout in their faith, with the father praying at least 30 minutes every night. Three times a week the family distributed food, clothes and money to those in need from their house in Philadelphia. Often times they would also leave the house to seek those who needed help but were too afraid, shy, or proud to ask for it. In 1878, their mother began a three year battle with terminal cancer and had a profound impact on her life.
Several years later, the family traveled to the American West, taking in the sights. After reading Helen Hunt Jackson's "A Century of Dishonor" regarding the plight of Native Americans, her heart felt even more compelled and heavy seeing first hand the plight and destitution of Native Americans in the western states. Upon her father's death in February 1885, Katharine's sisters continued contributing money to the Saint Francis mission on the Rosebud Reservation.
After their father's death, the three sisters traveled to Europe to mourn. They had inherited a 15.5 million estate (over 400 million dollars in today's money) with instructions to divide it between the sisters. Among the stipulations in the inheritance was that the girls were allowed only to live off the income from the estate, with the full inheritance going to their eventual children. If no grand children were produced, the money would instead go to several Catholic orders and charities.
While in Europe, the sisters received a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. There, the three sisters asked the Pope for additional resources including more missionaries for several Indian outreach and missions the sisters had begun to fund. The Pope turned and suggested to Katharine that perhaps she should become a missionary herself. Almost a year later, and after careful spiritual direction from her bishop she would write
"The feast of Saint Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored"
The now Mother Drexel opened her first boarding school (with her new nuns - the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored). By 1842, there were black Catholic schools in 13 states, 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools despite constant harassment from Segregationists. In 1910, she helped finance a publication called "A Navajo-English Catechism of Christine Doctrine for the Use of Navajo Children" - a publication written by friars for use in the Pueblo Indian reservations of New Mexico.
Her crowning achievement came in 1915 with the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans - the very first Catholic University in the US specifically for African-Americans. She purchased the school through an agent to disguise the intent (the school was originally Southern University - when the true reason for the purchase became public, vandals smashed every window in the building). Xavier officially opened on September 27 1915 and was named after her sister's patron saint. It would award it's first degrees in 1928 and establish the college of Pharmacy in 1927. The school would continue to expand is still in operation today as Xavier University of Louisiana. In 2020, MacKenzie Scott would endow $20 million to the school for its continued operations.
Katharine would die on March 3, 1955 at the age of 96. Two official miracles were attributed to her for her canonization :
Robert Gutherman was miraculously cured of deafness in 1974 and two year old Amy wall miraculously healed of deafness in both ears in 1994.
Her official canonization came on October 1, 2000 and was the second US citizen saint. Officially, Pope John Paul II cited four aspects of her Legacy:
-A love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples
- Courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities a full one hundred years before such concern aroused public interest in the United States
- belief in quality education for all and efforts to achieve it
- self less service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.
Her Feast day is celebrated on March 3