When Katharine Drexel was born to a wealthy Philadelphia couple in 1858, it was expected that she would someday marry a suitably wealthy husband, inherit a slice of her father’s $400 million estate, and perhaps engage in some quiet and respectable philanthropy. Few could predict that she would become a religious sister; no one thought she’d become the first American-born saint to be canonized in the Catholic Church. But St. Katharine was no ordinary debutante.
Under the influence of her stepmother, Emma Bouvier, Katharine learned that great wealth comes with great responsibility to help the less fortunate. Twice a week the Drexel family opened their home to distribute clothing, food, and rent assistance to all who needed it. They even quietly visited those too proud or ashamed to ask for help publicly. “Kindness may be unkind if it leaves a sting behind,” Emma would often tell her stepdaughters.
As Christlike as her upbringing was, Katharine’s passion for social justice would not truly ignite until her stepmother died of cancer. Confronted with the reality that no amount of wealth can secure one against suffering and death, Katharine’s spiritual life began to deepen.
Soon after her social debut, Katharine read a book called A Century of Dishonor, which detailed the agonizing plight of Native Americans on the Western frontier and their mistreatment by the American government. She was horrified by what she read, and her horror was only confirmed by an 1884 tour of the West where she met the Sioux chief Red Cloud and witnessed firsthand the appalling conditions native peoples were forced to live in.
Three years later, during an audience with Pope Leo XIII, Katharine told the Holy Father of the need for missionaries and ministers to relieve the sufferings of both Native Americans and African Americans. Pope Leo shocked the young heiress by suggesting she become a missionary herself. By 1889, she was firm in her discernment to become a nun, telling her spiritual father, “the Feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to Native Americans and people of color.”
Katharine professed her vows on February 12, 1891. She soon after founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and dedicated her life to giving oppressed minorities in America access to education. Over the course of her life, she used her share of her family’s fortune to found 145 missions, 50 schools for African Americans, and 12 schools for Native Americans.
Today, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament remain dedicated St. Katharine’s mission to “challenge all forms of racism, as well as other deeply-rooted injustices in the world today.” Not everyone was always happy with St. Katharine’s mission. In fact, she often risked her own safety to do the work God had given her to do. The following are glimpses at St. Katharine’s tireless fight against prejudice and injustice–and how she overcame them.
1. People literally tried to blow her up
and burn her schools down
The ink was barely dry on the approval for the Rule of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament when St. Katharine faced the first of many persecutions. Construction had begun on the order’s motherhouse in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, and Katharine energetically threw herself into her work immediately. However, even before her own convent was officially open, people began to make threats. A stick of dynamite was found at the construction site of the motherhouse. A few years later, one of her first schools in Virginia was destroyed by arson. But St. Katharine wasn’t about to be intimidated. She had work to do.
2. …and when they couldn’t stop her
with dynamite, they tried the law
Needless to say, the early 1900s South was not particularly fond of St. Katharine. Officials in Macon, Georgia tried to keep the sisters from teaching at one of her schools, and were not shy about the reason: they simply didn’t want white women teaching and mingling with black students. St. Katharine fought the law, won, and the school is still operating today.
3. Vandals couldn’t stop her crowning
Perhaps St. Katharine Drexel’s most well-known achievement was the opening of Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically black college in the US with a Catholic affiliation. It is considered one of her greatest successes and her most enduring legacy. In the 1920s, however, its mission of offering African Americans quality education and upward mobility was viewed as a threat. As soon as it became public knowledge that St. Katharine had purchased the building to open a black college, vandals sneaked in and smashed every single one of its windows. St. Katharine promptly shrugged this off, and Xavier still functions as one of the best liberal arts schools in the country.
4. She gave the Texas KKK a lot more
than they bargained for
One of the most famous instances of St. Katharine being 100% not bothered by racist threats to her work and person is the time the Beaumont, Texas chapter of the KKK just so happened to be decimated by a highly localized tornado after threatening one of her churches and schools. One day in 1922, the priest at one of Drexel’s churches, which was also associated with one of her schools, happened upon a charming note nailed to the church door. It read, ““We want an end to services here,” followed by a string of very nasty epithets not to be repeated here. It ended with a clear threat: “Suppress it in one week or flogging with tar and feathers will follow.” St. Katharine responded with prayer, exhorting the sisters to combat evil with the joy of the Eucharist and the Gospel. A few days later, nature responded in the form of a tornado that completely destroyed the Klan headquarters and killed two of its members.
The Order of the Blessed Sacrament in Beaumont was never bothered again.
5. She outsmarted racist laws and
legislatures like it was NBD
As Katharine’s work expanded throughout the 20s and 30s, so did the Klan’s influence, along with Jim Crow laws. Churches, schools, and missions with even the remotest association with her or her order were blocked or targeted or destroyed before they could even open. Her churches in the South could not legally hold services unless segregated, defeating the purpose of her mission in the first place. So St. Katharine started finding every loophole she could. In order to keep her building projects going, she built many under the name of shell companies to throw her opponents off the scent until it was too late. In her Southern churches, where people of color worshiped in roped-off sections in the backs of sanctuaries, St. Katherine couldn’t do much to change the segregation laws–but she could change the designs of her pews. Rather than humiliating black worshipers by shoving them in the back, or exposing them to dangerous and possibly fatal reprisal by illegal integration, Katharine built two front-to back rows of pews in her churches. The law couldn’t complain–the pews were still technically segregated–but people of color weren’t forced to sit behind everyone else, either. Black and white people could worship side by side, and the local Klan couldn’t say anything about it.
While staying just within the letter of unjust laws so that she could complete her mission unmolested and keep her charges safe, St. Katharine worked to advance legal protection of Native Americans and people of color through fierce and unyielding letter-writing campaigns. If she thought a certain newspaper was publishing biased or racist articles about Native Americans or African Americans, they could expect to hear from her. She was a vocal supporter of early civil rights legislation, especially anti-lynching laws.
St. Katharine died at the age of 96 in 1955, on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement that she helped to advance long before its existence was even thought possible. The Order of the Blessed Sacrament still carries on her mission today, working to eradicate prejudice through education, works of mercy, and devotion to the Eucharist. She is an excellent and tireless intercessor in our troubled times of division, hatred, and anger; and she leaves us with words of wisdom that have never been more desperately needed:
“Have a cordial respect for others in heart and mind; if there is any prejudice in the mind we must uproot it, or it will tear us down.”