Contemplation and generosity vied for first place in St. Katharine Drexel’s life. The heiress from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wanted most to withdraw to a cloister, but her circumstances and gifts pulled her to Christian service.
Francis A. Drexel, a world-renowned banker and a man of faith, provided his family a life of ease. And Emma Bouvier, her stepmother, trained Katharine and her two sisters in generous giving. Mrs. Drexel believed God gave wealth to the family to aid others, and regularly involved her daughters in distributing food, medicine, clothing, and rent money to the poor. The experience shaped Katharine’s future.
Both parents died by 1885, leaving Katharine and her sisters to share the annual income from a fourteen-million-dollar estate. Right away Katharine began to donate thousands of dollars to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions for the construction and staffing of schools for Native American children, which became her life’s passion.
At this time, however, Katharine’s spirit was in turmoil. Bishop James O’Connor, her spiritual director, thought she should remain a single woman serving in the world. But she wished to become a contemplative nun. My heart is very sorrowful, she wrote him in 1886, because like the little girl who wept when she found that her doll was stuffed with sawdust and her drum was hollow, I, too, have made a horrifying discovery and my discovery like hers is true. I have ripped both the doll and the drum open and the fact lies plainly and in all its glaring reality before me: All, all, all (there is no exception) is passing away and will pass away.
In 1891, Katharine resolved the tension by founding a new religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, that combined prayer and social action. By 1904, 104 sisters had joined her. Katharine established 145 Catholic missions and twelve schools for Native Americans and fifty schools for blacks. During her lifetime she gave away about twenty million dollars, mostly for these causes.
In 1935, Katharine suffered a severe heart attack. Two years later she retired and got her heart’s desire—eighteen years of quiet contemplation before she died in 1955 at age ninety-seven.
Katharine’s vast inheritance was distributed among her father’s twenty-nine favorite charities. Not a penny went to her own community. She wanted her sisters to live by faith, trusting God—not money—for everything.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi
Image credit: Saint Katharine Drexel by unknown artist, 1915. Public Domain via Wikimedia.