United States of America
Katharine Drexel was born in 1858 into a wealthy Philadelphia family. As a young woman, while on a family journey in the western states, she was shocked by the poverty of the native Indians. After she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, Katharine realized that all her family’s wealth could not prevent suffering or death. It was then that her life changed dramatically. She began to give support to missionaries working in New Mexico and established a school in Santa Fe in 1887. She visited Pope Leo XIII in Rome to ask for more missionaries to staff the schools she was building.
To her surprise, the Pope suggested she might become a missionary herself. As a result, in 1891, at the age of 33, she took vows as the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and dedicated her life and her inheritance of $20 million to the service of American Indians and Afro-Americans.
She opened nearly 60 schools and missions, especially in the West and Southwest United States, culminating in the establishment in 1925 of Xavier University of Louisiana. This was the only predominantly Afro-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. When she died there were more than 500 Sisters teaching in 63 schools throughout the country.
In her quiet way Katharine combined prayerful dependence on God with determined activism. She was shrewd and optimistic, and encouraged a joyful spirit among her sisters: ‘If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them.’ She did not hesitate to speak out against injustice, taking a public stance when racial discrimination was in evidence.
In 1935 she suffered a severe heart attack and for the last 18 years of her life she was rendered almost completely immobile. During these years she gave herself to the life of adoration and contemplation that she had desired from early childhood. She died on 3 March 1955 and is buried in Cornwells Heights, Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania.