Celebrating Katharine Drexel, a saint with ties to the University
Illustration of St Katharine Drexel
It might be an exaggeration to say that Drexel University can claim divine intervention. But having a saint that can vouch for you certainly must help.
March 3 marks the feast day of St. Katharine Drexel, a Roman Catholic saint with deep ties to both Philadelphia and, of course, the university she shares a name with. Drexel was the daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth, and the niece of Drexel University founder A.J, Drexel. After the death of her mother, Drexel and her sister lived with A.J. and his family before her father remarried. The two reportedly remained close throughout the rest of A.J.’s life.
Drexel was born into immense wealth, but her deeply Catholic family instilled a sense of responsibility for the poor into her at a young age. Three times a week, the Drexels would open their home to those in need, distributing medicine, clothing, blankets and other necessities. As she got older, her travels with her family out west introduced her to the mistreatment and poverty of Native Americans, an experience that would influence her future work.
Drexel was in her late 20s when her father and stepmother passed away, leaving her and her sisters with a vast fortune. Drexel decided to use her inheritance to further commit herself to those in need, focusing on creating schools and churches for African Americans and Native Americans. She was granted a private audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1887, where she asked the church to send her missionaries to support her work out west. Instead, the pope suggested that she become a missionary herself.
Two years after this meeting, Drexel decided to commit herself fully to her work and to the Church. She became a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, and in 1891 took her final vows. She established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which dedicated themselves to supporting Native Americans and African Americans, and spent the remainder of her life focused on social activism.
By her death in 1955, her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had established 49 elementary schools and 12 high schools, founded Xavier University of Louisiana, the first Catholic University in the U.S. for African Americans, and grew their religious community to 500 members in 51 convents.
Drexel was beatified in 1988 and eventually canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. She has two miracles attributed to her, with the Church giving her credit for curing the deafness of two children in 1988 and 2000. She is the second U.S.-born saint, and is considered the patron saint of racial justice and of philanthropists. Her sacred remains can be found at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, in her hometown of Philadelphia.