Franciscan Spirit Blog

Five Women of Faith: St. Katharine Drexel

St. Katharine Drexel
1858–1955

The tale of American saint Katharine Drexel is a Cinderella story in reverse. Born in 1858 to a rich banking family in Philadelphia, her mother died when she was but a year old. However, unlike the Cinderella story, her stepmother loved her tenderly as well as the two other daughters of the family. She was also particularly close to her father, a man who came home from the bank only to shut himself in his study to pray in secret. Both parents were devoted to the poor, even to the point of hiring one servant whose only job was to take care of the needs of whoever came to the door, and there were plenty.

Katharine went to an academy of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart from whom she received a rich heritage of love for Jesus. When she was old enough, her stepmother let Katharine and her other daughters run a Sunday school for the children of her father’s employees.

Although Katharine dreamed of entering a convent, there was a margin of uncertainty that plagued her until after the death of her father in 1891. During her late teens and twenties, however, she spent both her time and her money doing good in obedience to a vision she had of the Virgin Mary telling her, “Freely you have received, freely give.” The cause that most interested Katharine was the plight of the Native and African Americans.

She dreamed of setting up schools for them, and before starting her own order, gave vast sums of money to those who could found schools. Once on a trip to Europe, the family had a private audience with the Holy Father.

Katharine took the opportunity to describe in graphic terms the plight of the poor Native and African Americans. So impressed was the pope, he told Katharine that she was the one to found an order of missionaries specifically designed to minister to these needs. This ended Katharine’s doubts about her vocation.

Using the vast sums of money at her disposal, with the full consent of the family who were all devout and generous, Katharine founded a motherhouse for the young women eager for the same mission she had around her. She also founded countless schools, orphanages, and hospitals for the poor. Her order was called Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. At a time when she herself was often living in abject poverty among those to whom she was ministering, she was dubbed “the richest nun in the world,” for the fortune she had at her disposal to give away.

Katharine Drexel died at the age of 97! Native and African Americans came from all over the United States to Philadelphia to honor her memory. She left behind six hundred Sisters to carry on her work and sixty-one schools for Native and African Americans. Katharine Drexel was beatified in 1988 and canonized in 2000.


“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. Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”

St. Katharine Drexel


Treasury of Women Saints


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