Often described as a fiery, passionate trouble maker, Mother Saint Katharine Drexel had a vision deeply rooted in education and Catholicism. Our foundress dedicated most of her life and inherited fortune to the education and betterment of African Americans and Native Americans.
March 03, 2020
Katharine Drexel, born to Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Langstroth Drexel, was raised to believe that wealth was to be shared with those in need. Her father, an internationally well-known banker, ensured that she grew up witnessing the disparities among other races. She traveled with her family across Native American lands where she witnessed poverty on reservations. As a young girl, the common practice was to open her family’s home multiple times a week to provide clothing, food, and medicine to the poor.
When Francis Anthony Drexel died in 1885, he left more than 14 million dollars to charity, not including the vast wealth split between his three daughters. In 1887, Pope Leo XIII suggested that Katharine Drexel become a missionary. She took up the name Mother Katharine and decided she would give herself and her inheritance to God through service to both Native Americans and African Americans. She wrote, "The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored," according to St. Katharine Drexel Parish.
Mother Katharine established a religious congregation called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, whose mission would be dedicated to the betterment of those in need. The Sisters began their work opening several Native American schools west of the Mississippi and schools for black students along the southern U.S. border.
In 1915, St. Katharine and the Sisters opened Xavier Preparatory High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She then added a Normal School for training black educational instructors two years later. In 1925, Xavier University of Louisiana’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was established. It became America’s only historically Black and Catholic university in the United States.
As to be expected, Mother Katharine and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament faced a lot of pushback as they were making changes that would affect their communities. Several of their schools were burned and the Sisters were threatened often but Mother Katharine pressed on.
“Mother Katharine was not a respecter of established norms and, in many ways, the Sisters who followed her were not respecters of established norms,” said current Xavier University of Louisiana President C. Reynold Verret.
Mother Katharine’s fight and determination to do what she felt was right despite the social prejudice were apparent in many of her actions. “During the dedication of the building, Katharine Drexel knew black people could not sit unless all white men were seated first so she did away with all the chairs so that everyone was equal when they came to Xavier. White men stood. Black men stood,” said Dr. Sharlene Sinegal- Decuir, associate professor of history at Xavier.
By 1942, St. Katharine Drexel had a system of black Catholic schools in more than 13 states, 40 mission centers, and 23 rural schools. She established 50 missions for Indians in 16 states according to Franciscan Media. She died on March 3, 1955, at 96 years old.
In 2000, St. Katharine was canonized by Pope John Paul II making her the second American-born saint to be canonized by the Catholic church. She is the patron saint of racial justice and philanthropists.
Each day at Xavier University of Louisiana, we strive to be the vision that St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament dedicated their life’s work to. As the only Catholic HBCU in the country, we understand the importance of spirituality, selflessness and the ways in which compassion and integrity shape our students’ success. We are proud to be part of St. Katharine Drexel’s legacy.
Happy St. Katharine’s Day from Xavier University of Louisiana!