Born into a wealthy family, Katharine Drexel was raised on an interesting idea: their wealth was not their own; it was simply on loan to them and, therefore, should be shared with others. It was a lesson that she lived in her life and ministry.
As a young woman, Katharine travelled to the western United States. While there, her heart was moved by the poverty and destitution of the Native Americans. She realized that she wanted to do more. So, in 1887, she established St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This school was the first step in her life’s quest for social justice.
She continued to financially support Indian missions throughout the West. In the midst of her work, she was granted a visit with Pope Leo XIII in Rome; she planned to ask him for more missionaries to staff the missions. Instead, she was surprised to hear him suggest that she should consider becoming a missionary herself. After consulting with her spiritual director and much prayer, she made the decision to give herself, and all she had, completely to God.
On February 12, 1891, she professed her first vows as a religious and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The dedication of this order would be to Native Americans, as well as African Americans, who were suffering at the hands of poverty and racism.
During her lifetime, Katharine and her congregation founded, staffed and supported almost 60 schools and missions, mostly in the western and southwestern United States. Their biggest achievement came in 1925, with the establishment of Xavier University of Louisiana, the first, and only, African American institution of higher education in the United States.
In 1935, Katharine suffered a severe heart attack, which forced her to stop her travels and work. Her last years were spent in contemplation and adoration, the life she had truly desired since her childhood. She died on March 3, 1955.
Best remembered for her love of the Eucharist, her courage, her self-gift and her belief in the importance of an excellent education for all, Katharine’s legacy still lives on through the work of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament today. Canonized by Blessed Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000, it is clear that St. Katharine Drexel lived out the lesson her parents taught her as a child: what you have is only borrowed; it must be shared with others.
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