St. Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia

When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia, he must’ve known the story of the city’s famous daughter, Katharine Drexel. She was born into great wealth, and during her canonization at the Vatican, a gospel choir sang and native Americans danced. What’s the story behind her?

When her father died in 1885, the financial genius left a $15.5 million estate, divided among his three daughters. About $1.5 million went to several charities, leaving the girls to share in the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $250 million.

But as a young girl, Katharine had been sensitized to the poverty of native Americans. During a papal audience, she pleaded for missionaries to work with them. Pope Leo XIII parried with an astute question: “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”

Katharine’s final decision was trumpeted by a banner headline in The Philadelphia Public Ledger: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.” That May 1889 news, which shocked the city’s elite, wasn’t quite accurate. She didn’t give up seven million; she would during the next 60 years give away about $20 million. It went to support of her work, building schools and churches, paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians.

It began in 1891, with the profession of Drexel’s first vows as a religious, dedicated to work among the American Indians and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. What quickly followed was the establishment of a religious community with thirteen other women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They started in 1894 the first mission school in Santa Fe, and one day eventually begin 50 missions for native Americans in 16 states.

to be continued

Excerpts from When the Saints Came Marching In (Liturgical Press)

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