The United States has only 10 canonized saints, and most of these were born in other countries and came here as missionaries. Catherine Drexel was born November 26, 1858 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Francis Drexel and Hannah Langstroth. St. Katharine (Catherine’s religious name) died March 3, 1955 at the age of 96 at Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania.
St. Katharine was an American philanthropist, religious sister, educator, and founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The Catholic Church canonized her in 2000; we celebrate her feast day on March 3. She was the second American to be canonized a saint.
Among her many achievements, St. Katharine came to our Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux to help establish St. Luke Church in Thibodaux. She also founded the only African-American University in the U.S., Xavier University, in New Orleans. When I was stationed at Holy Cross Church in Morgan City, some “old timers” told me they remember seeing St. Katharine in Sacred Heart Church in Morgan City attending Mass when she was traveling by train to other cities.
We learn a lot from our families. Catherine had an older sister named Elizabeth. Her mother died about a month after giving birth to Catherine. A couple of years later, her father married Emma Bouvier, and from this union, a third daughter, Louise, was born.
In an article Katharine Drexel: Learning to Love the Poor author Cecilia Murray says, “The girls learned religion by example. Emma often took the children with her when she made visits to the Blessed Sacrament at Sacred Heart Convent. At home, there was an oratory for family and private prayer. Each business day, their father spent a half hour in private meditation upon returning from work. Francis Drexel sat on the board of nearly every Catholic charity in the city where he quietly did a tremendous amount of good.
“Mrs. Drexel preferred a more hands-on approach to helping the poor. Three afternoons a week, she opened her home to anyone in need, and with the help of a servant and later her daughters, she dispensed a variety of practical aid. These afternoons were known as Mama’s Dorcas work after the charitable widow in the Acts of the Apostles. They served to impress upon the girls that wealth carried the responsibility for those less fortunate.”
Catherine’s father was a renowned and successful national and international banker. Emma Bouvier Drexel was also from a well-to-do family. St. Katharine Drexel Mission’s website stated the following about Francis Anthony Drexel’s wealth when he died in 1885.
“At the time of his death, her father left the largest fortune recorded in Philadelphia at that time. His three daughters received bequests that gave them an extremely generous income for life. He donated the rest of his fortune to his favorite charities. The sisters continued to use their great wealth to respond to the many requests for aid they received from churchmen throughout the country.”
Francis Anthony Drexel’s trust, valued at approximately $14 million, stated that the annual interest was to be divided into a one-third interest for each of the three daughters or their heirs but not any husbands. Additionally, if none of them had heirs, the remaining principal would be divided among the charities chosen by Francis Anthony Drexel at the time of his death. Some have estimated that St. Katharine’s income from the trust fund left by her father was approximately $1,000 per day during her lifetime.
Her two sisters died before Katharine leaving no heirs. Sr. Katharine continued to use her interest for her charities. When she died, her father’s will did not include the Blessed Sacrament Sisters since she founded her order after his death. Her Community had to find other means of financial support.
To be continued.