Sister Katherine Drexel
Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
She was one of three daughters of Joseph Drexel, a clever man who started as a currency trader on the Ohio River in the 1830’s. He built the business into Drexel & Co. in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest investment banking firms. He died in 1885, leaving his daughters $14 million. When her inheritance payments started flowing, Katherine, a twenty-seven year old beauty with a round face and waist length brown hair, was on her way to a nun.
Sister Katherine Drexel went on to develop and finance parochial schools all over America, with most of her money flowing into black communities, both in the urban North and the rural South. She saw first hand how the segregation in her sprawling church continued to divide parishioners into orderly, sometimes invisible black and white boxes that determined where they sat and, no doubt, how they felt about themselves.
She could not beat the Church’s system of segregation, but she did do something that eventually helped break it down. In the early 1900’s, in order to expand, orders of African American sisters needed to have high schools. State laws said they needed college degrees to teach high school, but no Catholic university would accept African American women. When Southern University, a state-run school near New Orleans, came up for sale in 1915, Mother Katherine bought it, reopening it as Xavier University. She watched the dedication ceremony from a seat in the balcony, making sure that her name would not be mentioned as a benefactor.
Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America—John J. Fialka.
St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 2003
Those who wish to read more about these incredible women and their gift of service to the church and the world can do so in John’s book, which you can order from Amazon.com or receive directly from SOAR! for a donation of $50. This donation will support retired religious sisters and brothers through the work of SOAR! To receive the book for your donation, please contact Danielle Bell directly by email or by phone at 202.529.7627.