Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia, on November 26, 1858. Her mother died just after her birth. She and her older sister were raised by an aunt and uncle for a few years until their father remarried. She had a third sister after she returned to her father’s home. She and her sisters were educated at home by private tutors. They regularly toured Europe with their family. Twice a week the Drexel family gave food, clothing, and money to those in need. They always gave quietly to protect the dignity of those in need.
Katharine attended dances and other social functions. Her step-mother became ill. This taught Katharine money could not keep her from pain or death. She had always been interested in the Native Americans. She saw their suffering and poverty. She wanted to do something specific to help. After her father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters donated money to the St. Francis Mission in South Dakota.
She was considering joining a religious order. Her spiritual mentor told her to wait and pray. The Drexel sisters went to Europe in 1886. In January 1887, they were seen by Pope Leo XIII. They asked him for missionaries to help some of the Indian missions. Pope Leo suggested Katherine become a missionary herself. She met again with her spiritual mentor and entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1889.
On February 12, 1891, she took religious vows. She began working with Native Americans and African Americans in the southwestern United States. She was soon joined by 13 other sisters. She established a religious order. After three years, she and her followers opened her first boarding schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
By the time she died, she established 145 missions, 50 schools for African American 12, schools for Native Americans. She helped establish Xavier University of Louisiana. This is the only historically black Catholic college in the United States.
She died on March 3, 1955, at the age of 96.