Katharine Drexel was born on November 26, 1858. She was an heiress to an investment banker, Francis Anthony Drexel, and Hannah Langstroth. Her mother died five weeks after Katharine’s birth. For two years, Katharine and her older sister Elizabeth were cared for by their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel.
Katharine and her sister returned home to live with their father and stepmother. Shortly after a third sister was born. The Drexel’s were taught by private tutors at home. They often toured Europe with their parents. The Drexel family was known for their charity. They helped those who needed food, clothing or money. The family did so quietly to protect the dignity of those in need.
Katharine attended dances and other social functions. Her stepmother 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 Americans, 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. She was the second person born in what is now the United States to be canonized as a saint.