The young Philadelphia heiress—raised by her father, banking magnate Frederick Drexel, and her stepmother Emma Bouvier—had more money than most people can imagine. She was well educated, and had traveled widely throughout the United States and Europe. Her parents were devout Catholics who instilled in their children a great generosity, and a conviction that their wealth was simply loaned to them and was to be shared with others.
From childhood, Katharine Drexel enjoyed a life of luxury and privilege; but she had seen so much poverty, so much deprivation in her travels. In particular, she saw the hardships endured by blacks and native Americans.
At first, she donated money to help in their spiritual and material well-being. In 1894, she established a school for native Americans at Santa Fe, New Mexico. But an audience with Pope Leo XIII convinced her that she must take the next step and become a missionary; and in 1899, Katharine founded a new religious order to serve the poor, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indian and Colored Peoples.
She went on to found schools for Native Americans west of the Mississippi River, and for blacks in the southern part of the United States. In 1915, she founded Xavier University in New Orleans. By the time of her death in 1955, there were more than 500 sisters teaching at 63 schools across the United States.
At her canonization on October 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II highlighted her fourfold legacy:
- A love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples;
- Courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities;
- Efforts to achieve quality education for all; and
- Selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.
She is the patron of racial justice and of philanthropists. Her feastday is celebrated on March 3.