Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia in 1858, into a very wealthy and prominent family, which meant that she had an excellent education and traveled widely. As a rich girl, she had a grand debut into society. But her life was radically changed when she nursed her stepmother through a three-year terminal illness, and she saw that all the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death.
She had read a book about the plight of the American Indians, and how difficult their lives were. Once, when she was on a tour of Europe, she met Pope Leo XIII and she asked him to send more missionaries to Wyoming, where a family friend was the bishop. The pope said to her, "Why don't you become a missionary?" His answer shocked her into considering new possibilities.
When she returned to America, she visited the Dakota Indian tribe, met the Sioux leader Red Cloud and began her systematic aid to Native American missions.
She could easily have married. But after much discussion with Bishop O'Connor, she wrote in 1889, "The feast of Saint Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and the Colored." Newspaper headlines screamed "Heiress gives Up Her Millions!"
After three and a half years of training, she and her first band of nuns (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) opened a boarding school in Santa Fe. A string of foundations followed. By 1942 she had a system of African American Catholic schools in thirteen states, plus forty mission centers and twenty-three rural schools. Segregationists harassed her work, even burning a school in Pennsylvania. In all, she established fifty missions for Native Americans in sixteen states.
Two saints met when she was advised by Mother Cabrini about the "politics" of getting her order's rule approved in Rome. Her crowning achievement was the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first university in the United States for African Americans.
At seventy-seven, she suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire. Apparently her life was over. But now came almost twenty years of quiet, intense prayer from a small room overlooking the sanctuary. Small notebooks and slips of paper record her various prayers, ceaseless aspirations and meditation. She died at ninety-six and was canonized in 2000.
- from various sources
O Almighty God, who hast compassed us about with so great a cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of thy servant St. Katharine Drexel, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at length, through thy mercy, we may with her attain to thine eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.