Mother Katharine Mary Drexel:

A Blessed Presence in the History of Philadelphia

By Jenny Vengalil

 

It is often said that "money is the source of all evil". One standout woman, born and raised in Philadelphia, was able to rise high above that conception of wealth. Mother Katharine Mary Drexel produced an overwhelming amount of good from the fortune that had fallen upon her by inheritance. Mother Drexel found strength in her faith and dedication in order to help those who were less fortunate particularly Native Americans and African Americans. The selflessness and compassion this woman possessed exemplifies the motto of brotherly love in which Philadelphia continues to take pride.

When Katherine Mary Drexel was born on November 26, 1858, her immediate family was enjoying overwhelming economic stability and success. . During the 1850s, Philadelphia was among "the great urban centers of the new industrial age" primarily deriving its economic success from industry, but also commerce and finance.(1) There was a growing division between the well to do and the poor of Philadelphia, while the population of the city continued to quickly expand indicated by a 38 percent growth rate.(2) Katharine Drexel’s father, Francis Anthony Drexel, was one individual whose success in the banking business enabled him to ascend into the realm of great affluence. His father, Francis M. Drexel, had started a small brokerage firm in Kentucky that focused on trading in local currencies important to the banking industry at the time. He transferred his business to Philadelphia and put his two sons through a strict apprenticeship to become his future partners. The Drexel and Sons Company flourished from years of their hard work and long hours. By the dawn of the Civil War, Drexel and Company "had become one of the financial powers of the land.(3) The Civil War loomed as Philadelphia was enjoying this era of great financial growth. It was only "three years before the struggle over slavery precipitated…into a bloody civil war" that Katharine Drexel was born.(4) Although citizens of Philadelphia resided above the Mason Dixon line, they tended to follow the line of Southern thinking regarding slavery. The prevailing attitude in 1856 was an "unequivocal rejection of the anti-slavery party and the Negro".(5) These were the historical circumstances that surrounded the Drexel family in the 1850s.

In 1854, Hannah Langstroth entered the Drexel family when she married Francis Drexel, who by then was a "nationally and internationally well known banker".(6) Elizabeth Drexel, Katherine’s older sister, was born a year later. When Katherine was born in 1858, her mother had been "weakened by the…long confinement."(7) Her condition worsened until she passed away five weeks after giving birth. Francis Drexel had his children "cared for by their aunt Mrs. Anthony J. Drexel" for a period of two years.(8) His children were brought home in 1860 when he married again to Emma Bouvier, a devout Catholic from a "cultivated and wealthy French family long established in Philadelphia".(9) Emma Drexel became a loving mother to Elizabeth and Katharine, and the girls "wept bitterly" when they learned she was not their real mother years later.(10)

Mr. and Mrs. Drexel emphasized the value of education to their daughters by providing them with the highest quality of tutors in Miss Cassidy whose "education had been broad and deep with a special emphasis on philosophy and literature."(11) One significant element of their education was not provided by Miss Cassidy. Mrs. Drexel provided knowledge of the saints by facilitating "family discussions of their lives with explanations of teachings of the Church."(12) This foundation of religious knowledge and devout Catholicism was fertile ground for Katharine’s spiritual development. Both father and mother instilled in Katharine a spirit of service through the example of their own actions. Emma Drexel had a social service program at the family home where "people came twice a week…to receive orders for food and clothing, for shoes and coal, or for rent."(13) Francis Drexel had a secret charity in which he provided for immigrant priests who needed help starting their new lives in Philadelphia. One particular priest aided by the Drexel family, Father James O’Connor of Ireland, "became a very intimate friend of (theirs) and the spiritual advisor of young Katharine."(14) This education in academics, religion, and service helped Katharine develop into an intelligent, devout, giving woman. The credit for that is greatly due to her stepmother Emma Drexel who unexpectedly passed away from cancer in 1883 when the heartbroken Katharine was only 25 years old. Prophetically, "a day not long before her mother’s death…(she) had said suddenly to her sisters, ‘If anything happens to mama I am going to enter a convent’."(15)

Less than two years after her stepmother died, Katharine’s father, Francis Drexel, passed away unexpectedly. Ten percent of his fortune was donated to his favorite Catholic charities and the remaining 14 million dollars was put into a trust to be divided among his three daughters.(16) According to U.S. News, his estate estimated "roughly 250 million today…the largest fortune that had ever been recorded in Philadelphia."(17) The three Drexel daughters attracted suitors, greedy businessmen, and valid charity fundraisers. Two missionaries searching for aid approached her looking for financial assistance to their Catholic missions in the West, which ministered to the Indians.(18) Katharine was deeply moved by their cause and began sending money consistently for the benefit of the Indians. Their plight would never escape her thoughts and prayers from then on.

As Katharine Drexel was benefiting from the banking successes of her predecessors, Philadelphia was moving beyond its dependence on commerce and finance. The Philadelphia of Katharine’s adulthood was "a center of heavy industry" as iron, steel, coal and oil became the sources of its economic gain.(19) In addition, the development of the railroad and steam locomotive had become the most important enterprise of the booming city. The railroad expanded the possibilities for travel, employment and residence. As upper and middle class white Philadelphians flourished, blacks of this period had a hard time advancing themselves economically. Prejudice was high and competition with white immigrants was extensive. The plight that African Americans faced was an indication that minority populations across America not only were lacking sufficient opportunities and education, but also the means and support to remedy their situation. Blacks of Philadelphia would soon find both the means and the support in Katharine Drexel.

As a wealthy heiress, Katharine had many suitors, but she was not drawn to married life as much as she felt a pull toward becoming immersed in religious life. This desire consumed her so much so that in May 1889 she became a Sister of Mercy.(20) By doing so Katharine Drexel gave up all the luxuries that her socialite life had previously afforded her. The struggle of Native and African American people in the United States became her greatest cause as a nun. She viewed herself as Christ’s instrument in the betterment of those who were oppressed and underprivileged because of their color alone. This belief was culminated in 1891 when Katharine Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament whose work was dedicated to serving Native and African Americans. In 1894, Mother Drexel "sent a group of nuns to open the first American Indian school in Sante Fe, New Mexico."(21) That was only one of the first in almost one hundred schools that the Blessed Sacrament sisters started near and on reservations, and in Southern rural communities and inner cities. In 1915, Mother Drexel founded Xavier University in New Orleans, "the only Catholic historically black college."(22) Although Mother Drexel and the women of her order were dedicated to eliminating racial lines, the people they encountered in their work were not often on their side. One such group of people were the Ku Klux Klan who in 1922 "threatened to tar and feather the white past at one of Drexel’s schools and bomb his church" in Beaumont, Texas.(23) The nuns prayed and days later, a tornado came and destroyed the headquarters of the KKK killing two of their members. The Sisters were never threatened again.

Mother Drexel continued her work for years until 1935 when she had a heart attack and was confined to her Motherhouse because of poor health. By no means did she give up on her cause of civil rights. Mother Drexel continued funding NAACP investigations into the mistreatment and exploitation of black workers and began a letter writing campaign to Franklin Roosevelt.(24) Mother Katharine Mary Drexel died in 1955 and nine years later the Vatican began reviewing her case for sainthood. Her true value to the Catholic Church and the United States was affirmed when she was "beatified by Pope John Paul II on Nov.20, 1988."(25) Her case for sainthood continues to be investigated to this day.

 

Historical Sites Tour

Site 1:

St. Elizabeth: The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Mother House

and The Blessed Katharine Drexel Shrine

1663 Bristol Pike Bensalem 19020

In July 16, 1891, the cornerstone was laid in a spot nineteen miles from center city Philadelphia. The lot itself was "sixty acres of land on a hill twenty five feet above the Delaware River."(26) Mother Katharine planned for an arrangement of buildings in the old Spanish Mission style she had seen in New Mexico with a combination of Spanish and Italian features. It was supposed to be ready in June of 1892 but "a serious cave-in prevented their moving in."(27) December 3, 1892 was a day of excitement for the fifteen sisters of the Blessed Sacrament when they were able to move into their new motherhouse, which was dedicated in memory of Katharine’s sister Elizabeth. Currently many of the retired sisters and half of the present members reside "at the large, Italianate, stone house in Bensalem, which houses the order's infirmary".(28) The location of Mother Katharine’s crypt is "below the convent chapel" and "rests in a softly lit basement shrine of what appears to be yellow sandstone".(29) The Motherhouse and Shrine draw "about 30,000 visitors a year".(30) The sisters of the motherhouse anticipate that "the shrine will attract even more visitors if Mother Katharine becomes St. Katherine Drexel" and they hope in particular that "it might attract young women to the order" to continue the legacy that Katharine Drexel began.(31)

 

Site 2: St. Elizabeth convent chapel

1663 Bristol Pike Bensalem 19020

The original chapel occupied the west wing of the motherhouse with sixty stalls for the members of the religious community, and pews in the rear of the structure for lay visitors. In addition, there was an open space in the center meant for the black children who stayed on the motherhouse grounds.(32) Katherine Drexel recognized the need for a separate structure for the Sisters to worship. Mother Drexel desired both a beautiful and functional chapel building. In order to accomplish this, she appointed the architect Marquandt Burns who was prominent in Philadelphia during the period. Burns designed and constructed the St. Elizabeth Chapel, which was erected in 1892.(33)

When the centennial for the order was approaching in 1988, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament saw the need to renovate and update the chapel according to the standards of the Second Vatican Council. As a result the Chapel’s foundation was secured and the interior was cleaned. Furthermore, the Sisters added an element of the people they served by displaying art of Native and African Americans in the Chapel. Today, the chapel is one of a series of buildings that constitute the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The building is more than a simple place of worship, rather it is the Sisters’ "centerpiece of life…where they share their most intimate moments with the Lord."(34) Visitors to this holy place are permitted entrance during the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 PM.

 

Site 3: Drexel summer home and first Blessed Sacrament convent:

Red Lion Rd., Torresdale, PA

The home was originally a farmhouse situated on a plot of ninety acres, and was purchased by Katharine’s father as a country place for the family in 1870.(35) The property was just a section of the five hundred acres located "in the southern part of the township on the western side of the Poquessing Creek" that John Hart had owned years before.(36) John Hart had come over with William Penn in 1682 and purchased the land on his arrival. The nineteenth century farmhouse was converted into a mansion with "a mansard roof, a covered porch across the entire front, and a mosaic floor laid in the entrance hall".(37) The country estate that was built also included servant cottages, a carriage house, stables, and a barn. Characteristic of the Drexel’ devotion to faith, the estate was named after Michael, the Archangel in the French version of his name, St. Michel. The presence of St. Michael was felt daily in the form of a stained glass window depicting him at the head of the front staircase.(38) The patron of the home also sat perched above the entrance in a Caen stone carving. The construction of St. Michel was completed for occupancy in June of 1871.(39) By the year 1891, the home had become unoccupied and was ideal to serve as a temporary novitiate of the Blessed Sacrament order until the motherhouse was built.(40) The first group to occupy the new novitiate along with Mother Drexel was "four novices, one postulant, and Ida May Coffey, who was to become the first member of the home for Negro children" the sisters established at St. Michel.(41) The summer home finished its conversion into a spiritual home base for Mother Drexel and her sisters with the renovation of the front hall and reception room into a chapel.

Site 4: Drexel University’s Blessed Katharine Drexel Chapel in the Newman Center:

3141 Chestnut St. Philadelphia 19104

The chapel is located on the second floor of the Newman Center on the campus of Drexel University. The Newman Center is the home of Catholic campus ministry at the university in the form of the Newman Club. The Newman Club functions to provide social, service and spiritual opportunities for the student body. Spiritual growth is facilitated by daily mass in the Blessed Katharine Drexel chapel at 1:00 PM every weekday.(42)

Drexel University is a testament to the value the Drexel family placed on education, a value vital to the path Katharine’s life would take. Like Katherine’s father, her uncle Anthony J. Drexel was a wealthy banker. He did not abuse his wealth or power rather building on the foundation of his faith he used his money to improve the lives of others. Anthony Drexel used his affluence to found the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in 1891.(43) Now called Drexel University, the school was established "to provide a practical industrial education for young people".(44) Today it is Philadelphia’s primary technical, co-operative university integrating real work experience into the academic experience of the undergraduate years. The main building of the University is situated at Thirty-second and Chestnut Streets in West Philadelphia.

Site 5: Blessed Katharine Drexel Exhibit:

Free Library of Philadelphia

1901 Vine St., Philadelphia 19103

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were approached in the summer of 1999 by the Free Library of Philadelphia to work on a Blessed Katharine Drexel exhibit. After months of collaboration, they created the exhibit "Blessed Katharine Drexel: Heart of a Woman, Strength of a Saint" which will be ready for unveiling on November 22, 1999 in the west gallery of the Central library. The display will be open for viewing through April 2, 2000. The exhibit includes a great deal of photographs and text relating to Katharine Drexel, her family, her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the work of her ministry. Heirlooms passed down through the Drexel, Langstroth and Bouvier families and a variety of memorabilia also will be on display. Another interesting aspect of the exhibit will be books, videotapes, and African American and Native American artifacts. Finally the exhibit will "highlight how the mission is being continued today".(45) There will be no fee for viewing and the exhibit will be open to the public starting November 22 after the unveiling.

The free library system of Philadelphia was established in 1891 under a grant that was chartered under a board of trustees whose aim was to culturally enhance the city. After relocating several times, the Free Library of Philadelphia was opened at its current location on June 2, 1927.(46) A core of the volumes in the library at present was found on the bookshelves of Carpenter’s Hall between the years 1773 and 1790.(47) The Central Library that stands today took $6,300,000 to build, and is an beautiful and imposing structure consisting primarily of Indiana limestone and granite.(48)


 

Notes 

 

 Russell Weigley, "The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865," in Russell Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1982) 366.

2 Ibid.

3 Katherine Burton, The Golden Door: The Life of Katharine Drexel (New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1957), 11.

4 Sister Consuela Marie Duffy, S.B.S., Katharine Drexel, A Biography (Cornwell Heights, PA: Mother Katharine Drexel Guild, 1972), 15.

5 Weigley, 385.

6 Ibid.

7 Burton, 3.

8 Duffy, 16.

9 Burton, 14.

10 Burton, 15.

11 Duffy, 41.

12 Duffy, 42.

13 Burton, 48.

14 Burton, 59.

15 Duffy, 58.

16 "Saints and Heroes," The Word Among Us, October 1999, www.wau.org/current/drexel/html (10 October 1999).

17 Gary Cohen, "Saint-in-waiting," U.S. News and World Report, 11 January 1999, www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/990111/11drex.htm (14 September 1999)

18 www.wau.org/current/drexel/html

19 Weigley, 471.

20 Ibid.

21 Cohen, <www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/990111/11drex.htm>

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 "Blessed Katharine Drexel", Catholic Online Saints, 1997, www.catholic.org/saints/saints/katharinedrexel.html (9 October 1999).

26 Duffy, 165.

27 Duffy, 181.

28 David O’ Reilly, "Mother Katharine Drexel Moves One Step Closer to Sainthood," Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 October 1999, www.phillynews.com/inquirer/99/Oct/08/front_page/pdrex08.htm (13 October 1999).

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Burton, 146.

33 "Travel Into Blessed Katharine’s Heart," http://www.katharinedrexel.org/travel.htm (23 October 1999).

34 Ibid.

35 Burton, 21.

36 Duffy, 44.

37 Burton, 21.

38 Ibid.

39 Duffy, 44.

40 Burton, 135.

41 Burton, 136.

42 "Background on the Newman Center," www.drexel.edu/depts/newman/who_are_we.htm (13 November 1999).

 

43 Federal Writers’ Project Works Progress Administration for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Harrisburg: The Telegraph Press, 1937), 183.

44 Webster, 201.

45 "Blessed Katharine Drexel Exhibit: Free and Open to the Public," http://www.katharinedrexel.org/blessed_katharine_exhibit.htm (13 November 1999).

46 Federal Writers’, 352.

47 Federal Writers’, 341.

48 Federal Writers’, 350.

Bibliography

 

"Background on the Newman Center." www.drexel.edu/depts/newman/who_are_we.htm (13 November 1999).

"Blessed Katharine Drexel." Catholic Online Saints. 1997.  www.catholic.org/saints/saints/katharinedrexel.html (9 October 1999).

"Blessed Katharine Drexel Exhibit: Free and Open to the Public." http://www.katharinedrexel.org/blessed_katharine_exhibit.htm (13 November 1999).

Cohen, Gary. "Saint-in-waiting." U.S. News and World Report. 11 January 1999, www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/990111/11drex.htm (14 September 1999)

Federal Writers’ Project Works Progress Administration for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia. Harrisburg: The Telegraph Press, 1937.

King, Moses. Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians. New York: Moses King Publisher, 1901.

O’Reilly, David. "Mother Katharine Drexel Moves One Step Closer to Sainthood." Philadelphia Inquirer. 8 October 1999. www.phillynews.com/inquirer/99/Oct/08/front_page/pdrex08.htm (13 October 1999).

"Saints and Heroes", The Word Among Us, October 1999, www.wau.org/current/drexel/html (10 October 1999).

"Travel Into Blessed Katharine’s Heart." http://www.katharinedrexel.org/travel.htm (23 October 1999).

Webster, Richard J. Philadelphia Preserved. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.

Weigley, Russell, ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1982.

 

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