Saint Katharine Drexel

Author: Nicholle Check ~ February 27, 2018


Born into a wealthy family, Katharine Drexel and her sisters learned at an early age that wealth was a gift to be shared. Several days each week, the sisters helped as their parents opened their home to feed the poor. Learn more about the girl who would grow to become Saint Katherine Drexel (1858–1955), patron of philanthropy and racial justice, whom Catholics (USA) celebrate on March 3.

From early in her teens, Katharine had a special concern for the plight of Native Americans. She knew that many Native American children were separated from their families and required to attend boarding schools to learn new ways and a new religion. Living conditions on reservations were deplorable and were made even worse by high unemployment and the high incidence of alcoholism.

On a trip to Europe, Katharine asked Pope Leo XIII to send more missionaries to Wyoming to help Native Americans. The Pope responded by asking her, “Why don’t you become a missionary?” The idea struck a chord within Katharine. She decided to devote her life and her wealth to helping the poor and oppressed. Soon she met with the Ogala Lakota chief, Red Cloud, and began to provide aid programs for Native American missions.

Katharine was responsible for establishing many mission centers and schools for Native Americans and a system of Catholic schools for African American children. To teach in these schools, she founded a religious order of women called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

During a period of intense racial tension and segregation, Katharine founded the first university in the United States for African Americans—Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her active missionary work came to an end when she suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire. She devoted the last years of her life to prayer.

Katharine Drexel was canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. She is only the second American-born saint. (Canonized in 1975, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first.)

Seeds and Promise: After sharing the story of Saint Katharine, talk with the children about how Saint Katharine used her money to help people. Tell the children that they can use their money to help people too. Help them decorate small boxes in which they can save coins to help hungry people. Send notes home to parents to let them know about the project. A week or two before the end of the school year, collect the children’s boxes and help them count the money they have saved. Enlist the help of parent volunteers to take the children to a grocery store where they can use their money to shop for food. Before shopping, contact your local food bank to identify its greatest needs.

Good News children will be fascinated by Saint Katharine’s visit with Chief Red Cloud. Ask the children what they think Saint Katharine would have wanted to say to the chief and what the chief would have wanted for his people. Allow the children to take turns role-playing the meeting between Saint Katharine and Red Cloud.

Venture: Saint Katharine is known for the mission centers she founded for Native Americans. Ask volunteers from your group of Venture children to do research on the Oglala Sioux, their chief, Red Cloud, and their reservation, now known as the Pine Ridge Reservation. Volunteers can share what they learn at the group’s next meeting.

Visions: Saint Katharine traveled extensively in the South and knew the hardships endured by African Americans. She wanted to help young people overcome these hardships and established Xavier University of Louisiana. Visions students may learn more about Xavier University. In reading about the history of the university, they will also learn more about Saint Katharine.


Image credit: Nheyob [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

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