Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

February 29, 2008

March 3 Is Feast of Millionaire Saint, Katharine Drexel

A quarter of a billion dollars – $250,000,000,000!!


That’s the estimated modern value of the inheritance left to Elizabeth, Catherine and Louise Drexel when their father died in Philadelphia in 1885. It’s the kind of fortune that many people still dream about and play the lottery to win.

But within ten years, the middle daughter – Sr. Mary Katharine (Catherine or “Kate” Drexel) was in the process of spending it all on the care and education of American blacks and Native Americans. One of her sisters had died and the other supported Catherine completely. In 1884, the year before her father died, Kate had been horrified when she saw the sickening poverty and hopelessness of Native Americans on reservations in the Northwest. The U.S. government had brutally violated treaty agreements with virtually every Indian tribe. In 1889, Kate Drexel shocked Philadelphia when she entered the convent, and promised to give her fortune away.

“Sister Katharine” soon founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at Bensalem, Pennsylvania. This new order was to serve needy and uneducated Blacks and Native Americans. Her sisters began to build and open schools and hospitals for these minorities all around the country. Even in the beginning, however, not all Americans liked Mother Katharine’s goals. The Civil Rights movement was still decades away. As her order’s new motherhouse was being built in Pennsylvania, a stick of dynamite was left nearby as a warning. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature tried to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers from teaching black students. And in 1915, when Mother Katharine open Xavier Preparatory School in New Orleans for young Blacks, every window was smashed. Today, Xavier Prep Academy educates girls in grades seven through twelve. In all, Mother Katharine and her sisters founded sixty-five schools, churches and centers in twenty-one states. In 1925, a four-year college program was added to Xavier Prep, and Xavier University was begun. It is the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the Western Hemisphere that was historically founded for Blacks.


If Mother Drexel lavished her fortune on others, she spent almost nothing on herself. She used pencils until they were nubs. She wrote return correspondence on the blank side of the letters she received. She even sewed her broken shoelaces back together. Day after day, the woman raised in a wealthy mansion with dozens of servants remained self-effacing, patient, and good-humored. When she suffered a devastating heart attack in 1935, all her schools and missions worried. They loved this generous “mother” and prayed for her survival. But those at Mother Katharine’s schools and missions also knew that their
funding would end when she died. Her father had set up a trust that directed that if his daughters died without heirs, the remaining Drexel money would be donated to a variety of religious orders and charities. There was no way to change the trust. When Mother Katharine died, her schools and hospitals would have to find new sources of funding. Miraculously, she lived to the age of ninety-six, dying in 1955.

Mother Katharine was canonized as a saint in Rome in 2000 in the midst of many of her wildly cheering religious sisters, and hundreds of Black and Indian Americans who’d been blessed by her almost unimaginable generosity and service.

Lesson Plans
1. Briefly retell the story of Saint Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) her life as an heiress, her vocation and tremendous contribution to the education of minorities. Emphasize that St. Katharine, whose feast is celebrated on March 3, was canonized in 2000. She is only the second native-born American woman to become a saint. The first was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) who was canonized in 1975.
2. Ask students if they can think of other great saints or humanitarians who – like St. Katharine Drexel – literally gave away everything they had. (Students may suggest the names of such people as Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, etc).
3. Recruit one student to read the Gospel account about the rich young man — Mark 10:17-27. St. Katharine Drexel may have interpreted this Gospel in a dramatic and personal way. Divide the class into small groups. Ask students to discuss ways in which they could personally become more generous, and find inspiration in the life and example of fellow American Catholic, St. Katharine Drexel.

Extending the Lesson
1.Invite students to do independent research on modern and well-known philanthropists such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey. How and why have these individuals chosen to give to others?
2.Direct students to the Katharine Drexl mission center website or the Vatican website that each provide additional background information about St. Katharine Drexel and her ministry.

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