Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel is the story of a remarkable woman who rebelled against family, friends, and the luxuries of the Edwardian Age, and who risked her life aiding and educating the poorest of the poor. She was passionate in her belief in equality. My quest to discover the person behind the legend is personal. Katharine was my blood relative; her first cousin, Emilie Drexel Biddle was my great-grandmother. Like Katharine, I believe we must eliminate societal injustices.
Born in 1858, the daughter of financier Francis Drexel inherited a fortune when her father died in 1885. Throughout the nation, newspaper headlines trumpeted the sum. It was unthinkable for a woman to possess such staggering wealth. While her affluent sisters followed the conventional route of marriage and charitable activities, Kate shocked her family by choosing a path of self-sacrifice and service, first taking religious vows in the Roman Catholic Church and then forming her own teaching order.
Katharine’s life reflects the nation’s history: the tumultuous years leading to the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the movement for Women’s Suffrage, and the Equal Rights Movement. She combated racial prejudice as she traveled the country establishing schools for African and Native Americans. Xavier University in New Orleans she considered a crowning achievement; of equal importance was her tireless work on behalf of the Navajo and Pueblo nations. At a time when journeys to the Dakotas, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico were fraught with peril because of the government’s repressive policies, she overcame bigotry, distrust, and threats of murder. She died in 1955, having devoted her life to uplifting the nation’s forgotten peoples.