Drexel 300

St. Katherine Drexel interacts with children in the 1930s

St. Katharine Drexel’s mission of serving African-Americans came to fruition with the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans. Drexel, heiress of a Philadelphia banking fortune, pledged her life to God after meeting Pope Leo XIII. She entered into religious life in 1899, and in 1891 she and 15 fellow sisters founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians. Added to the normal vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience was a vow, not to “undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races.”

The order eventually opened 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans and 50 schools for African Americans throughout the South and the West. In 1915, New Orleans Archbishop James Hubert Blenk approached Drexel about the lack of higher education for African Americans.

After a visit to the New Orleans to see the abandoned Southern University on Magazine Street, Drexel provided $750,000 to open a school there. She established an endowment for Xavier, which later became a four-year university at Palmetto and Pine streets. The high school, Xavier Prep was renamed Drexel Prep in honor of St. Katharine Drexel in 2013. Drexel died in 1955. In 2000, Pope John Paul canonized Drexel, the second native-born American to be named a saint.