Katharine Drexel, America’s most recently canonized saint, was possibly the most prolific Catholic missionary in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Born into the wealthy Drexel family, she used much of her inherited wealth to establish schools and other institutions for the benefit of the poor. Unlike most other American saints, whose works were generally localized, Drexel was active across the country from Pennsylvania to Florida to the Dakotas. Her Shrine is located on the grounds of the Mission Center in Bensalem which she founded.
Katherine Drexel may be America’s most unique saint. Born in 1858, she was the only one to actually be born a United States citizen (Elizabeth Ann Seton was technically born a citizen of the British Empire). While America’s other saints were generally brought up in more humble surroundings, Drexel had all the advantages of wealth in her childhood. She grew up in Philadelphia, though her family traveled extensively.
Despite her comfortable childhood, her father made certain that Katherine and her sisters understood the importance of charity, and worked regularly among the poor of Philadelphia. Her life was altered in her twenties, when a trip out west showed her the horrible living conditions of both the Native Americans and freed slaves.
In 1885 Katherine and her sisters became more active in their charitable enterprises. The next year, after the death of their father, the sisters traveled to Rome, where they had an audience with Pope Leo XIII. With his encouragement, Drexel gave up her life as a socialite, and joined the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. Her decision made headlines in the Philadelphia newspapers.
After completing her religious training, she went to work, devoting both her time and fortune to the Church and to the poor. She established missions and schools across the country, mostly for Native Americans and Freed Blacks. In 1915 she founded what would be her most famous legacy, Xavier University, one of America’s most prestigious traditionally African American colleges. Katharine Drexel died in 1955 and was canonized in 2000.
The St. Katharine Drexel Mission Center and Shrine is located on the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s Convent, which she founded in the 1890s. The convent remains the home of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, which are still active. The original convent, chapel and motherhouse are still in use.
The main building of the shrine was constructed later, in 1949. A modern complex of buildings, the exterior is designed to mimic the southwestern Spanish mission style. The interior of the shrine is decorated with artifacts from the life of Katherine Drexel, as well by Native American and African artwork. Her relics are buried under the main altar of the chapel.
The St. Katherine Drexel Mission Center and Shrine is located in the suburb of Bensalam, approximately ten miles northeast of Philadelphia. The shrine is open daily. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: http://www.katharinedrexel.org/Mission_Center.html (official website).
The legacy of Katherine Drexel’s work can be found across the United States. In addition to the national shrine, the most popular places include the St. Benedict the Moor School in St. Augustine, Florida, which played a small role in the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement; and Drexel University in nearby Philadelphia.