|Katharine Drexel came from a wealthy Philadelphia family. Her father, Francis Drexel, acquired tremendous wealth through his family's international banking empire. Raised as a Catholic, Katharine was the middle child of three sisters. They lost their parents when they were young women and were left with an estate of fourteen million dollars. Each sister had an estimated annual income of over $350,000. The parents also distributed other funds through their will to Catholic charities in Philadelphia.
Katharine and her sisters had been raised as socialites and with a strong sense of responsibility to help others. When they were in their twenties, these young women began donating their wealth for educational purposes, especially for schools in the West for American Indians and in the South for African Americans. They traveled through the Dakotas and Minnesota in the late 1880s visiting missions on reservations. The poverty of both the missionaries and the Indians deeply distressed them.
Believing in the power of a Catholic education, Katharine Drexel determined to use her considerable wealth to build schools on reservations. However, she did not simply turn the money over to Catholic charities. Instead, she purchased the land, hired architects and paid construction costs. Between 1888 and 1893, she built schools in Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, California, Oklahoma and Washington. She also paid tuition and boarding fees for indigent Indians. The funding she provided allowed missionaries from the following orders to teach in the West: Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, Daughters of Providence, Ursulines, Jesuits, Grey Nuns, Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Mercy.
In 1883, Katharine began considering the possibility of entering a convent. After much thought and discussion with religious advisors, she entered the Sisters of Mercy convent at Pittsburgh in 1889. At this time, Katharine was nearly thirty-five years old, and the obedience and submissiveness required in the convent were trying. She was not, however, directed to turn her wealth over to the convent's administrators. Also indicating her different status from most new nuns, she received training in convent administration because she had plans to originate a new order. In 1891, she took her vows as the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Becoming Mother Mary Katharine Drexel, she withdrew from the Mercy convent and started a new religious community with a group of young women. This new order focused on the education of American Indians and African Americans.
In 1900, Mother Mary Katharine began working to build a school for Navajos, called St. Michael. She awarded the construction contract, paid salaries and bought furniture to open the school in 1902. However, the Navajo parents were slow to accept the school because they did not want their children to board at the school and were worried about their children's health. In addition, the nuns could not speak Navajo. Despite these misgivings, the school opened in December of 1902 with approximately 25 students.
St. Michael School grew gradually, and by 1921, the enrollment was over 200. By this time, there was a marching band, athletic teams, and industrial arts program with boys learning agriculture, animal husbandry, carpentry and blacksmithing, while girls learned home economics. This was the common pattern in schools for Indian youth all over the U.S., as school administrators prepared the youngsters for labor in the blue collar workforce. St. Michael students also studied reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. Eventually, some students from Pueblo and Tohono O'odham tribes also attended St. Michael.
The school continued educating students throughout the decades, boasting an enrollment of approximately 300 by the 1940s. A new high school was completed in 1950. Two years later, students and staff celebrated the school's Golden Jubilee or 50 year anniversary. The bishop of the diocese of Gallup, the Most Reverend Bernard Espelage, led a high mass, and over 300 Navajos and visitors participated. In addition, Sister M. Gertrude, one of the original nuns, was on hand with four of her students from the first class.
In 1955, at the age of 96, Katharine Drexel died. At the time of her death, a Philadelphia newspaper called her a "heroine of God" because she had dedicated her life and wealth to assisting youth of color in the West and the South. In 1988, Mother Katharine Drexel was beatified and in 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized her as a saint.
St. Michael School continued but as the decades passed, there were several changes. Mother Drexel's will did not provide complete funding for the school, so tuition was gradually increased, and the boarding of students ended. In 1993 the school was incorporated as a nonprofit educational institution, and it is still educating students to this date.
For more information, see "Mother Katharine Drexel: Spiritual Visionary for the West" by Anne M. Butler in By Grit and Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West and the St. Michael School website.
Photos courtesy of St. Michael Indian School