Clio Logo
St. Francis de Sales School was founded in 1899 and was the first school that St. Katherine Drexel founded for African Americans. St. Katherine Drexel was an heiress who left high society life for the religious life. Inspired by a mission trip she took with her two sisters, Katherine founded a religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to serving Native American and African American communities. Throughout her life Saint Katharine Drexel and her order faced much discrimination and censure from racist groups. She is the patron saint of racial justice and philanthropists and her feast day is March 3rd.

A picture of the students at St. Francis De Sales school.

Building, Window, Tree, Landmark

The icon (icons are symbolic paintings done fo the saints) of Saint Katherine Drexel

Face, Sleeve, Painting, Art

Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament playing with young children at St. Francis de Sales School.

Window, Headgear, Hat, Monochrome photography

Though she grew up wealthy, Katharine Drexel ultimately discerned the religious life and chose to spend her life and fortune in the service of other. Born November 26th, 1858, she was raised Catholic in Philadelphia by her father Francis Drexel and stepmother Emma Drexel. Katharine and her two sisters were each very devout in their faith by the time their parents had all passed in 1885. Soon after their parents death the wealthy heiresses embarked on a mission trip throughout the west visiting various Native American territories. [4] Inspired by this trip, Katharine and her sisters had an audience with Pope Leo XIII in which they implored for more missionaries to be sent to the Native American communities. [8] Pope Leo XIII responded by asking Katharine, “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?” [2] Katharine answered this call joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1899. Her rejection of marriage and life in high society came as a shock to many who considered her, "the prettiest sister." [6] Twelve years later she founded her own order, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament dedicated to serving Native American and African American populations. [3]

Despite her call from the Lord, Katherine dealt with people in the church hindering her mission at the founding and hate groups protesting the order's work throughout her life. Even with a direction from the pope himself, Mother Katharine had to struggle with church superiors at every step as she tried to help communities out West. The Archbishop at Philadelphia did not immediately allow Mother Katharine to send any sisters out west to aid with the missions. He was afraid of losing influence over the wealthy, endowed new religious order to bishops out west. [1] Until 1893, when the travel ban on the sisters was lifted, Katharine focused her energy on financing missions out west and around the country that aided the populations the order was formed to serve. [1] Once they were able the sisters began founding schools and working in missions around the country. Sadly, the sisters' good work was quickly met with rampant racism. The religious ordered faced severe threats from the Klu Klux Klan. In Texas, the Klan posted signs at the sisters' church and school for African American children threatening anyone that would continuing serving and "consorting" with Black people. After praying for protection, a tornado destroyed two Klan buildings in the town. [2] The order carried on despite such persecution to found many more schools including Xavier University, the first and only historically Black, Catholic college in the United States.

St. Francis de Sales school was the first school the Sisters of the Blessed sacrament found for African American students and it to met with protests and discrimination. The school is located in Powhatan, Virginia in a beautiful building overlooking St. James River. Due to the stone work and architecture of the building the school was nicknamed "Rock Castle." [3] Mother Katharine chose this location to found the school for girls because her sister Louise and her husband had already founded St. Elma's Academy for young Black men at a nearby location. [5] When Mother Katharine and the nine sisters that would make up the faculty first came to the property, they learned that the barn had already been burned down by protesters. [2] Tuition for the school was free or very cheap depending on what each student could afford. The order saw it as their duty to not only serve the children in their schools but the families and communities of their students as well. The sisters did much outreach in the Powhatan community even in households plagued with disease. They also visited and ministered to prisoners nearby, especially those on death row. [2]

The life and ministry of Mother Katharine Drexel has carried on through her order to today. The saint was so widely loved that her cause for canonization began very shortly after her death in 1955. Saints must have at least two miracles credited to them and Katharine's both have to do with hearing. Her intercession brought about the healing of one man's eardrum and another little girl's deafness. She was canonized as a Saint in 2001. [7] Saint Katharine Drexel is the second American born Catholic saint. At the time of her death there were 501 members in her order. The numbers have declined and recently the original motherhouse property was sold so that the sisters could move to a smaller place where it is easier to care for the more elderly members. The work that the order has done still remains a beautiful chapter in American history.

[1] Butler, Anne M. Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. University of North Carolina Press., 2012.

[2] Hughes, Cheryl C. D.. Katharine Drexel : The Riches-To-Rags Life Story of an American Catholic Saint, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central,

[3] Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Accessed May 19th 2021.

[4] Bresie, Amanda. Remapping the History of Catholicism in the United States. Catholic University of America Press.

[5] Virginia Humanities, “St. Francis de Sales,” AfroVirginia, accessed May 19, 2021,

[6] Biddle, Cordelia F. Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel. Westholme Publishing, 2014.

[7] Our Patron Saint - Saint Katharine Drexel, St. Katharine Drexel Mission. Accessed May 19th 2021.

[8] Burton, Katherine. The Door of Hope: The Story of Katherine Drexel. Bethlehem Books.

Image Sources(Click to expand)