On March 19, 1889, Katharine Drexel decided to found a new order to advance the cause of Native-American and African-American education. On February 12, 1891, Katharine pronounced her vows as the first member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. She added one vow to the usual ones of poverty, chastity, and obedience:
“To be the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races according to the rule of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; and not to undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian and Colored races.”
The new order, the first to minister to the needs of Native-Americans and African-Americans, grew slowly. In 1892, twelve postulates received the habit of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS). Ultimately, more than 100 SBS educational intuitions, including Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, would be founded across 23 states and 3 countries.
Being from Philadelphia and having the order’s Motherhouse located right outside the city in Cornwells Heights, Katharine Drexel and the SBS paid special attention to the needs of African Americans in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Her work to build schools for African-Americans began before she entered the religious life and continued as SBS staffed these schools.
While still a lay person, Katharine’s generosity enabled a Sunday school for African-American children to open at 832 Pine Street in 1888. In 1892, that operation became St. Peter Claver’s Parish, the city’s first Roman Catholic Parish for African-Americans, located at 12th and Lombard Street. Many of the first sisters to join the SBS had taught previously at St. Peter Claver School. In 1908, Sisters of the Blessed took over the teaching of the boy classes, while the girls’ classes were conducted by the Sisters of Notre Dame. The SBS taught at the school until 1972.
In 1904, two members of the SBS conducted religious Sunday classes at a North Philadelphia home. Katharine Drexel purchased the property in 1907 to serve as a Catholic center for African-Americans. Soon a new parish for Black Catholics was formed under the name, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. The SBS would teach at the school until 1967.
In 1909, Katharine Drexel received permission from Archbishop Ryan to establish a mission in Germantown. Under the patron of St. Catherine of Siena, the church was built in 1914 and the school opened the following year. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament created an outreach program that extended to four Germantown locations. Their ministry included catechetical classes, home visitations, and educational instruction.
The SBS presence in West Philadelphia dates to 1913 with catechetical classes in local homes and as classes grew to in St. Ignatius parish. In 1924, Cardinal Dougherty ordered a new parish, called Holy Savior, be made for the Black Catholics in the area. Katharine Drexel offered support by purchasing a building that would serve as a parish chapel. Four years later, the parish of St. Ignatius, originally a German ethnic parish, was converted to serve the needs of the ever-growing African-American population in the area. The sisters would continue to run the school and separate catechetical classes for the years to come.
The order also ran a boarding school/orphanage out of their Motherhouse called Holy Providence. The school was the first official work the order undertook, beginning when the sisters were still at their temporary convent while St. Elizabeth Motherhouse was being built. When the school opened as Holy Providence a year later in 1892, it had grown from one student to over a hundred. Holy Providence would also serve as an orphanage for both boys and girls and would remain in operation until 1971.
Saint Katharine Drexel and the work of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament played an important role in the evangelism and education of African-Americans both in the city of Philadelphia and around the country.
CHRC holds the archives for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, including the writings of St. Katharine Drexel.