Mother Katharine Drexel and the birth of Xavier University 2018-07-27T14:09:10-05:00

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Mother Katharine Drexel and the birth of Xavier University


Mother Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who established an order of nuns dedicated to working with Native Americans and African Americans, founded Xavier University in what would be a three-step process. In 1915, Drexel and her order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, opened Xavier University Preparatory School in Uptown New Orleans. Ten years later, Xavier University became a reality with the creation of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. To give the fledgling university a separate identity and room to grow, she bought a tract at Palmetto and Pine streets in 1929 that is the nucleus of the current campus.


Xavier, the nation’s only historically black Roman Catholic institution of higher education, enrolled 3,036 students, including 716 freshmen, in the fall 2017 semester, according to the university’s website. It houses one of the state’s two pharmacy schools; the other is at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.


  • Katharine Drexel, who died in 1955, was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in October 2000 in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.
  • Drexel was born to wealth in Philadelphia in 1858. Her father, the investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel, left Drexel and her two sisters an estate of about $14 million (nearly $379 million in today’s dollars) when he died in 1885. None of that money went to Drexel’s order – he died six years before it was founded – but Drexel herself, who took a vow of poverty, distributed more than $20 million to help run missions and schools, according to a 2000 story in The Times-Picayune.
  • Drexel’s mother died five weeks after giving birth. Her father married Emma Bouvier in 1860; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was born in 1929, was her great-great-niece.
  • Katharine Drexel founded Xavier at the invitation of New Orleans Archbishop James H. Blenk.
  • Xavier Prep was established at 5116 Magazine St. on what had been the campus of Southern University, which had moved to Scotlandville in 1914.
  • Drexel was the second native-born U.S. saint and the second saint who worked in New Orleans. The first American-born saint was Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was canonized in 1975. Although she never worked in the city, a miracle attributed to her intervention occurred in 1934 at Hotel Dieu Hospital in New Orleans. The other saint who worked in New Orleans was Frances Xavier Cabrini, a naturalized citizen who had been born in Italy. In New Orleans, she founded an orphanage in the French Quarter; when she needed more space, she established one on Esplanade Avenue that became Cabrini High School. She was canonized in 1946.
  • Drexel is probably the only saint to benefit from a federal tax law, according to The income tax, which was established after Drexel began her service, was eating up her fortune. In response, Congress in 1924 passed a bill providing that people who give at least 90 percent of their income for the previous 10 years would be exempt from taxes. At the time, the website said, the only beneficiary was understood to be Drexel.


Sixty-two years after Katharine Drexel’s death, her legacy endures. The school she founded on Magazine Street has been St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School since 2013; the name was changed after alumnae stepped in to keep it operating when the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament decided to close it. Xavier University sits alongside Drexel Drive — the stretch of Palmetto Street on the downtown side of South Carrollton Avenue got the new name in 2000 — and it has a modernistic St. Katharine Drexel Chapel that was designed by the famed architect César Pelli. Because of a rigorous pre-med program created during Norman Francis’ 47 years as president, Xavier has consistently sent more black students to medical schools than any other college in the country.