Francis Anthony Drexel

Francis A. Drexel

St. Francis de Sales Industrial School in Eddington, Pa.

St. Francis de Sales Industrial School

Drexel Sisters and Catholic Education

Elizabeth, Katharine, and Louise Drexel, the daughters of Francis A. Drexel, dedicated their fortunes to funding Catholic education. The inheritance from their father was considered one of the largest in the nation in 1885. Elizabeth invested her energies in establishing and maintaining the St. Francis de Sales’ Industrial School in Eddington, Pennsylvania, about 17 miles north of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. The school's mission was to provide orphaned boys with lodging and an education in a trade.

During their privileged childhood the sisters were highly educated by private tutors, including Mary Bernice Cassidy, their strict and encouraging governess. In the wake of the American Civil War that left so many widows and orphans in Philadelphia, their mother, Emma Bouvier Drexel, began an undertaking of direct giving. She opened the family home three afternoons a week to distribute rent money, medicine, and clothing. This substantial direct assistance, valued at $20,000 annually, left a lasting impression on the three sisters. The influence of these women and the faith and practices of Catholicism guided the sisters’ upbringing, which they spent between the family's home in the city at 1503 Walnut Street and a country mansion in Torresdale, northeast of Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Drexel Smith died in 1890, and her share of their father’s fortune redistributed to her younger sisters. Louise Drexel Morrell, the daughter of Francis and his second wife, Emma Bouvier, took over the finances of St. Francis at that time. In 1892, Elizabeth extended the school into another, Drexmoor, on S. 9th Street in Philadelphia as a home for young men who had attended St. Francis Industrial School and worked in the city.

While Katharine Drexel would cause a scandal when she left society to form a Catholic order and was later canonized by the Church for her work, Louise Morrell was equally devoted to philanthropy in the area of Catholic education. Read more about Louise on the Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archidiosces of Philadelphia website.

Photo portrait of Katharine Drexel

Katharine Drexel

Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Motherhouse in Cornwells Heights, Pa.

Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Motherhouse, Cornwells Heights, Pa.

Saint Katharine Drexel

Katharine considered a religious vocation after the death of her stepmother Emma in 1883. A private audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1887, as well as her close friendship with Vicar of Nebraska James O'Connor and other clergy, led Katharine to choose a religious life. This decision would allow her to single-mindedly pursue her vision of education while maintaining control over her fortune, handling both the spiritual and financial aspects of her order's administration.

Following Vicar O'Connor's reports on the conditions under which Native American tribes were forced to live in the northwestern United States, Francis Drexel's family funded a number Catholic mission schools in the late 1870s. The father and daughters traveled throughout the United States in the 1880s; these travels convinced Katharine that she wished to dedicate her life to advancing educational opportunities for Native American and African American communities. 

On Febuary 12, 1891, Katharine took her religious vows and immediately established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Ten novices and three postulants lived temporarily in the Torresdale mansion until a Motherhouse in nearby Cornwells Heights was completed.

Four Sisters set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico on June 13, 1894, and open St. Catherine Indian School among the Pueblo people. At its peak, the order operated sixty missions and schools for Native American and African American people. This includes Xavier University of Louisiana, which was founded as a high school in 1915 and added a four-year college program in 1925.

Find out more: Cordelia Frances Biddle wrote a contemporary biography of Saint Katharine. The Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia holds Katharine’s personal papers and the papers of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Photograph portrait of George W. Childs and Anthony J. Drexel

George W. Childs and Anthony J. Drexel

Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industries. Harper's Weekly January 2, 1892

Illustration of the Drexel Institute, Harper's Weekly January 2, 1892

The Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry

Inspired by the rising number of educational opportunities for women through schools like that established by Matthew Vassar in 1861, and counseled by his wife Ellen and friend George W. Childs, A.J. Drexel began to form the idea of founding a technical school for women. He intended this school to be his personal legacy. In 1886, he and Childs helped fund trade classes at the New Century Guild of Working Women founded by Philadelphia feminist Eliza Sproat Turner. His close relationship with his nieces Elizabeth, Katharine, and Louise also fed his ideas. The mission for such a school would be to provide practical education for the modern world, while also engaging students in appreciation of arts and literature. The importance of the arts was the influence of A.J.’s own early education from his father and day school teacher, who both emphasized studying music, languages, and art. The friendship of Childs and Drexel is often given credit for bringing the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry to fruition, but it must be noted that Ellen Rozet Drexel and a number of women in Drexel's life advocated for the inclusion of women’s education in every aspect of its founding.

At the time, there was a need for education more suited to Philadelphia’s workers in the expanding and shifting industrial landscape. As a manufacturing center, the city needed skilled labor from its rising population. While there were already distinguished and elite schools in the area, the city lacked an industrial school specifically for the training in skilled technical jobs. An 1892 article about the Drexel Institute in the Public Ledger reads: “its purpose is to thoroughly instruct and train young men and women for successfully engaging in artistic, scientific, and industrial pursuits…It aims to supply that which the “masses,” not the few, need and want…” The Institute's administration and curriculum was particularly influenced by the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, as well as the technical schools of Europe.

Drexel Institute library charging desk

Drexel Institute library, located in the southwest corner on the first floor of the Main Building.

Corner of the Reference department in the Drexel Institute library

Reference department, Drexel Institute library.

Meet the Drexels