After nursing her stepmother through a long illness, Katherine realized that wealth could not preserve one from suffering and death. During a European tour, when young Katherine met Pope Leo XIII and asked him to send more missionaries to the U.S., the pope startled her by saying, “Why don’t you become a missionary?” This is what Katherine did, giving away her fortune and founding the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
In 1894 Mother Drexel, as Katherine became known, opened the first mission school for Indians in New Mexico; its success quickly led to the founding of numerous other schools by her order, including schools for native Americans west of the Mississippi River and schools for blacks in the southern U.S. One of Katherine’s greatest achievements was the establishment in 1915 of Xavier University in New Orleans — the first American university for blacks.
By 1942 she had a system of black Catholic schools in thirteen states, along with fifty mission schools for Indians in sixteen states — despite the opposition of segregationists (who burned one of her schools in Pennsylvania). At the age of seventy-seven, Mother Drexel was forced to retire after suffering a heart attack; she spent the remaining nineteen years of her life in constant prayer and meditation.