This long-lived American lady is an often-forgotten pioneer, who devoted her life and considerable fortune to helping American Indians and African Americans. She was not primarily concerned with civil rights, but rather with the educational and spiritual needs of minorities who were frequently treated unjustly.
Born in Philadelphia of a banking family of Austrian origin, extremely wealthy and widely respected, Katharine was the second of three daughters. Her mother died soon after Katharine was born, but her father married Emma Bouvier two years later. The family was Catholic and devout; governesses came to teach the daughters Latin, French, and music. Dr James O'Connor, much concerned with the physical and educational deprivations suffered by American Indians caused or compounded by rulers' violation of treaties, was a frequent visitor to their home. As pastor of Holmesburg, and aided by the Benedictine Abbot Marty, he worked hard to improve their condition.
Katharine ‘came out’ in society in 1878 after a rewarding trip to Europe. But she was less interested in dances and balls than in her stepmother's admirable care for the poor in the city, on whom she spent $20,000 a year. Unfortunately Emma died in 1883. Katharine and her sisters visited Europe again, this time mainly Italy. Here she saw the home of her patron Catherine of Siena and confided to Dr O'Connor her wish to become a nun. He counselled prudent delay.
Her father died in 1885. O'Connor, now bishop of Nebraska, sent two priests to tell her that the Canadians had honoured their agreements with the natives whereas the American authorities had not: consequently white settlers were still being killed. Katharine, in spite of the dangers now and later, visited the north-west around Dakota. She had now found her vocation, but first she and her sisters combined to found a Drexel Chair of Moral Theology at Washington University (D.C.).
She now entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mary in Pittsburg, living just like the other novices and nursing the sick in the Mercy hospital. After announcing her plan to found an Order to work with and for the American Indians, no fewer than twelve postulants came to join her, but Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia advised consolidation before foundations. Her Rule was based on those of the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Sisters of Mercy. Her numerous donations to missions, schools, orphanages, and dioceses were further examples of her charity.
Undeterred by the distances involved, she visited Arizona in 1900 together with the Navados peoples, in whose Hispanic-Mexican culture she was specially interested. A second visit a year later was necessary to complete mission buildings begun previously. In 1904 she was in Nashville, Tennessee, founding a school for the African children disadvantaged by racial prejudice. Elsewhere, in large cities like New York, Chicago, Columbus, and Boston, as well as in Texas (where she encountered the hostile Klu Klux Klan) and New Orleans (where she refounded Xavier University) there was pressing demand for her nuns. When she made a foundation in South Dakota in 1922, she had constructively spent her entire fortune.