Time Capsule • March 9, 2020

St. Katharine Drexel attending a graduation at St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural School for boys (1923). To her left is her half-sister, Louise Morrell. To her right is Father Vincent Dever, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who worked in the African American community there. (Photo/Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia)


In 1900, while at a train stop in Columbia, Virginia, located halfway between Richmond and Charlottesville, Mother Katharine Drexel glimpsed a cross through the trees. She asked her traveling companion, a religious sister of her order, if it was a Catholic church. Later, that sister, Mother Mercedes, learned that the Wakeham Chapel was indeed a Catholic church, and was under the care of a black Catholic layman.

Father Richard Wakeham, a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice (Sulpicians), had built the chapel so that he could celebrate Mass there when he visited his parents (1884). St. Peter’s Cathedral in Richmond administered the chapel at least until the death of the priest’s mother, Catherine Wakeham (1891). Mass had not been regularly celebrated in the chapel for several years when the religious sisters found it.

With the support of Katharine Drexel, Mother Mercedes promptly began a Sunday school for African American adults and children. The chapel also became a mission for black Catholics: St. Joseph’s. It was placed under the care of the Society of St. Joseph for Foreign Missions, better known as the Josephites, in Richmond, and eventually became a parish (1967). Today the church is called the St. Joseph’s Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel. The name was changed to honor Katharine Drexel, the second native-born American to be canonized (2000).

Katharine Drexel (1858–1955) had come to Virginia in 1900 to visit the two schools that she, together with her half-sister, Louise Morrell (1863–1945), had opened in Rock Castle (Powhatan County) for black youth: St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural College for boys (1895), and St. Francis de Sales School for girls (1899). The Drexels used the fortune they inherited to fund charitable causes. In Katharine’s case, this included the work of the religious order she founded to care for African Americans and Indians (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament).

Located on an estate called Belmead, St. Francis and St. Emma’s provided vocational training, secondary education, and religious instruction to generations of African Americans. These institutions were closed, in 1970 and 1972 respectively, due to declining enrollment, increasing costs, and the accessibility of integrated public schools. (The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament sold the Belmead estate in 2019.)

In 1923, Mother Drexel attended a graduation at St. Emma’s. The picture taken at that event is the only photograph of St. Katharine Drexel in Virginia. Her feast day is March 3.

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