Katharine Drexel and Elizabeth Ann Seton—”Sister Saints” Who Changed Education in the United States Forever

These two brave and unselfish women devoted their lives to educating poor children and ministering to the needy. We can see their legacies today in the religious communities they founded, and the thousands of Catholic schools across our nation.

One recent Wednesday afternoon found me racing between two nearby towns to pick up one child at work and another child at basketball practice. I arrived home just in time to turn over my car to my teenage son who was headed to a friend’s house to work on a science project.

My dad, who raised nine of us, once joked that the primary purposes of marriage were “procreation, education, and … transportation.”

Transportation certainly is one of the unique challenges for many of us raising children today. No matter how much I try to simplify our schedules, there’s always another practice, another game, another meeting, another birthday party to drive our kids to.

But “education” comes with its own set of challenges as well. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (CCC 2223).

We all have this responsibility, but what that education looks like varies from family to family. We homeschooled all of our children when they were younger, and many of them transitioned to attending public school by the time they were high schoolers. Our kids have also taken classes online and a few attended a charter school for a while.

These varied experiences have taught me that there is no “one right way” to educate our children, that there are pros and cons to every option, and that it’s a privilege to have access to as many different forms of education as we do.

St. Katharine Drexel, whose feast day we celebrate March 3, knew the importance of education and the difference that access to education can make — especially in the lives of impoverished and marginalized members of our society. In this way, she and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were “sister saints” with much in common.

In our nation today, many studies show the value of education in combating poverty, especially among minorities and impoverished communities. For African Americans, for example, average annual income increases $6,700 for each gain in education, from high school graduation through college. What studies can show us scientifically, however, St. Katharine and St. Elizabeth Ann seemed to know intuitively.

Though the two women were not contemporaries (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton lived 1774-1821 and St. Katharine Drexel lived 1858-1955), both were American women who founded religious communities that provided charitable assistance and quality education to those in need.

Mother Seton’s congregations focused on educating children of poor Catholic families. Her system of schooling inspired the Catholic parochial school system we know in the United States today. St. Katharine Drexel focused on providing education for poor Native American and African American children.

In 1975, Elizabeth Ann Seton became the first person born in the United States to be canonized a saint, and Katharine Drexel became the second native-born American saint when she was canonized in 2000.

In the years following the lifetimes of these two remarkable women the Catholic Church in the United States went on to accomplish great things in American education. Today, the Catholic Church runs the largest network of private schools in the nation, with more than 6,400 schools educating more than 1.8 million children.

These two brave and unselfish women focused on educating poor children as a means of giving dignity to their families and helping to break cycles of poverty and racism. We can see their legacy continue today through the religious communities they founded and thousands of Catholic schools that welcome students of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, providing financial assistance to those in need.

St. Elizabeth Ann and St. Katharine knew very well that providing quality education requires sacrifice, and after more than two dozen years of parenting, I know this too. These late winter days can be tough ones for me, living here in New Hampshire, toughing out the never-ending dreary days of winter as I balance working at home with homeschooling my two youngest sons.

This year, though, I am inspired and encouraged by the generous example of these two pioneers in American education. On March 3, we might just celebrate St. Katharine Drexel’s feast day by reading a little extra in our history books – finding out what more we can learn from the life stories of two great American women saints. Thanks be to God for their great examples!

DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent,You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.