Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

When Francis Martin Drexel (1792–1863) arrived in Philadelphia from the Austrian territory of Tyrol in 1817, he might have established a family of artisans—he was an accomplished artist and musician. Instead, his interest in finance, coupled with his business savvy, earned him a niche as patriarch of one of the wealthiest, most philanthropic families in the United States.

Drexel’s sons, Francis Anthony (1824–1885) — father of Elizabeth L., Katharine M., and Louise B.— Anthony Joseph (1826–1893), and Joseph William (1833–1888), followed in their father’s banking footsteps, becoming partners with J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), internationally known financier and banker who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his day. For her generosity and selflessness, Pope John Paul II canonized Mother M. Katharine Drexel a saint in 2000 (see “Mother and Servant of the Indian and Negro Races: Philadelphia’s Sainted Katharine Drexel” by William C. Kashatus in this issue). Her earliest partners in a life-time of building more than 300 missions and schools for Native Americans and African Americans were her equally altruistic and philanthropic sisters, Elizabeth and Louise.

Elizabeth Langstroth Drexel was born August 27, 1855. She and Katharine Mary Drexel, born November 26, 1858, were the daughters of Drexel and Hannah Jane Langstroth (1826–1858), who died one month after Katharine’s birth. Drexel’s second wife, Emma Mary Bouvier (1833–1883), a devout Roman Catholic and great-grandaunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, was the sisters’ primary maternal influence.

Born on October 2, 1863, Louise Bouvier Drexel was, like her sisters, described as a kindly individual. When she married Edward de Veaux Morrell (1863–1917) in 1889, the New York Times described her as “moderately tall, with a graceful figure, dark eyes, a brilliant complexion, and strong womanly features.” Emma Drexel, who espoused strong faith and socially conscious principles, was well loved and respected by her twostepdaughters, who called her mother, never stepmother. The Drexels profoundly influenced their daughters, in not only strong Catholic beliefs and daily prayer, but also through tutoring, extensive travel, charity, and awareness of the plight of the poor and uneducated. Their father and uncles gave the young Drexel women lessons in financial affairs, urging them to carefully analyze a charitable organization before committing funds to it. They learned how to reap the greatest benefits possible for the undereducated and impoverished people they sought to help.

As children, they helped their mother who, as often as three afternoons each week, opened the rear door of their stately Rittenhouse Square home to help the poor. The Drexels dispensed food, clothing, money, and medicine — as much as $20,000 yearly, an astonishing sum in the nineteenth century and the equivalent of nearly $350,000 today. Emma Drexel kept careful records of the recipients and their progress. Instead of giving cash directly to families with an alcohol abuse problem, she paid their rent or purchased coal for them.

In 1871, Francis Drexel purchased a ninety-acre summer home the family named St. Michel in the Torresdale section of Philadelphia. Despite a break from their studies, the sisters each had specific responsibilities. Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth and eleven-year-old Katharine taught Sunday school classes. As many as fifty children of farm workers made the weekly trek to the family chapel at St. Michel.

Katharine Drexel cited the influence of Helen Hunt Jackson’s exposé, A Century of Dishonor, first published in 1881, in which the author described broken treaties and the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans. Even before knowing of Hunt’s book, however, the Drexel family had made their first contributions to Native Americans. Within five years, the family was responsible for a chain of simple missions between the Great Lakes and the Mexican border.

Elizabeth, Katharine, and Louise Drexel endured some of their darkest days when their mother died in 1883, followed two years later by their father. After a brief mourning period, during which they lived with their uncle and aunt, Anthony and Ellen B. Rozet Drexel, they resumed charitable work. “In his independent and altruistic nieces,” wrote author Dan Rottenberg in The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, “Tony found something that his own self-absorbed children seemed to lack, with the result that Tony may have lavished more attention on his orphaned nieces than on his own children.” He hired a private railroad car so his nieces could see, firsthand, the deplorable conditions of Indian reservations in the West. To reach some missions, Elizabeth and Louise raced across the prairies on horseback, while Katharine, a less confident equestrian, traveled by carriage.

A private audience with Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican in 1887 inspired Katharine to eventually establish her own Catholic order and reinforced the sisters’ commitment to charity. Mother M. Katharine Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891, and began channeling twenty million dollars of her trust fund income to charity.

In early 1890, Elizabeth married Walter George Smith (1854–1924), a prominent Philadelphia attorney. During an extended grand tour of Europe while pregnant for the first time, she became ill and returned home in September. She died on September 24 and the baby was stillborn. Before her death, Elizabeth had established one of Pennsylvania’s first trade schools for orphaned boys of all races, St. Francis Industrial School in Eddington, Bucks County. She died before completing the endowment, and her sisters assumed financial responsibility for the school.

To deter fortune seekers and suitors of questionable character, Francis M. Drexel specified in his will that if his daughters died without children — which proved to be the case — his estate, estimated at his death to amount to $250,000,000 in today’s money, would be shared by specific charities, and not devolved to any spouses. This apparently was of little, if any, concern to Morrell and Smith, both of whom actively participated in the family’s charitable works. After his sister-in-law Elizabeth’s death, Morrell devoted himself to continuing her altruistic vision and to furthering the work of Mother M. Katharine, who referred to her sisters’ spouses as brothers and never as brothers-in-law.

In 1893, Louise and Edward Morrell purchased the former antebellum Belmead Plantation in Powhatan, Virginia, which they deeded to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and where Mother M. Katharine established St. Emma Industrial and Agricultural Institute. Named to honor their mother, the school educated young black men. Newspapers published by both white and black owners praised Louise Morrell for her magnanimity to African American institutions and projects, such as St. Emma, St. Francis Industrial School, the Josephite Fathers, and a levee along the Mississippi River. She also built the Church of St. Edward in Rock Castle, Virginia, and St. Michael’s Shrine, Torresdale, where her sister Elizabeth is entombed. Her obituary in the New York Times estimated Louise donated more than six million of her seven-million-dollar trust fund income to charity.

The Morrells built St. Edward’s Convent in Bar Harbor, Maine, now the headquarters of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, where Mother M. Katharine stayed while visiting her widowed sister at Thirlstane, the large summer home she and her husband had built in 1916. Louise dedicated the chapel on the second floor of the convent to the memory of her late husband. Louise died suddenly on November 5, 1945, from a cerebral hemorrhage, and the couple’s art collection went to Xavier University, New Orleans, the nation’s only black Catholic college, founded by Katharine in 1915. Countless individuals who received food, clothing, medical assistance, education, or spiritual refuge, owed their betterment in life to the Drexel sisters, one a saint, the other two saintly.