The name of Mother Katharine Drexel is familiar to many Catholics both within and outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. However, her sister, Louise Drexel Morrell is little remembered. Only the Morrell Park section of Northeast Philadelphia, which occupies the former site of her family estate “San Jose”, as well as Morrell Avenue in the same area, bears memory to her name. Yet, until her death on November 5, 1945, Louise Drexel Morrell was one of the leading Catholic philanthropists of her time.
Louise Drexel Morrell was the youngest of the three Drexel sisters. Elizabeth, born August 27, 1855 and Katharine, born November 26, 1858, were the daughters of prominent Philadelphia banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Hannah Longstreth Drexel. Hannah died in December 1858 from complications resulting from Katherine’s birth. Francis later married Emma Mary Bouvier in April 1860 and Louise was born on October 2, 1863.
The Drexels were one of the richest families in Philadelphia and the three sisters were raised in a style suitable to such wealth. They enjoyed private tutors and trips to Europe. However, their parents also gave them a deep spirituality and a sense of responsibility for those less fortunate. Anthony Drexel was a leading contributor to a host of Catholic organizations and activities. Emma Bouvier Drexel was known as the “Lady Bountiful” of Philadelphia due to her charitable activities including distributing food and clothing to the poor from her Walnut Street home.
When Anthony Drexel died in 1885 he left an estate worth over 15 million dollars, a staggering total at that time. One tenth of this was to be distributed to various Catholic institutions. The remainder was divided between the three sisters. According to the provisions of the will, if any of the sisters died without children, her share of the inheritance would go to the survivors. When Elizabeth Drexel Smith and her premature baby died during childbirth in 1890, her share was divided between Katharine and Louise.
Katharine used her inheritance to found and support the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Louise Morrell donated millions of dollars to various educational, religious and charitable organizations throughout her lifetime. However, there were several institutions which received her special attention.
In 1888, Elizabeth Drexel Smith established St. Francis Industrial School for Boys in Eddington. When Elizabeth died in 1890, Louise took over as the major financial supporter of the school. In 1892, as an offshoot of St. Francis, Louise established the Drexmoor on South 9th Street as a home for boys who had graduated from St. Francis and were working in the city. In 1914, the Drexmoor was given to the Salesian’s of Don Bosco. Louise then became the major financial sponsor of the Don Bosco Institute which provided social services to Italian children.
In 1895, Louise and her husband Edward Morrel founded St. Emma’s Agricultural and Industrial School in Virginia to provide young African-American men with secular and religious education. The plight of African-Americans was an area of intense concern for Louise. She was one of the early supporters of the Catholic Interracial Movement.
Although extremely wealthy and socially prominent, Louise Morrell preferred a life of simplicity and hard work. Her former secretary, Emanuel Friedmen, relates that Louise considered useful work a blessing from God and would spend her days answering correspondence from the large number of charities she helped support and overseeing the affairs of St. Joseph’s and St. Emma’s Industrial Schools. When not working she would toil in her greenhouse or walk the grounds of her estate. During the depression she distributed food and clothing to the needy and funded a soup kitchen.
Louise was also deeply religious. She considered her most satisfying accomplishment to be the erection of the Shrine of St. Michael of the True Cross on the grounds of the old Drexel estate at St. Michel, now the site of Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division. The Shrine served as a pilgrimage church and a retreat house. It later included a mission center for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Perhaps Louise’s greatest, yet least apparent accomplishment, lies in her relationship with her sister, Mother Katherine Drexel. In her book The Francis A. Drexel Family, Sister M. Dolores conveys the deep attachment between the two sisters. Louise served as a source of emotional and psychological support for Katherine during her arduous labors to establish and maintain the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. As they grew older, Mother Katharine referred to Louise as “My God’s Blessing to Me”.
Mother Katharine Drexel is deservedly a prominent figure in the history of Catholic Philadelphia. Her sister, Louise Drexel Morrell, deserves her own place in that history.