St. Francis de Sales

Historical Significance

St. Francis de Sales school for girls opened on September 8, 1899 in Powhatan, Virginia, the first school Mother Katharine Drexel would build for African Americans. Katharine Drexel was born in 1858, the daughter of Francis Drexel, a banking magnate. Her family were devout Catholics and renowned for their charity work, distributing food, clothing and money to the poor from their mansion near Philadelphia. In 1891, at the age of 30, Drexel entered a convent and used her $20 million inheritance to establish a missionary order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. By the time of her death in 1955, Katharine Drexel had built and organized 55 such schools throughout the South as well as in several urban areas in northern states. She used funds from her family inheritance (estimated at 25 million dollars) to build the schools, furnish the classrooms, and hire faculty. Tuition at St. Francis de Sales was $60 a year, and scholarships were offered to those students who could not afford to pay the admission fees. Drexel chose the site because several years earlier, her sister Louise Drexel Morrell and her husband, Colonel Edward Morrell, had built a school for African-American young men on the adjacent property (Belmead/St. Emma's Academy). St Francis de Sales closed in 1970 after providing education to African-American girls for over seventy years. The building was abandoned and falling into disrepair when a foundation was established in October of 2006 to organize an emergency stabilization campaign and develop a long term preservation solution consistent with the school’s original mission. In May 2007, St. Francis de Sales was added to Preservation Virginia’s list of "Virginia’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites."

Katherine Drexel's order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, was ultimately responsible for founding 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans, and 55 schools for African Americans. In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Sister Katharine Drexel a saint. 

Physical Description

St. Francis de Sales overlooks the James River and is located within one-half mile of St. Emma's Military Academy, the school started by Colonel Edward Morrell and Louise Drexel Morrell for African-American young men. The building is approximately 75,000 square feet and rests on a 25-acre parcel of land, and includes a bell tower and a Baroque Greek Revival three-story chapel. No structural changes have been made to the building since the early 1950s. The grounds include lawns, playing fields, an open pasture, and outlying buildings such as the former boiler facility with attached classroom, a tenant house and Quonset house.

Geographical and Contact Information

5004 Cartersville Road
Powhatan, Virginia
23139
Phone: 804-598-8938

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “St. Francis de Sales,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed November 24, 2017, http://www.aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/401.

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