Schwab was raised in a Catholic German-immigrant family and educated at St. Francis College in Loretto, Pennsylvania. He got a job in Andrew Carnegie's steel company and worked his way up to president, from which perch he organized the restructuring of the company into US Steel. He was also instrumental in the rise to prominence of Bethlehem Steel.
Schwab's connection with Catholicism was tenuous through most of his life, and he was better known for his cutthroat business practices and dissolute lifestyle than his religious devotion. When his sister became a nun, however, he donated money for a convent, and he arranged a meeting with the pope for his devout mother. After he died, his immense estate in Loretto was purchased by Franciscans and became a seminary and friary.