4 Great and Historic Churches of Philadelphia
A look at some of the gems in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: Old St. Mary's, Old St. Joseph's, the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel and the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul.
Philadelphia has a terrific Catholic history with many beautiful churches for visitors to enjoy. Here are a few notable ones.
Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul
This is the mother church of Philadelphia, where the bishop has his chair (cathedra). Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have celebrated Mass there.
It has a magnificent interior with high domes, columns, chandelier, marble altars and many statues and paintings. One notable feature is its high stained glass windows. It opened in 1864, two years after the anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” riots in Philadelphia. Its designers built the windows high up enough to prevent anti-Catholic rock throwers from reaching them.
It is open daily and has daily Masses; you may be able to find a Cathedral ambassador to take you on a tour. The Basilica also has a magnificent old organ; check the website to see if any concert performances are scheduled. Take a short walk up Benjamin Franklin Parkway and you’ll reach the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its famous “Rocky steps” featured in the Sylvester Stallone movies.
Old Saint Joseph Church/Old Saint Mary’s
These two churches are located in Philly’s historic section and are the oldest and second oldest Catholic churches in the city. Old Saint Joseph’s was founded in 1733, and Old Saint Mary’s in 1763. Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are just a few blocks away.
Both churches were built in an era when Catholics were persecuted in the 13 colonies. Before the American Revolution and adoption of the U.S. Constitution, restrictions on Catholic life in the colonies included prohibitions on the public celebration of the Mass and the establishment of Catholic schools; Catholics often could not vote or hold public office. Catholics did enjoy religious freedom in Pennsylvania—often attributed to the influence of Benjamin Franklin—particularly around the City of Philadelphia. However, anti-Catholic biases were still widespread, hence Catholic churches built at the time were disguised on the outside to look like other buildings. This is particularly the case with Old Saint Joseph’s.
The interior of Old Saint Joseph’s, however, features beautiful Catholic architecture and art; there is still a communion rail. There are also colorful stained glass windows.
Old Saint Mary’s is a short walk down the street. Its notable guests in the colonial era included George Washington and John Adams. Adams commented on the beauty of the church and its music after his visit. Saint Mary’s is known for its historic cemetery behind the church. Among the most notable of those interred includes Commodore John Barry (1745-1803), the father of the American Navy.
St. Elizabeth Chapel, Bensalem
Drive about 15 minutes north of Philadelphia and you can visit the St. Elizabeth Chapel at the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel. The shrine was established in 1891 by the saint herself, and was her residence throughout her life (when she was not traveling to visit her community’s many missions and schools).
The shrine was the motherhouse of Mother Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and once was home to several hundred sisters. It has 10 magnificent old stone buildings, the centerpiece being the St. Elizabeth Chapel. The chapel is long and narrow, and has choir seating once used by the sisters. The motherhouse was used to train the sisters before they were sent out to the community’s missions; it was also a home to the retired sisters.
The community has fewer than 100 nuns left, with most in their 80s and 90s. They recently were relocated to other retirement facilities in the area, and the shrine is slated to close at the end of 2017. In the meantime, visitors are welcome to come during the day.
Highlights of a visit to the chapel include the crypt below which has the remains of St. Katharine and some objects she used during her life, such as her religious habit. People can come and pray before her remains and leave prayer intentions for the sisters.
The chapel itself boasts daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. You can also see the grille behind which Mother Drexel prayed for the last 20 years of her life, after she was debilitated by a series of strokes.
Visit the gift shop nearby the chapel and buy religious goods. I met an elderly nun working there who had joined the community in its heyday in the 1940s, although she never had the chance to meet Mother Drexel. She related to me: “I thought I saw her one time at the top of some steps, but then someone told me it wasn’t her.”