Philadelphia’s most important churches are the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and Old St. Joseph’s Church, the oldest Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which was built in 1733.
But the City of Brotherly Love is also home to a duo of very special American shrines: St. John Neumann National Shrine and St. Katharine Drexel National Shrine and Mission Center.
St. John Neumann
St. John Neumann National Shrine is situated in the Church of St. Peter the Apostle on North Fifth Street, in the bustling urban neighborhood of Northern Liberties.
Not far from Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center, pilgrims gravitate to the lower level of the 1843 Romanesque-Revival stone church, where St. John Neumann’s body lies beneath the main altar in a glass-enclosed coffin. Nearby, there is a small museum of exhibits and photographs relating to the saint’s holy life, as well as a well-stocked gift shop.
America’s first male saint, who was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977, was revered for his unselfish dedication to immigrants and the poor.
That’s easy to understand, since he was part of the massive 19th-century immigrant movement to America. His extraordinary biography began in Prachalitz, Bohemia, on March 3, 1811, and ended on Jan. 5, 1860, when he collapsed on the street while running errands in a snowstorm (Jan. 5 is his feast day).
In between, the talented, gentle and caring man organized the first national parish for Italians in America, opened the first parochial school system and unified Catholic schools under a diocesan board.
After returning from Rome, where he attended the Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8, 1854), he founded a religious order for women, the Third Order of St. Francis of Glen Riddle.
In the same vein, he welcomed the School Sisters of Notre Dame from Munich in 1847 and secured them teaching positions in many locations.
The hardworking, dedicated Redemptorist priest was so enamored of his adopted country that he became an American citizen in 1848.
On his 41st birthday in 1852, he was consecrated the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
Today, pilgrims from all over the world flock to his shrine to seek Divine intercession from the accomplished, tireless, priest who dedicated his attention to the abandoned poor and immigrants, including the Irish, Italians and Germans who swelled the population of Philadelphia.
Currently, his fellow Redemptorists emulate the example of the selfless bishop, whose profound respect for humanity was reflected in his every act. Masses, including a Spanish Mass on Sundays at 11am, are joyous, well-attended affairs, alive with songs and congregational prayers. Not surprisingly, the crowd of supplicants around the glass coffin represent every strata of society.
St. Katharine Drexel
Twenty miles north, on Route 95, the St. Katharine Drexel National Shrine and Mission Center honors another local saint, the second American-born saint.
Catherine Marie Drexel was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 26, 1858, the second child of affluent parents Hannah and Francis Anthony Drexel. After Hannah’s tragic death, five weeks after baby Catherine’s birth, she and her older sister Elizabeth were put under the loving care of their aunt and uncle, Ellen and Anthony Drexel.
Two years later, after the marriage of their investment banker father to Emma Bouvier, the family was reunited, and a third daughter, Louise, was born three years later.
Although the Drexel girls were taught within the loving atmosphere of their home, their education was enriched with frequent trips abroad.
Many special moments captured in early photos are on view at the shrine; they depict the charming Drexel girls wearing stylish, fur-trimmed fashions.
However, this obvious pampering was always balanced with the Drexels’ sense of sharing with the less fortunate. They routinely distributed food, clothing and rent money from their lavish townhouse three times a week.
After their move to a large house in rural Torresdale, Pa., Catherine and Elizabeth taught Sunday school classes to the children of the family’s employees and neighbors.
This strong sense of empathy and duty toward others was ideal training for the girls, who, after caring for their dying stepmother, had a private audience with Pope Leo XIII in Rome to discuss the formation of a religious community to minister to the African-American and Native-American populations.
Later, at age 32, on Feb. 12, 1891, Catherine founded the order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and changed her name to Mother Katharine. Today, 115 sisters of the Blessed Sacrament continue to carry their foundress’ message across the country.
“Her choice of a name for the order came from a profound love of the Eucharist,” says Sister Pat Downs, director of the St. Katharine Drexel National Shrine and Mission Center.
“She wanted to serve the two communities in greatest need at the time. She was very caring and spiritual, yet astute and practical. She didn’t waste time and knew education would self-empower people and give them needed skills. She is a great example for 2014.”
The shrine, set on 50 bucolic acres, exudes an almost palpable aura of peace.
Inside the cluster of buildings, there is a feeling of austerity, self-sacrifice, humility and pure goodness that wordlessly narrates the tale of how Mother Katharine redirected the privileges of her lofty birthright and utilized her enormous fortune to spotlight the unpopular causes she championed.
By the time she died on March 3, 1955, at age 96, she had spent more than $20 million in establishing more than 50 missions in 16 states, where 500 sisters were teaching in 73 schools. She was canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II, and her feast day is March 3.
At the shrine, the muscular stone buildings exemplify the sturdy architecture popular in the 1890s, while an airy, arched contemporary entry becomes a welcoming front entrance.
Inside, St. Elizabeth Chapel and St. Katharine’s Crypt are peaceful, meditation-inducing spaces.
There are meeting rooms for pilgrimages and indoor and outdoor eating areas. (Prepared meals can be ordered in advance.) A museum is filled with artifacts and memorabilia from her life, including her habit, rosary, reading glasses and the black high-top boots she wore for 10 years.
Those shoes symbolize her faith, as she expressed it: “Walk more and more in God’s presence in your heart. Do more and more perfectly the task appointed. Charity begins at home, but don’t leave it there.”
Marion Fox writes from Philadelphia.
St. Katharine Drexel National Shrine and Mission Center
1663 Bristol Pike
St. John Neumann National Shrine
1019 N. Fifth St.