Meet Philadelphia’s Hometown Saints
Sts. John Neumann and Katharine Drexel Welcome Families
As hosts to the World Meeting of Families, Philadelphia Catholics look forward to sharing their Catholic heritage with the world. Two of the archdiocese’s prizes are its hometown saints: St. John Nepomucene Neumann and St. Katharine Drexel, both of whom have national shrines dedicated to them in the city. Both saints gave their lives for the flocks to whom they ministered.
St. John Neumann
St. John Neumann was born on March 28, 1811, in Prachatitz, Bohemia, to devout parents, who raised him in the practice of regular prayer, daily Mass and sacrifice. Named after the martyr St. John Nepomucene, young John often “played” Mass with his friends and served as an altar boy. At the age of 20, he entered the seminary with a fervor to become a priest. There, he learned about the immigrants traveling to the “new world” of America, who often had to go without the sacraments due to the lack of priests. He was determined to change that, eventually coming to America.
In New York City, he made his way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street (today’s Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral), where, on June 25, 1836, he was ordained a priest by Bishop John Dubois, New York City’s third bishop. He then boarded a train to the Niagara Falls area, where he spent four years ministering to the German-speaking Catholic community. During his time there, he visited as many of his flock as he could, crossing the half-million acres of densely wooded countryside on foot or donkey.
But life for Father Neumann was lonely in upstate New York. After reading the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, or the Redemptorists, he became convinced that a life of community was what he needed. In 1840, with permission from his bishop, John traveled to Pittsburgh, where he became the first man on American soil to join the Redemptorists.
Eventually, his reputation as a man of simplicity and holiness spread far and wide. Bishop Francis Kenrick, the third bishop of Philadelphia, made his way to Father Neumann in Baltimore, where he was pastor of St. Alphonsus Church, so that this holy man could hear his confession. That sealed the deal. On Feb. 5, 1852, at the recommendation of Bishop Kenrick, Pope Pius IX appointed Father John Neumann the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. Like most saints, Father Neumann considered himself completely unworthy and prayed for God’s strength and guidance. He chose as his episcopal motto Passio Christi Conforta Me (“Passion of Christ, Strengthen Me”), which comes from the Anima Christi, a 14th-century prayer.
God didn’t let him down. In his eight years as Philadelphia’s bishop, John Neumann was a tireless worker, often ignoring his own health and needs for the needs of his flock. Among his many accomplishments in a diocese that included the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware, Bishop Neumann oversaw work on the building of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul; had more than 80 churches built; introduced 40 Hours’ Eucharistic devotion to the United States; founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the country, increasing the number of Catholic schools in the diocese from two to 100; invited a number of religious orders to the country, including the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the School Sisters of Notre Dame; and encouraged existing orders like the Sisters of Mercy and the black order of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. He even founded his own order: the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of Philadelphia. In 1854, he traveled to Rome to witness Pope Pius IX declare the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and he continued to spread its devotion upon his return.
On Jan. 5, 1860, Bishop Neumann collapsed and died on Vine Street. Today, he is buried beneath the altar in the lower chapel at the national shrine devoted to him at the Church of St. Peter the Apostle, where he often ministered to his beloved immigrants. His legacy lives on in this city, in the school system and regular 40 Hours’ Eucharistic devotion that goes on throughout the archdiocese. His humility and holiness continues to heal and inspire those who seek his intercession.
St. Katharine Drexel
Although Katharine Drexel was born into a very wealthy family on Nov. 26, 1858, she was raised to value philanthropy over materialism, recognizing that the blessings she and her family had were gifts from God meant to be shared with others. The Drexel legacy in Philadelphia is long, and it is a result of the charitable outlook of its members that their name lives on in the city’s hospitals and universities.
Through her exposure to African Americans and American Indians on trips with her father, Katharine decided to devote her life to the most poor and oppressed members of America. After years of philanthropic work as a layperson, Katharine entered the convent at the age of 31. Two years later, on Feb. 12, 1891, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (according to how American Indians and blacks were referenced in those days). During Mother Katharine’s life, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament ran more than 60 schools across the country, including Xavier University in New Orleans, the first college for African Americans in the United States. The sisters founded 145 missions, 12 schools for American Indians and 50 schools for African Americans throughout the United States.
Katharine took her vow of poverty very seriously, feeling that every penny she spent on herself was a penny she didn’t spend on others. She wore the same shoes for 10 years, wrote with pencils until they became nubs and responded to letters in the margins to save paper. Her goal was to show Christ’s love to those whom society hated, and she gave everything she had to convey that love. She had a great love and devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and to this day, the Blessed Sacrament is adored daily at the shrine that bears her name.
In 1935, Mother Katharine had a heart attack that forced her to slow down, but it gave her time to devote to Eucharistic adoration. She died at the motherhouse — today the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel — 20 years later, at the age of 96, and she is buried in a beautiful crypt just below the chapel she had built for her beloved sisters and students.
These Philly saints’ lives are a wonderful inspiration for us all.
Diana von Glahn is producer
and host of EWTN’s
Images courtesy of
Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
and the National Shrine of St. John Neumann
- Sept. 20-Oct. 3, 2015