Must-See Catholic Sites in Philadelphia
World Meeting of Families’ Host City’s History and Saints
In just a few months, the world will descend on Philadelphia to take part in the World Meeting of Families and to get as close as possible to Pope Francis on his first visit to the United States.
Along with the events planned at the World Meeting of Families conference, there will be more events going on in Philadelphia that week in September than any of us can imagine. And while they are all certain to be informative and inspiring, trying to figure out what to do and where to go could become overwhelming. I’m here to help you with all of that.
I’ve lived and worked in and around Philadelphia for the past 13 years. As the producer and host of The Faithful Traveler, a Catholic travel series on EWTN that features Catholic shrines and places of pilgrimage around the world, I have become quite familiar with the shrines and historic churches in and around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In fact, we filmed at four of the five Philadelphia-area shrines for our first series on East Coast shrines.
So as you plan your visit to Philadelphia, whether it be before, during or after the World Meeting of Families, take my advice, as a local in the know, and make sure you visit these spectacular sacred sites that will enchant you, inspire you and raise your mind and heart to God.
St. John Neumann
Located at the Church of St. Peter the Apostle, this shrine (StJohnNeumann.org) was once home to Philadelphia’s fourth bishop and America’s first male and bishop to be canonized a saint.
People come from all over the world to pray before St. John’s body, entombed in a glass casket underneath the altar in the lower level of the shrine. Even Pope St. John Paul II prayed here, when he visited the shrine in 1979. Visitors can learn about his life as they admire the intricate mosaic and beautifully designed stained-glass windows that illustrate events from his life and his many important accomplishments. A nearby museum features relics and other articles he used to grow in holiness or to help others do the same.
In the breathtaking upper church, visitors can imagine the diminutive bishop, with his heavy accent, going about his priestly duties. Here, he celebrated Mass, heard confessions and preached his homilies.
One of my favorite things in this church is the side chapel that features colorful windows of St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Order, which St. John joined, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, St. Gerard, St. Clement Hofbauer and the man they all loved: Jesus. This shrine is a good reminder that one need not travel outside of the country to visit a truly sacred site.
While the shrine was already beautiful, it has been undergoing renovations and improvements in preparation for the World Meeting of Families.
St. Katharine Drexel
Like St. John Neumann, Katharine Drexel was a tireless worker for the kingdom of God. Known as Katie to her loved ones, the “world’s richest nun” to outsiders and Mother Drexel to the religious community she founded, this industrious saint devoted not only her vast fortune, but her entire life to God and to those least loved by society at the time: American Indians and African-Americans.
The shrine (KatharineDrexel.org/national-shrine/mission-center/) is located in Bensalem, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, where Mother Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and a school for black children. Today, you can still meet sisters on its large grounds, and it’s a great place to visit, especially when the weather is nice. The beautiful chapel Mother Drexel built for her students and sisters in Christ is a great way to learn about her. The Stations of the Cross made in France testify to her knowledge of the world, the stained-glass windows are dedicated to saints tied to her family members, and the angels holding the Blessed Sacrament carved into the wooden pews reveal two of her favorite things: angels and the Eucharist. A small museum features her habit — she was small, yet she was fierce! The shoes she wore for 10 years and the pencil nubs she wrote with show her strong desire to take little for herself in order to give more to others.
St. Rita of Cascia
South Philly is known around the country as a neighborhood with Italian roots, and back in 1907, when this shrine was built, it was bustling with Italian immigrants, many of whom were proud of their newly canonized saint: Rita of Cascia. The Augustinians built this shrine (SaintRitaShrine.org) to minister to this community, and, while the neighborhood is changing around them, they’re still there.
This is is one of the most beautifully decorated shrines I’ve seen, and that is entirely due to parishioner and artist Anthony Visco. The lower shrine features his life-size statues of St. Rita receiving her stigmata from an image of Christ the Triumphant, and her three patron saints — Augustine, John the Baptist and Nicholas of Tolentino — surround her. His moving painting of St. Rita as a peacemaker is in the background.
Upstairs, colorful windows show visitors some of the important moments in St. Rita’s life — entering the convent, receiving the stigmata, the gifting of the miracle of the rose (near the end of her life, she requested a rose from her garden, and her cousin found one blooming in January) and her death. This shrine is a great place to learn about the life and legacy of this saint, who has long and erroneously been believed to have been an abused wife. The Augustinians do wonders in teaching the truth about her life and why, despite the confusion, she remains a powerful patron saint of impossible causes.
Miraculous Medal Shrine
This beautiful shrine (CAMMOnline.org), located just outside of the Center City District of Philadelphia, is dedicated to spreading the story of the Miraculous Medal and the Blessed Virgin Mary’s apparition to St. Catherine Labouré in Paris in 1830. The shrine features two of the most beautiful statues of Mary I’ve ever seen, both of which regularly have many people praying before them. Another favorite of mine at this shrine: the large and unusually designed Stations of the Cross. They almost have a comic-book style to them, but I find them to be very moving. This shrine has had a perpetual novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal going strong since 1930. Every Monday, people fill the pews to pray for favors or in thanksgiving of favors granted.
Visitors can see one of only 10 remaining medals from the first lot created in 1832, a piece of the original chair covering on which Mary sat during the first apparition to St. Catherine and an exact replica of the chair that can still be seen today at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Paris. Across the street is a beautiful museum housing many amazing works of sacred art.
Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul
Opened in 1864, the basilica (CathedralPhila.org) is the largest brownstone structure in Philadelphia and the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania. It is a huge space (shown in photo), which I often find to be somewhat dark. But then I am reminded that the lack of street-level windows was something the building’s designer did on purpose — the very high clerestory windows would be hard to smash by anti-Catholic “Know Nothings” of the day. In fact, legend has it that the architect and construction workers threw rocks as high as they could to determine how high they should put the windows.
Today, this basilica houses shrines to local saints Katharine Drexel and John Neumann, as well as to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.
Enjoy your Philly sightseeing!
Diana von Glahn
is producer and host of
Photo courtesy of
The Faithful Traveler, LLC;
used with permission
If You Can Make It
Old St. Joseph’s (OldStJoseph.org/blog/): Philadelphia’s first Catholic church
Old St. Mary’s (OldStMary.com): the city’s first cathedral, where many members of the Continental Congress celebrated Mass, including visits from non-Catholics George Washington and John Adams.
St. Augustine’s (St-AugustineChurch.com): The first permanent establishment of the Augustine Order in the country burned down during the anti-Catholic Nativist riots of 1844 and has been featured in the films The Sixth Sense and Shooter.
Nat’l Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa (Czestochowa.us): This huge and beautiful shrine in the outskirts of Philadelphia features a replica of the famous shrine at Jasna Gora, Poland.
St. John the Evangelist: The country’s first Gothic church and the diocesan cathedral from 1838-1864, this spectacular church is run by the Capuchins.
Chapel of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters (the Pink Sisters) (AdorationSisters.org): Devoted to immersing themselves in Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, the Pink Sisters pray for the city and the world. While the sisters are cloistered, their perpetual adoration chapel is open to the public for Eucharistic adoration (6:30am-6pm).
Shrine of St. Gianna Beretta Molla (SaintGianna.org/stgiannashrine.htm): This shrine dedicated to the Italian pro-life wife, mother and pediatrician is located at the Nativity of Our Lord Church in Warminster, Pa.
- April 19-May 2, 2015