St. John the Evangelist Church in Philadelphia: Of Local Saints and Devotion to Our Lady

Eucharistic adoration has been offered for decades.

St. John the Evangelist Church in downtown Philadelphia was established in 1830 and officially dedicated on Passion Sunday in 1832.
St. John the Evangelist Church in downtown Philadelphia was established in 1830 and officially dedicated on Passion Sunday in 1832. (photo: EQRoy/Shutterstock and courtesy photo)

St. John the Evangelist’s feast day on Dec. 27 falls between Christmas and New Year’s Day (celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God). It is perfectly placed close to Christmas because John was the beloved disciple who wrote the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation and three epistles. Parishioners at churches named for him, including St. John the Evangelist Church in downtown Philadelphia, will surely celebrate his feast day well.

This historic church is a short stroll from Independence Square. Once visitors see the church, just seven blocks in a nearly straight line from Liberty Bell Pavilion and Independence Mall, visitors can strive to picture the neighborhood as Sts. John Neumann and Katharine Drexel knew it when they came to St. John the Evangelist’s while working their way to sainthood.

St. John the Evangelist was here in its earlier edifice before both future saints entered it. This year, the church is celebrating the 190th anniversary of its dedication. Exactly 170 years ago, the street must have been clogged with the horses and carriages of many worshippers who arrived at St. John’s to see Bishop Neumann installed as the fourth shepherd of Philadelphia and then reside for a time at this church.

The scene was much quieter a few years later, when Anthony Drexel’s family became parishioners. Here, daughter Katharine received her first Holy Communion in 1870 and was also confirmed.

As a young girl contemplating her vocation, she surely prayed before the Blessed Mother shrine altar where the statue of the Immaculate Conception was blessed in 1857.

And it must have been quiet on May 7, 1889, when this saint-in-the-making came to Mass with her family just before she left Philadelphia to head to Pittsburgh to start her religious formation with the Sisters of Mercy before founding her own Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Surely the bells in the twin towers, balanced at either end of the façade like stately sentinels, were ringing that morning.

A third saint “visited” St. John the Evangelist Church in 2015. During the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the body of St. Maria Goretti, then touring many states in a “Pilgrimage of Mercy,” came to St. John’s for public veneration and Masses.


Heavenly Beauty

St. John’s exterior looks much like it did when built, but its interior is different than the 19th-century one familiar to Philadelphia’s two saints.

The stained-glass windows were created by the legendary studios of Franz Meyer of Munich, outstanding master craftsmen of the art.

One window is like a stained-glass snapshot of St. John, portrayed as robed in red and white and holding an open book in one hand and a quill pen in the other. The elaborate Gothic ornamentation that frames the scene has two angels on pedestals serenading and inspiring St. John.

Visitors and the faithful easily find themselves gazing at it and spending some minutes contemplating what the Evangelist was about to write. Focusing on a beloved passage or two that he wrote — like the “Bread of Life” discourse or his description of the New Jerusalem — is an excellent way to begin.

In this depiction, the Favorite Disciple’s face glows with an ethereal expression, the most luminous part of the brightly colored scene, especially with the golden halo. John appears as gazing into the future — perhaps envisioning the supernatural realities of the Book of Revelation. If one stained-glass “picture” is worth a thousand words, without doubt, this one is it. 

And, as visitors will notice, near this window, there’s a display box with the mitre of Bishop Neumann.


Prominence of Our Lady

Another reason Sts. John and Katharine wouldn’t recognize most of this interior — aside from the major restoration and renovation finished in 1990, and the more recent repainting, although in the exact same colors — is because the interior had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire on the block in 1899.

Both saints knew well the one object to survive that fire: a white marble statue of the Immaculate Conception.

In fact, the faithful could easily assume Bishop Neumann prayed before this particular statue of our Blessed Mother. In 1854, he was in Rome and present at St. Peter’s Basilica on that blessed Dec. 8 when Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

This pristine image of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, shown wearing a gold crown yet is depicted folding her hands in humble prayer, is enshrined in the left-side altar.

Mary’s wondrous image is surrounded by an elaborately carved white marble Gothic reredos. The liturgical artistry stands out with a Gothic arch, highlighted with gold leaf woodwork and blue behind the Marian shrine altar above the statue.

Throughout this historic church, there’s myriad images that aid pray-ers to reflect on things divine. In front of where the original Communion rail would be, there stands a magnificent statue of the church’s namesake, carved of white marble and dating to 1904. This rendition shows the Evangelist with an eagle at his feet and again features a visionary gaze. The position the statue is placed also reflects that the beloved saint accompanied Mary at the foot of the cross and then became Mary’s protector after the Resurrection.

In that 1899 fire, the Immaculate Conception statue was the only statue to survive. Some scorch marks remain visible on the sculpture. 

On the opposite side of the nave, the ornate right-side altar honors St. Joseph in a shrine that perfectly matches the one dedicated to his spouse Mary’s, right down to the gold leaf highlighting on the woodwork. Both of these altars perfectly echo the splendid main altar — a vision of creamy white marble richly carved and topped with ornate Gothic marble spires.

The San Damiano Crucifix above the main altar’s centered tabernacle reflects that this parish church is, since 1991, under the stewardship of Capuchin friars.

Gorgeous woodwork highlighted with gold lace-like designs is a vision of brown and gold filling the sanctuary. It creates a fitting background for the sizeable altar.

For the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, the newer altar in front blends beautifully with the old. It presents yet another vision in white marble, with its prominently carved frieze of grapes and the twin images of the Two Hearts — Jesus’ Sacred Heart and Mary’s Immaculate Heart.

At the rear of the church, the Byzantine icon of our Blessed Mother draws not just the Slavic worshippers who visit St. John’s but many people for private prayer and veneration. In the same area, the shrine to St. Anthony is a perennially popular spot, too.


More Church Firsts

St. John the Evangelist’s has quite a history beyond the two saints Neumann and Drexel — and now a third — to be in this church. Well before St. John’s was rebuilt in 1900 and then turned into this exceptionally beautiful church after a major restoration in 1990, it had been founded in 1830, with Father John Hughes as it first pastor. He eventually became the archbishop of New York and began building St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Philadelphia might be a city of prominent “firsts,” but St. John’s claims more “firsts” of its own.

After it was officially dedicated on Passion Sunday in 1832, the church held the American premiere of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in 1834; was designated a proto-cathedral in 1838 and remained so for 25 years; welcomed the first Sisters of St. Joseph to arrive in America in 1847; and when the Great Depression began in the 20th century, the parish fed 700 people a day.

The small, neat masonry churchyard directly next to the stone church has historical roots, too. Thomas Penn-Gaskell, a Catholic convert and the great-grandson of William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia, is interred there. Another is Ana Maria Huarte de Iturbide, who, for a short while, was the first empress of Mexico. She eventually settled in Philadelphia, became a parishioner at St. John’s and inspired many others to do the same.

St. John’s remains a very active parish — and holds an additional blessing. Below the main church, in a full lower church, Eucharistic adoration has been offered six days a week for decades.

As St. John the Evangelist reminds us in his Gospel, the Bread of Life given by Jesus (Chapter 6) is the hallmark of our Catholic faith. Such devotion is one major reason why this church named in honor of the Beloved Disciple has been going strong for 190 years, always ready for more saints-in-the-making.