St. Katharine Drexel’s Tomb at Philadelphia Cathedral Named Archdiocesan Shrine

The sacred remains were transferred last year, with an increase of pilgrims seeking to visit and pray at the saint’s tomb.

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PHILADELPHIA — The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has announced that the recently constructed tomb of St. Katharine Drexel at the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul has been declared an archdiocesan shrine.

“We are the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Archdiocese Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel,” the cathedral’s rector and pastor, Father Dennis Gill, explained. 

“The tomb [had] already taken on a level of importance in the life of our local Church, being here at the cathedral,” he told CNA.

St. Katharine’s sacred remains were transferred to the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia last year. Previously, her body was buried at the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Motherhouse and Shrine in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. That shrine closed at the end of 2017, about 18 months after the sisters announced that they intended to sell the property. The smaller number of sisters found it difficult to maintain the relatively large property.

Drexel and her family attended Mass at the cathedral-basilica when the saint was a child.

A solemn celebration for the tomb’s installation was held in November and led by Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Father Gill said the cathedral quickly saw an increase of pilgrims seeking to visit and pray at the saint’s tomb. The priest then suggested the idea to the archbishop, who welcomed the decision and granted the decree on Feb. 19.

“We noticed very quickly that people where coming in larger numbers with each week, to come and visit the tomb and pray,” he said.

“Once it was established that the tomb had become a place of significant pilgrimage, visitation and prayer, that was sufficient enough to warrant the title of ‘archdiocesan shrine.’”

The site is now a shrine at the archdiocesan level, but Father Gill hopes it will soon be considered a national shrine. He said such a title has steeper qualifications — including a program of devotion to the saint and catechesis about the saint — and must be petitioned by a bishop to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Father Gill said the shrine has already achieved nearly all of the requirements for designation as a national shrine. He expressed hope that a petition for this title will be submitted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the coming months.

The shrine is important to the community’s faith, he said, because it recognizes someone who grappled with the faith and chose Christ. He said the shrine is a light, proving to pilgrims that this Christian obedience is possible, no matter the generation.

“I think what it does is it makes available to people someone who lived the Catholic faith in a very sincere way, and [it] is an inspiration,” he said. “I feel like it’s this real bright spot.”

St. Katharine was canonized in 2000 and is only the second saint to have been born in America. Having come from a wealthy a family in Philadelphia, she gave up her life of privilege to serve the needs of racial minorities.  

During a trip to Rome when she was 20, she was granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII. There, she explained that missionary priests were needed to evangelize and serve those in need. The Pope then asked her to become a missionary herself, which solidified her own desire to join religious life.

She entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in 1889, with the idea of beginning her own congregation to specifically attend to the needs of the Native-American and African-American communities. She founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891.

More than 30 mission foundations were established, and 400 sisters served across 17 states by 1940.

Her order opened 50 schools for African-American children, 12 schools for Native-American children, and more than 140 missions for these populations.

Her order founded what would eventually become Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic university in the United States. Today, a school named after her stands on the site of the original college.

She died in 1955 at the age of 96, and the canonization process began 11 years later.

At the tomb’s installation last year, Archbishop Chaput highlighted the saintly qualities of her saintly life. He said her life teaches Catholics many things, especially a dedication to compassion and charity, even at a young age.

“Katharine Drexel teaches us that holiness, which means total generosity of one’s life, is for the young and not just the old,” he said. 

“[She] is a model for young adults of our time … would that they would follow her example of commitment to justice, would that they wanted to follow in her footsteps of holiness.”


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