St. Katharine Drexel has been one active saint in the last several years. This post highlights her new shrine at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul; her life story as Philadelphia’s own revered saint; and the latest redevelopment plans of the former shrine, vacated after she was moved to the Cathedral Basilica.
St. Katharine Drexel Former Shrine Saved from Development
St. Katharine Drexel lived and worked most of her religious life at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the onsite Chapel of St. Elizabeth. The Sisters decided in 2018 to sell the campus along with the St. Elizabeth Shrine to developers due to declining numbers of the order. After a bidding process a developer was selected, Aquinas Realty. The buildings on the campus will be developed into townhomes (90), active adult rental units (260) and an assisted living facility (300 bed units).1 The Louisa Drexel Morrell building, named after Katharine Drexel’s sister, will be used for events at the complex.
The good news is Len Poncia of Aquinas Realty, will not develop the St. Elizabeth Chapel as previously planned and has assurances from Archbishop Nelson Perez of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the shrine to remain a Catholic chapel for perpetuity and the crypt to become a muti-religious cultural site.
The historic St. Elizabeth Shrine in Bensalem PA, where Mother Drexel lived and worked as head of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Current Home of St. Katharine Drexel
From the crypt under the Motherhouse at St. Elizabeth Chapel, the saint was moved in 2018 to the Saint Katharine Drexel Shrine at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, where she resides today.
The Life and Times of St. Katharine
“On March 3, 2022 we celebrated the feast of our native Philadelphia saint, Katharine Drexel. She lived a long life, close to 97 years old, being born before the civil war started in 1858 in Philadelphia. Her father is one of the richest men in the United States. Her mother dies at birth and her step mother raises her. He Dad and Stepmother were beautiful people and were really devout Catholics and even had a chapel inside their home. They would pray in the morning and her Dad would come home from work and they prayed as a family. They were a great witness to her in their charitable giving, and it was really hands on. The mother would take Katherine out and give food, clothing and shoes to the poor and in some cases bring them into the house. Their father’s belief was their great wealth was entrusted to them to be used for the common good.” 2
“Katharine had a charmed life; the best schools and activities. Around the age of 21, her step mother and father die a few months apart and Katherine is thrust into a dark period of her life; anxiety and constantly depressed and is struggling to find a purpose. She meets two priests who are missionaries and talk to her about the plight of the American Native Indians in the United States and goes on a journey to meet these people. Upon return, she is still depressed and then travels across the ocean to Italy seeking restoration. In the process she gets a meeting with Pope Leo 13th and asks him to do something about the plight of the Native American Indians, possibly to finding a religious order or any group to go minister to them. Famously, the Holy Father looks at her and says “You be the missionary, why not you?” As the story goes, she leaves the Vatican meeting and breaks into tears and unrelenting sobs. The challenge of the Holy Father moves something in her. She begins to discern if she is meant to be a religious sister. The idea of becoming a sister grows and she talks to her spiritual director and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea at first, her wealth and lifestyle would be hard to break, since she would have to live in poverty. (In todays money, her wealth is estimated at $300-400 million.) Eventually Katharine convinces the spiritual director and she goes out to the Mercy Sisters in Pittsburgh for about a year and gets some religious formation. Now in her early thirties, she starts her own order and it grows as women are attracted to this order. She then starts the Motherhouse in Philadelphia and take three years to become formed with spiritual practices and religious training. The sisters go south to the Native American community around Pueblo; and so starts the ministry of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, with orphanages, schools and services. She becomes sympathetic to the Black Community in the US. She was born during slavery times (1850) and with the Civil War being over and the slaves becoming emancipated, she sees the horrible conditions and great discrimination and starts to minister to build schools and services, famous for Xavier University of Louisiana, which she got a lot of pushback for this university for black America in early 1900’s.” 3
“She took her vow of poverty seriously, living on about a dollar a day. You could see Mothers room on tours or videos. She had a heart attack in early 70’s as she was extremely active. The doctors told her to slow down. She goes through this phase, probably not thinking she was going to live another twenty five years. She says this was her most fruitvile period of her life. She lived with incredible austerity. Meager things in her cell, from mending her own shoes to writing with a pencil so small it was hard to hold the pencil.” 4
“The world needs heroic virtue like that of Katharine Drexel.”5
Notes 2 3 4 5: The Life and Times of St. Katharine (above) is paraphrased from the feast day sermon on March 3, 2022 by Fr. Gary Pacitti, St. Basil the Great Parish, Phoenixville PA.
“The patient and the humble endurance of the cross whatever nature it may be is the highest work we have to do.” – St. Katharine Drexel
“If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor well we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them. Let us open wide our hearts it is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”
– St. Katharine Drexel
St. Katharine Drexel is back, although she never really left.
1 “Inside the plan to redevelop the former Drexel shrine in Bensalem: How historic buildings will be saved and new housing built” by Peg Quann, Bucks County Courier Times, Feb 21, 2022, Updated March 9, 2022.
Video of the latest redevelopment plans by Peg Quann, Bucks County Courier Times, Feb 21, 2022, Updated March 9, 2022:
An earlier post about the former St. Katharine Drexel Shrine: