Bishop Thompson recalls key figures in Blessed Katharine Drexel’s canonization process



CHARLESTON — A woman who used her $20 million inheritance to found schools and missions for African-Americans and Native Americans will become the second American-born saint following her canonization at a jubilee liturgy Oct. 1 in St. Peter’s Square.

Blessed Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, died in 1955 at age 96. She was beatified in 1988, and earlier this year, church authorities officially recognized a miracle attributed to Mother Drexel’s intercession. That cleared the way for her canonization, completing a process that began 36 years ago in Philadelphia.

Retired Bishop David B. Thompson, originally a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, knew three of the key people working in the canonization process for Mother Drexel, and was close friends with them all.

Last week, he sat down with The Miscellany to reminisce about his relationships with these individuals.

The first, Bishop Joseph McShea, was a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and later was appointed ordinary of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., serving as its founding bishop.

Bishop McShea was serving as pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church, the parish of Mother Drexel, when she died in 1955. Bishop Thompson was living in the rectory with Bishop McShea at the time when Cardinal John O’Hara of Philadelphia asked Bishop McShea to give the eulogy at the funeral Mass.

“Cardinal O’Hara valued Bishop McShea’s knowledge, gift of writing, and enthusiasm for homilies,” Bishop Thompson said.

He then recalled how Bishop McShea did his own typing, producing a flowing funeral homily for Mother Drexel’s service. After Bishop McShea finished the project, he set the homily aside on his desk, and left the house to attend a conference.

While he was gone, some Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, an order of German nuns who served as caretakers of the residence, accidentally threw out the homily, thinking it was scratch paper.

Bishop Thompson humorously said he was an eyewitness to Bishop McShea’s retyping of the homily.

In the early 1980s, then Father Joseph Martino, now Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Martino, interviewed Bishop McShea as part of the canonization process, collecting information for the “positio” or biography for why Mother Drexel should be made a saint.

Bishop Thompson arranged for and was present for the interview, and said he listened yet again to Bishop McShea’s “lost homily tragedy.”

However, it was another comment from Bishop McShea that Bishop Thompson said struck him in particular.

At times Mother Drexel has been criticized for the fact that there were no black or Native American vocations to her order. However, Bishop McShea said that Mother Drexel encouraged candidates to go to convents for black sisters in order to keep those communities strong.

“I touch the hem of her garment because of my relationship to Bishop McShea and because of my witness to the story of his homily,” Bishop Thompson said.

He added that Bishop McShea’s funeral homily is part of the acts of canonization for Mother Drexel.

Bishop Thompson commented that when he was principal of Notre Dame High School from 1957 to 1961, he even sponsored a young lady into the Blessed Sacrament Sisters.

The second cleric to work on the sainthood process, Bishop Martino, wrote the “positio” for the canonization. The document is 1,500 pages long and took two years to write. Bishop Martino holds a doctorate in church history and a licentiate in theology from Gregorian University in Rome.

Bishop Thompson invited the auxiliary bishop, who was then a professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, to be one of the presenters at a weeklong workshop for diocesan seminarians on ecumenism and interfaith relations several years ago. Bishop Martino stayed at the bishop’s residence in Charleston during his visit.

“Bishop Martino and I go back a bit,” said Bishop Thompson. “I am honored and delighted to be a friend of the person who did so much to promote the canonization.”

The third important person in the sainthood process was Msgr. James McGrath, who holds a doctorate in canon law and is a retired priest from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is also the retired vice postulator (Philadelphia postulator) not only for Mother Drexel, but also for St. John Neumann. His full-time work was as judicial vicar for the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Under the old code of canon law, paperwork for the canonization process was supervised by diocesan Tribunals, said Bishop Thompson. The official postulator for the sainthood cause is in Rome.

“Msgr. McGrath talked about Blessed Katharine’s heroic virtues,” said Bishop Thompson. “She fought for the cause of blacks during segregation and was concerned for their spirituality.”

The bishop also told of how Msgr. McGrath helped the Charleston Diocesan Tribunal during his visits here. “He visited the offices, reviewed the operation and responded with suggestions,” the bishop said. “He even helped with a case, and the Tribunal here then assisted him with a case in Philadelphia.”

Msgr. McGrath is now living in Bradenton, Fla., as a cancer patient. Bishop Thompson and his twin brother recently visited with him and celebrated the sacrament of the sick.

Bishop Thompson stressed how remarkable it was that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, during the tenure of Cardinal John Krol, had processed two saints, St. John Neumann and Mother Drexel, although the latter was finished during the episcopacy of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

Media reports state that close to 3,000 people from the United States, including 1,500 from the Philadelphia Archdiocese, will be attending the canonization ceremonies at the Vatican on Oct. 1.

Bishop Thompson will be making his 36th trip to Italy to take part in the festivities, although his primary reason for traveling there is to be a participant in the bishop’s millennium program in Rome from Oct. 2 to 10.

Bishop Thompson will participate in the canonization Mass, not as a concelebrant since that number is limited, but in the “choir” with other cardinals, bishops, and archbishops, he said.

The bishop did the same in 1997 during a pilgrimage to Rome with the cathedral choir when St. Therese of Lisieux was canonized.

He will be staying in the Casa Santa Martha, a newly constructed residence for bishop’s visiting Rome. Its primary purpose is as housing for cardinals in the next conclave to elect the new pope.

Bishop Thompson will be traveling with Msgr. Thomas Birch, a retired priest from the Diocese of Allentown who comes down to South Carolina every year during February and assists at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston and Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach.