St. Katharine Drexel’s tomb will be moved to Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA—The remains of St. Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, will be transferred in the coming weeks from the crypt under the chapel of St. Elizabeth Convent, the congregation’s Bensalem motherhouse, to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Philadelphia.

The transfer is precipitated by the decision of the sisters to sell the property because of declining numbers of the order.

“The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have once again given the faithful of the archdiocese a tremendous gift,” said Father G. Dennis Gill, rector of the cathedral, where he hosted a news conference July 24. “With the new opportunity to honor St. Katharine at the cathedral, even more people will be exposed to her extraordinary life and example.”

Mother Katharine was born Catherine Mary Drexel Nov. 26, 1858, the second child of wealthy investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Elizabeth Langstroth Drexel. Her mother died almost immediately after her birth, and she and her older sister, Elizabeth (Smith), were raised by their loving stepmother, Emma Bouvier Drexel, along with a younger sister of that marriage, Louise (Morrell).

Deeply religious, Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891 with the specific ministry of service to the two most persecuted races in American society — the “Indians and Colored People,” the common terms for Native American and African-American people in that era.

Mother Katharine died March 3, 1955, at age 97. She was canonized in 2000 with March 3 as her feast day.

“St. Katharine’s message is as relevant today as it was 125 years ago,” said Sister Donna Breslin, the president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, at the news conference. “She was a contemporary saint and we continue to pray to her for an end to racism and deeply rooted prejudices.”

The new location for St. Katharine’s tomb will be on the left rear of the cathedral, next to the Drexel altar, which was given to the cathedral in the late 19th century by St. Katharine and her sisters to honor Francis Drexel and Emma Bouvier Drexel. It is the only altar in the cathedral that memorializes members of the laity.

The tomb itself will look virtually the same as it looked at St. Elizabeth Convent. The focus will be the stone sarcophagus that has contained St. Katharine’s coffin since her entombment.

Above it will be the same image from the shrine that depicts three angels in adoration before a monstrance, a symbol of the Eucharist, because of St. Katharine’s great devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

It is not uncommon for cathedrals and churches to have the remains of saints, Father Gill explained. But very often the founders of religious congregations have their tombs in a chapel of their congregation.

For example, the remains of St. John Neumann are at his shrine at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia, which since its foundation has been conducted by the Redemptorist Fathers. The saint was a member of that order and was the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. He was canonized in 1977.

Preparations for the new resting place for St. Katharine were funded by a grant from the Connelly Foundation.

“The Connelly Foundation’s support for this project comes from reverence and respect for a true outstanding Philadelphian who gave totally of herself to help others,” said Josephine C. Mandeville, the chair of the Connelly Foundation, which supports many charitable and educational endeavors in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

In her lifetime, Mother Katharine’s only desire was to be buried in the convent cemetery alongside the pioneer sisters who had preceded her in death. During her years of quiet retirement before her death, the leadership of the congregation decided she should be entombed in a crypt shrine, and this was prepared with the permission of Cardinal Dennis Dougherty.

That her remains should now come to the cathedral is appropriate. Although it was not technically their parish, the Drexel family often worshipped there and her father was a generous donor to its construction (1846-1864).

At her death, Mother Katharine’s funeral was celebrated in the cathedral. At that time, Bishop Joseph McShea, who preached at her funeral Mass, said, “I think she was a saint. I am convinced she was a saint and have no knowledge of any dedicated woman, no personal knowledge, that would exceed her in sanctity.”

For many years, the cathedral was the site of an annual memorial Mass long before her 2000 canonization.

While the new tomb for St. Katharine will be available for veneration and prayer by the faithful shortly after it is installed, a formal Mass of dedication will be celebrated Nov. 18 by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

Other plans, also possible through the Connelly Foundation grant, include several new programs to promote the life, work and witness of St. Katharine Drexel as well as a new website and online documentary.

Her contributions were also important to the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. In 1901, St. Katharine gave funds to what would become St. James the Greater Church in Walterboro for school renovation and church expansion. Later, she began annual subsidies for the lay teacher’s salary and donated money for the construction of a sound church structure. By 1903, St. Peter Parish in Charleston, dedicated by Bishop Patrick Lynch in 1868 for black Catholics on the peninsula, had more students in its school — and still more applicants — than the building could accommodate. St. Katharine gave the parish the financial assistance needed to relocate and expand its school on Society Street and to found Immaculate Conception School on Sheppard Street. Further, she provided annual subsidies for the Sisters of Mercy and later the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who provided instruction on both campuses.

St. Katharine continually monitored the needs and progress of both communities through correspondence with local lay teachers, pastors, and Bishops Northrop, Russell, and Walsh, all of whom served the diocese. When a new, much larger school was proposed for Immaculate Conception at the corner of Coming and Morris Streets, St. Katharine traveled to Charleston in 1929 to survey the situation before backing it.

By 1933, St. Katharine was subsidizing three schools, three churches, four priests, 16 sisters, and two lay teachers for black Catholic communities in the diocese. The Great Depression took its toll, however, and forced St. Katharine to reduce benefits. In 1937, she withdrew her support from peninsular Charleston and focused on the isolated parish of St. James the Greater. There she continued her support until her death.

By Lou Baldwin/Catholic News Service

Brian Fahey also contributed to this article. Fahey is the archivist for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C.