Sunday, March 3 marked the first time the Feast of St. Katharine Drexel has been celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul since her remains have been moved there.
Previously they were at a shrine at St. Elizabeth Convent, the former motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the congregation she founded in 1891 to minister exclusively to African Americans and Native Americans.
Now the cathedral, the seat of the Archbishops of Philadelphia, will also be a Shrine to St. Katharine and at some future point almost certainly will be the National Shrine of St. Katharine, according to the cathedral’s pastor, Father Dennis Gill.
As the celebrant and homilist of the feast day Mass, Father Gill spoke of St. Katharine, a member of the wealthiest family in Philadelphia who spent her entire fortune on her mission of evangelization and care for the two disenfranchised minorities.
“What makes St. Katharine so remarkable is not all the things she did and the money she gave away,” Father Gill said. “It was her heart and what was taking place in her heart. She was committed to the Lord, Jesus Christ and his church. In her heart he was her Savior and Redeemer.
“Her heart was fixed on the Eucharist — the holy Mass we are celebrating now and the holy Body and Blood of Jesus that we receive.”
St. Katharine in life was no stranger to the cathedral. She worshiped there often as a child and young woman with her beloved parents. Her tomb, which replicates its appearance in Bensalem, is located in the rear of the cathedral nave adjacent to the altar erected by her and her sisters, in memory of their beloved parents, Francis and Emma Drexel, who for their good works are arguably as worthy of canonization as Katharine herself.
There are others entombed in the cathedral that were important in the life of St. Katharine Drexel, but in a lower crypt less accessible to the public. They are Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan, who encouraged Katharine in her vocation and became her close adviser; Archbishop Edmond Prendergast and Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, who were her continued supporters in her later years.
Also there is Cardinal John Krol who never knew Katharine when she was living but whose determined support for her cause laid the groundwork to her canonization in 2000, just 45 years after her death. Cardinal Krol went home to God on March 3, 1996, the feast of St. Katharine.
When Mother Katharine died she was entombed in Bensalem, but her funeral Mass was at the Cathedral.
“She’s back home. Everything has a reason,” said Sister Donna Breslin, the current president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. “I was so impressed by the number of people praying when I went to pray at my mother’s tomb.”
Sister Faith Okerson, another member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, said, “I think this is awesome. Katharine Drexel always said the sisters were daughters of the church. What can be more appropriate than to have her here in the cathedral?”
Not everyone at the ceremony was local. Jazmine Harris French, the president of the Alumni Association of Xavier University in New Orleans, which was founded by St. Katharine, said, “She was our foundress and she inspired me. How can I not be here?”
As Sister Donna said, everything has a reason. One thing is certain, now that St. Katharine’s Shrine is in the heart of the city, many more people who love her will have an opportunity to visit.
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