This Philadelphia Pilgrim’s Progress Included A Corset And A Music School

“Don’t ask me to do anything like that again anytime soon,” my pastor said after he accompanied a group of parishioners to Philadelphia during Pope Francis’ September 2015 visit there.

Being in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people who crowded the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff would give anyone cause for pause. I, however, am still chastising myself for not taking advantage of that opportunity. So, I decided I’d make my own pilgrimage to some of those same Philadelphia sites that the Pope visited — and add a few related experiences that he didn’t have.

As I savored every last drop of the caramelized banana ice cream that the Franklin Fountain had concocted for the Pope’s visit, I reflected on my progress. Going to Independence Hall, where the Pope spoke about religious freedom and immigration – check. Walking along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where he visited the Festival of Families and attended a Prayer Vigil with the World Meeting of Families – check. Standing outside the Philadelphia Art Museum, where he celebrated Mass for the World Meeting of Families – check. Paying a Sunday visit to the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where the Pope also said Mass, seeing where a Saint and her uncle lived, and meeting her relative – those were next.

First stop: the cathedral. Designed to resemble the Lombard Church of St. Charles in Rome, Italy, it was begun in 1846. Philadelphia’s fourth Catholic bishop, John Neumann, oversaw the completion of its construction in 1859.

Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Neumann was a studious Bohemian priest who liked astronomy, botany and playing the guitar. He also kept a diary, recording his struggles and his victories in trying to understand and accomplish God’s will for him. In 1836, he set out for the United States as a missionary, eventually becoming the first Redemptorist priest in the United States before he was named bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. The 49-year-old Neumann died of apoplexy in 1860; the cause for his beatification began in 1885 and was achieved in 1963, and he was canonized as the only male American Saint in 1977. While St. John Neumann’s official shrine is at St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, where he is buried, the cathedral maintains another beautiful shrine to him.Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Here, a marble statue of Neumann stands next to a mosaic illustrating scenes from his life. The phrase upon which he shaped his life, “Soli Deo (For God Alone),” appears amid symbols of the 80 churches built during his years in Philadelphia, the religious communities he introduced to the diocese, and his founding of the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States.Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

The cathedral also maintains a shrine to another Saint with an even stronger connection to Philadelphia: Katharine Drexel.

Born in 1858, Katharine was a privileged heiress who lived at 1503 Walnut Street, a place near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square that’s now getting a facelift.

Katharine Drexel's childhood home

Her cousin, George Childs Drexel, lived nearby in a beautiful mansion at 1726 Locust Street, now the home of the Curtis Institute of Music. Wrought-iron entrance doors open into the home’s original reception area, with its wood-paneled walls, carved limestone mantel, stained-glass skylight and gilded Steinway piano, became the site of the school’s weekly Wednesday-afternoon tea tradition.

George Childs Drexel House, Curtis Institute of Music

Katharine began considering a vocation as early as 1883, but confessed feelings of uncertainty. How could she bear poverty when she had never been deprived of luxuries? Would she become weary of doing the same thing day after day, year after year? She tested herself by eating rations and dressing in unbecoming colors, trying to discern God’s special mission for her. She professed her vows in 1891, went on to establish the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious community dedicated to the education of Native Americans and African-Americans that founded Xavier University of Louisiana. She was canonized on October 1, 2000.

While St. Katharine Drexel’s official shrine is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, the cathedral’s shrine to her features a statue of her, as well as an altar that she and her two sisters donated sisters in memory of their father and stepmother.

Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

The Saint is depicted in another mosaic mural commemorating the centennial of the archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Catholic Church’s place in Pennsylvania history.

Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

And that brings me to the best Philadelphia experience the Pope didn’t have. I had lunch with Cordelia Frances Biddle, a descendant of Francis Martin Drexel, the Saint’s grandfather.

Mrs. Biddle is an author of mysteries set in Victorian-era Philadelphia who recreates that world by doing archival research at the Library Company of Philadelphia and reading “Philadelphia Gothic” murder mysteries like The Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall, which George Lippard wrote in 1845.

She talked to us about how etiquette books helped Victorians learn how to present themselves well. She invited us to try on a corset so we could understand what those fashions in those hand-colored illustrations of Godey’s Lady’s Book would have been like to wear. And she told us how she became interested in writing about her saintly relative.

Cordelia Frances BiddleShe described what it was like to attend the canonization in Rome, standing in St. Peter’s Square in the pouring rain, and then seeing the clouds part, the sun come out and a rainbow appear when the Pope proclaimed her relative a Saint. The cheering crowds made her realize how exciting it was that this new Saint was her relative, and she wanted to tell her story. What was Katharine like as a person, she wondered. Who was she as a child? How did her personality and strength of character evolve?

But she didn’t think she was good enough to write it. She kept putting it aside, but kept coming back to it because she thought Saint Katharine Drexel’s life story could inspire others to make the world a better place. She recalled reading archival documents that described what Katharine was like as a girl, battling with her sisters with icicles in Switzerland, someone who liked to have fun and was vain at times. That’s what convinced her to keep writing. When she told the archivist at the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament’s Mother House that she was having difficulties writing Katharine’s story, the archivist responded, “That’s Katharine. She’s humble, and you need to talk to her about it.” She did, and it helped her finish Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel.

For more, read St. John Neumann, 1811-1860, Fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, by Robert H. Wilson; He Spared Himself in Nothing: Essays on the Life and Thought of St. John Nepomucene Neumann, C.Ss.R., edited by Joseph F. Chorpenning; John Neumann: Harvester of Souls, by Tom Langan; Seventy-Five Years of the Curtis Institute of Music, 1924-1999: A Narrative Portrait, by Diana Burgwyn; and My Philadelphia Father, by Cordelia Drexel Biddle, a memoir of her father Anthony J. Drexel Biddle that inspired The Happiest Millionaire, a film starring Fred McMurray and Greer Garson.

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