Bensalem shrine to St. Katharine Drexel to be sold

Sister Donna Breslin, president of the order of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, stands in the chapel next to the shrine of St. Katharine Drexel.

Nearly 125 years ago, the woman who would become only the second American-born saint left her gilded-age Philadelphia family and poured her $20 million inheritance into a religious order.

Over decades, Katharine Drexel's congregation grew to more than 600 sisters, running schools designed to uplift minority populations long before the civil rights era.

But the passion of St. Katharine, who died in 1955 and was canonized in 2000, couldn't shield the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament from the declining membership and financial pressures straining most Roman Catholic orders.

On Tuesday, its leaders announced the once-unthinkable: They will sell the 44-acre Bensalem estate hosting the order's mother house and the shrine with the saint's tomb, as well as more than 2,200 acres in Virginia, where its two schools once stood.

"The properties are too large for our current and future needs, and for our financial resources," said Sister Donna Breslin, the order's president. They reached the decision, she said, "after prayer, study, and reflection."

The order said the shrine at 1663 Bristol Pike would remain open to visitors through the end of 2017. At some point, St. Katharine's remains will be transferred to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Center City.

Pilgrims devoted to the secluded shrine and its landscaped lower Bucks County grounds may find its relocation to the city "difficult," Breslin said Tuesday during an interview at the massive marble tomb, flanked by votive candles and topped by a ceramic relief of angels.

"But we feel that in a sense this will be St. Katharine's returning to her second home," she said. "The cathedral is where her family worshipped, and it's where she formed her faith."

In a statement, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput called it "an honor and a blessing to accept this responsibility" for the care of the saint's remains. The archdiocese will also take over care of much of the archival materials, which include writings by St. Katharine, documents from the congregation's history, and records kept by sisters over the years.

The proceeds from the sales will go toward the order's ministry work and to support its retired sisters. About 50 still live at the Bensalem mother house, many in their 80s and 90s and in nursing care. They will be relocated.

"It is leaving home," Breslin said. "It's not easy. But we believe this is what God is asking of us."

News of the sale seems almost untimely: The order plans a two-day celebration this summer to mark its 125th anniversary.

Katharine Drexel established the group in 1891. Its full name - the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People - sounds dated and is rarely used. But the sisters became known for their outreach to minorities and commitment to civil rights.

Nearly a century ago, the order's founder was demanding that African Americans attending Mass in the Southern churches she built be allowed to sit in pews parallel to those occupied by whites - not in the rear of the church.

The Powhatan, Va., property was acquired by her brother-in-law in the early 1890s and later transferred to the congregation. The schools there - St. Francis de Sales and St. Emma - closed in the early 1970s. And while other ministry work has taken place at the Virginia properties since, officials said continuing those efforts was no longer financially sustainable.

The Bensalem campus, home to the order's central administration, was also fading. Some of the 10 buildings, half of which were built before 1933, have not seen much use for as long as eight years, according to Breslin. Two are vacant, others are underutilized, and the aging structures require constant maintenance.

The order still maintains a school in Arizona. And its sisters help out in parishes.

But in a trend across religious communities, their numbers continue to shrink. About half of its 104 members are retired, and only three sisters have professed final vows since St. Katharine's canonization 16 years ago, Breslin said, adding, "We haven't had any women enter [as novices] in several years."

Still, the shrine typically draws several thousand visitors annually. It got a boost during last year's World Meeting of Families and papal visit to Philadelphia, when 50 to 60 tour buses brought pilgrims to the site, which was open for extended hours. Pope Francis even made St. Katharine a focus of his homily during Mass at the basilica.

On Tuesday, Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo said he was "saddened and shocked" by the news of the move.

"I pray these sacred grounds can be saved in some manner," he said in a statement, noting that he attended St. Charles Borromeo Elementary School across the street from the shrine.

The order's former size is evident in the majestic 1891 Gothic-style chapel, where 112 large, carved and polished oak chairs sit facing the center aisle, little used by the sisters.

But at the shrine's vestibule, Breslin pointed out the simple oak desk, chairs, and kneelers where St. Katharine prayed and worked, and the narrow wooden wheelchair the maintenance staff built when she grew infirm. Despite her inherited wealth, Breslin said, "she lived a life of great simplicity," even mending her own shoes.

Tuesday afternoon, a seat was occupied by one of the saint's fondest devotees.

"This is my second home," said Trudy Still-Brown, 83, of Torresdale, as she gazed on the distant altar.

"My grandmother Julia came here at 11" as an orphan "and worked for Mother Katharine [in the laundry] till she was 93," said Still-Brown, a retired chemistry and biology teacher in the Philadelphia public schools.

Her other grandmother also worked at the mother house, where her grandfather drove St. Katharine's "old Model T," and her mother, aunt, and uncle were all born there. She comes twice a week to pray and volunteer, she said.

Still-Brown said she was "grateful" for all that the mother house and school and sisters had given her family.

But the announcement of the sale was not a surprise.

"I could see it coming," she said.

ebabay@philly.com

215-854-2153@EmilyBabay