Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Brenda Gaydosh


[caption id="attachment_32220" align="alignright" width="300"] The altar boys of St. Peter Claver’s Church, a black Catholic church that housed Philadelphia’s first shrine (Our Lady of Victories, 1898), pose for this 1912 photograph. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

People of faith have long revered significant religious sites, making pilgrimages for special devotion to locations that often developed into formal shrines–places regarded as holy because of their associations with sacred persons, relics, or events. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Roman Catholic churches and other faiths in the Philadelphia area established a number of shrines, often in response to changes in ethnic populations or in recognition of influential individuals. The shrines have drawn people to the region from around the world. 

Despite sometimes-violent nativism and anti-Catholicism in the Philadelphia area during the nineteenth century, Catholics came to the region in great numbers, and the Catholic Church built up parishes and a strong Catholic institutional structure. Such efforts also led to the establishment of shrines, where Catholics might practice devotions as well as reflect on and renew their faith. In 1898, Archbishop Patrick John Ryan (1831-1911) canonically erected the first shrine in Philadelphia–The Shrine of Our Lady of Victories in St. Peter Claver’s Church. Named for Peter Claver (1581-1654), a Spanish Jesuit missionary who went to Colombia to serve the slaves, the church at Twelfth and Lombard Streets was a place of worship where black Catholics felt at home. A little over one hundred years later, the doors to the church and the shrine closed due to the priest shortage in the archdiocese.  

[caption id="attachment_32221" align="alignright" width="214"] This ethereal 1880 portrait of John Neumann depicts the fourth bishop of Philadelphia in his full clerical attire. The Bishop was interred in St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia, and his remains were established as a shrine following his canonization in 1977. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Other shrines proved more enduring and attracted pilgrims worldwide. The National Shrine of St. John Neumann established at St. Peter the Apostle Church honored Bishop John Neumann (1811-60), who led the Diocese of Philadelphia from 1852 until his death. Known as the “Immigrant Shepherd” for his instrumental role in developing the Catholic faith for immigrants in Philadelphia, Neumann was running an errand in January 1860 when he collapsed in the snow not far from his new cathedral on Logan Square. The Crypt of St. Peter’s Church at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue, where Neumann’s body was placed (following his request), became a site of pilgrimage. After Neumann’s beatification by Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) in 1963 and canonization in 1977, the Church constructed the National Shrine of St. John Neumann at St. Peter’s with the remains of the saint lying under the altar.     

Neumann also played an indirect role in creating a shrine in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where in 1857 he founded the town’s first Catholic parish, the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In 1974, having considered forty-two North American churches, an episcopal committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops selected the site for the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and installed a life-size replica of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tilma (apron) image in the church sanctuary. It chose Allentown because of its distance from Mexico, which allowed those who would never travel to Mexico the opportunity to visit the shrine, and because of the parish’s devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In Doylestown, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, known as the “American Czestochowa,” developed from the work of a Polish priest, Father Michael Zembrzuski (1908-2003), who traveled to Polish parishes throughout the United States to preach in the early 1950s and dreamed of building a shrine that would become a religious and cultural center. Our Lady of Częstochowa (Black Madonna), revered by the Polish people, is an icon of the Virgin Mary housed at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland. In 1953, the Holy See gave Zembrzuski’s order, the Pauline Fathers, permission to establish a monastery in Doylestown. Less than two years later, Father Stanley Nowak (1902-1974) blessed and dedicated the monastery’s small barn chapel to Our Lady of Czestochowa, complete with a painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa by Władysław Bończa-Rutkowski (c.1840-1905). As time passed and people heard of the shrine, the small chapel proved insufficient for the needs of the larger community. In 1964, Archbishop John Krol (1910-96) led the groundbreaking ceremony for the shrine’s new foundation, which became a spiritual center especially for Polish-Americans.

[caption id="attachment_32222" align="alignright" width="251"] This prayer card featuring the portrait and prayer of Saint Katherine Drexel, a Philadelphia native, emphasizes her role as founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious order that assisted disadvantaged black and Native American communities. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Other well-known national shrines in the Philadelphia area include St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem and the Miraculous Medal Shrine (Mary’s Central Shrine) in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), a Philadelphia heiress, entered a convent in 1889 as Sister Mary Katharine and gave her millions of inheritance to improve the lives of blacks and Native Americans through missions and schools. Although she expressed a desire to live a cloistered life, Bishop James O’Connor (1823-90), a family friend and her spiritual advisor, urged her to found an order that would be active in the black and Native American communities. Less than two years later, she took her first vows as the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. The following year, she and thirteen companions moved to St. Elizabeth Convent in Bensalem, the site of the future shrine. The shrine area, built in 1949, held Drexel’s entombed remains after her death in 1955 and offered the story of Mother Katharine Drexel (canonized St. Katharine Drexel by Pope John Paul II [1920-2005] in 2000) through a variety of artifacts. In 2016, in the face of declining membership and financial pressures, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sold the Bensalem shrine but pledged to keep it open to visitors until the end of 2017.  The next year, the remains of Katharine Drexel were moved to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia.

The history of Mary’s Central Shrine began in 1875, with the building of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception attached to St. Vincent’s Seminary in Philadelphia. While Father Joseph Skelly, CM (1874-1963) served at the seminary, he received a special assignment in 1912 to raise funds for the construction of a minor seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He placed a small Marian Medal in each appeal letter that he mailed. The response to his appeal was so generous that he felt a special gratitude to Mary. In 1927, when the congregation enlarged the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Father Skelly used a section to create “Mary’s Central Shrine,” also known as the Miraculous Medal Shrine. In the millennium year, 2000, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia designated the shrine as one of six official pilgrimage sites, and in 2002, it reported that the Miraculous Medal novena (special prayers for nine consecutive days) was the most popular novena devotion in its parishes.  

During the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Roman Catholics in the region also established the Rosary Shrine at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey (1919); the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling, New Jersey (1924); the National Shrine of St. Girard in Newark, New Jersey (1977); the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Washington, New Jersey (1978); the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia on South Broad Street in Philadelphia (2000); and the Shrine of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla in Warminster, Pennsylvania (2013).

[caption id="attachment_32223" align="alignright" width="239"] The beauty and grandeur of Mary’s Central Shrine (Miraculous Medal Shrine), established in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1927, is captured in this 1974 photograph. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Beyond Roman Catholic shrines, other religions founded shrines in the Philadelphia area.  Saint Clement’s (Episcopal) Church in Center City Philadelphia created four separate shrines in its parish: the Shrine of Saint Clement (1943), the Shrine of Our Lady of Clemency (1943), the Shrine of Our Lady Queen of All Saints & Mother of Fair Love (2002), and the Shrine of Saint Catherine (2006). The influx of Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants beginning in the late twentieth century led to the establishment of Buddhist shrines and temples in the Philadelphia area. The Khmer Palelai Buddhist Monastery Shrine formed to serve the Cambodian population in Southwest Philadelphia, while the Bo De Temple in South Philadelphia offered services for thousands of Vietnamese. Where Catholic and Episcopal shrines focused on individual saints, Buddhist shrines invited one in as a “place for enlightenment.”

Many of the shrines in the Philadelphia area emerged due to the desires and growth of ethnic populations as with African Americans, Poles, and Cambodians, or they developed due to the leadership of personalities such as John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. Still others found their origins in the people of the parishes and their devotion to Mary and the saints. For a variety of faiths, shrines provided locales for pilgrimage, places for people to develop their beliefs and identity, and spaces of peace.  

Brenda Gaydosh is an Associate Professor of History at West Chester University. Her research focuses on varied aspects of the Catholic Church–from a biography about Nazi-era German Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg to how the Catholic Church has dealt with genocide.


Convents—communities of women devoted to religious life—in the Greater Philadelphia area played a significant role in the education of youth and in social services for communities from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first century. Although some regional Catholic convents moved or closed during this time, the Philadelphia area remained strong in Catholic identity because of the continuous work of the sisters in the convents.

In the earliest Christian communities, some women devoted their lives to emulating Jesus Christ. Most of these women were virgins who saw themselves as “brides of Christ,” and they wore veils as a symbol of that marriage. As they assembled in communities with their common cause, the “sisters” formed “convents,” from the Latin conventus, meaning gathering or coming together. Although convents have generally been associated with Roman Catholicism, Episcopal and orthodox communities also established convents in America. In the Philadelphia area, however, Roman Catholic convents predominated.

[caption id="attachment_26103" align="alignright" width="300"]an illustration of Saint Michael's Church The first convent in Philadelphia was established by five Irish immigrants. During the 1844 Nativist Riots, the convent and nearby Saint Michael's Church were burned by anti-Catholic rioters. (Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia)[/caption]

English settlement in the New World yielded a predominantly Protestant East Coast. The Quakers, who predominated under William Penn’s (1644-1718) initial settlement, allowed Catholics to worship privately without government interference, but the further influx of Catholic immigrants coupled with Protestant revivalism in the early nineteenth century generated a violent anti-Catholicism. Catholic immigrants needed Catholic leadership, education, and help in all forms. The Diocese of Philadelphia, founded in 1808, developed a number of Catholic schools by midcentury, but lay people staffed most of them. Within twenty-five years, religious communities of women formed to meet the educational and social needs of the growing Catholic population. These included the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sisters of St. Joseph, the Glen Riddle Sisters of St. Francis, and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Due to ethnic and religious discrimination of the Irish in Philadelphia, five Irish women established the first convent in Philadelphia in 1833. A Philadelphia priest met Mary Frances Clarke (1803-87) and her four companions in Dublin and convinced them to join him in Philadelphia to set up a school. Two months after arriving in the city, the women founded the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM Sisters) with the blessings of the Catholic Church. The sisters began to teach young children in a “free school” and took in sewing to supplement their income. As time passed, some of the Philadelphia sisters moved west to help teach Native Americans in Iowa. In May 1844, during a series of riots (Philadelphia Nativist Riots, also known as Philadelphia Prayer Riots, Bible Riots, and Native American Riots) resulting from anti-Catholic sentiment due to growing Irish Catholic population, anti-Catholic Nativists burned down the Philadelphia convent—Sacred Heart Academy (occupied by three sisters)— and St. Michael’s Church. Most of the BVM sisters had already left Philadelphia to minister to other regions.

[caption id="attachment_26431" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a three story stone convent with a cross topping the front-facing roof gable. A set of prominent stone stairs leads to the first floor entrance. St. Leo's Church (now Our Lady of Consolidation Church) was established as an English language Catholic Church in the largely German-speaking Tacony neighborhood. The convent, shown here, was constructed in 1885, the same year construction began on the church. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Needing help in meeting the many and growing social and educational needs of Catholics in the diocese, Bishop Francis Kenrick (1797-1863) convinced a contingent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a religious order founded in LePuy, France, in 1650, to move to Philadelphia in the mid-1840s. The sisters began by administering St. John’s Orphanage for Boys in Philadelphia. In 1858, they purchased an established estate in Chestnut Hill, which became their administrative center and the first site of Mount Saint Joseph Academy. The sisters helped immigrants with educational needs, cared for orphans and widows, and worked as nurses during the American Civil War and the influenza epidemic of 1918.

The Diocese of Philadelphia was responsible for southern New Jersey (Archdiocese of New York held northern New Jersey) until 1853, when Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) established the Diocese of Newark, which initially covered all of New Jersey. Pius also established the Diocese of Wilmington in 1868. Up until this time, Philadelphia Catholic leaders treated New Jersey and Delaware as mission areas. The Sisters of St. Joseph administered two parochial schools in Delaware, but with the establishment of the new diocese, Bishop James Frederick Bryan Wood (1813-83) recalled them to Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_26070" align="alignright" width="216"]a black and white illustration of Saint John Neumann in life, wearing vestments and holding a crosier Bishop John Neumann visited Rome in 1854 and informed Pope Pius IX about the need for sisters in the Diocese of Philadelphia. With his guidance, three Bavarian women took their vows in Neumann’s private chapel. In 1858, they established the Institute of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, eventually establishing a seminary and motherhouse in Glen Riddle in nearby Delaware County. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the mid-nineteenth century, following the death of her husband, Anna (Ana Maria Boll) Bachmann (1824-63) told her parish priest her desire to enter religious life. During his visit to Rome in 1854, Philadelphia’s Bishop John Neumann (1811-1860) informed Pope Pius IX about the need for sisters in his diocese. He also told the pope about Bachmann, her sister Barbara Boll, and a friend, Anna Dorn, all from Bavaria, and their desire to establish a religious community in Philadelphia. Bachmann (Sr. Mary Francis), Boll (Sr. Mary Margaret), and Dorn (Sr. Mary Bernardine) took their vows in May 1856 in Bishop Neumann’s private chapel. Two years later, “Mother” Francis officially founded the Institute of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. In 1871, the Philadelphia sisters took the opportunity to purchase the “Little Seminary” in Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, from Bishop Wood for $12,000. On the twenty-eight acres of land twenty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia, they made their home in old seminary buildings and founded a novitiate. The Motherhouse followed in 1896—Convent of Our Lady of Angels. In 1958, one hundred years after its founding, there were more than 1,600 Glen Riddle sisters working in grade schools and high schools, hospitals and centers of nursing, catechetical centers, and a seminary. By 2015, the congregation’s numbers had dropped to about 450 Catholic women Religious.

In 1858, the Sisters of St. Francis traveled to Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, to welcome the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters to eastern Pennsylvania. The IHM sisters opened a mission in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1859 with a select school for girls and a parish school for boys and girls. Reading became the motherhouse for the IHM sisters in eastern Pennsylvania from 1864-1871. From there the sisters also established schools in Philadelphia. In 1872, Bishop Wood provided a new motherhouse and novitiate in West Chester. In October of that year, the Convent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in West Chester held its first reception of seven novices. At the same time, the sisters opened a school in St. Agnes Parish (established 1793), West Chester.

Episcopal female communities established themselves in America as early as the Roman Catholic convents did, but there were considerably fewer of them. Although none developed directly in the Philadelphia area, the Community of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Sisters came to America in 1874 (founded in England 1852) and built a convent in New York three years later. Since 1900, they have continued an active ministry in Mendham, New Jersey. Orthodox women’s communities developed much later. The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, centered in Englewood, New Jersey, founded its first Monastery for Nuns, the Convent of St. Thekla, in Glenville, Pennsylvania, where nuns have prayed for the salvation of the world and led a life of repentance. The convents varied in purpose and function—from active ministry to contemplative life—but the vocation of the women was to serve God.

[caption id="attachment_26067" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a nurse drawing blood from a nun while several other nuns and postulants look on Sisters in the Philadelphia region continued to provide the city and the nation with valuable services in the twentieth century. This February 1945 photograph shows sisters and postulants of the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis donating blood to the American Red Cross. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Although most Roman Catholic convents in the Philadelphia area were active within the community, other sisters lived a cloistered life. In 1915, Mother Mary Michael (1862-1934) founded the Convent of Divine Love in Philadelphia. Archbishop Edmund Francis Prendergast (1843-1918) desired to have an adoration convent in his archdiocese. The “Pink Sisters” wore rose-colored garbs with a white veil. In addition to kneeling night and day (in shifts perpetually since 1915) before the Most Blessed Sacrament, sisters made altar bread and worked as clerks and seamstresses.

Although financial deficits moved the Catholic leadership to auction off three former convents in 2013, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as of 2015, listed over fifty religious congregations of women (particularly along the Main Line), which included many missionary sisters and international congregations. Still, the aging population of Catholic women Religious caused concern for the Catholic Church. As of 2014, a study showed that there were more Catholic sisters in the United States over age 90 than under age 60. The history of Catholic sisters in the Philadelphia area proved significant, however, as early Catholic education led by sisters through the past two centuries helped the region to maintain a strong Catholic identity even into the twenty-first century. Through the decades, they continued their vocations in education, social services, parish ministry, aid to the poor, marginal, and oppressed, and missionary work and, and they remained on the front lines for the Catholic Church.

Brenda Gaydosh is an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University. Her research focuses on varied aspects of the Catholic Church—from a biography about Nazi-era German Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg to how the Catholic Church has dealt with genocide.

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