‘What are you going to do?’ Living the words behind St. Katharine Drexel

 Locals gather across the street from the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel in hopes that Pope Francis will stop by after praising the saint in his address the day before on the Ben Franklin Parkway. (Emily Cohen/for NewsWorks)

Locals gather across the street from the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel in hopes that Pope Francis will stop by after praising the saint in his address the day before on the Ben Franklin Parkway. (Emily Cohen/for NewsWorks)

A false alarm. After his visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia, many speculated that Pope Francis would make an unannounced stop to the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel.

Locals lined the corner of Bristol Pike and Hulmeville Road, hoping to catch a glimpse.

 After an hour, a nun came out and waved her arms at the crowd.

“He is already back at the seminary, so we know he is for sure not coming,” she said.

Some started to trickle out, but nearly as many people stayed.

The legacy of St. Katharine Drexel

The pope opened his first homily in Philadelphia with a story about Drexel’s call. When she was a young woman, Drexel met with Pope Leo XII who asked her, “What are you going to do?” to further the work of the church.

Pope Francis leapt from that anecdote to a call for church officials to help lay people, particularly women, to take a more active role.

The Order of the Blessed Sacrament, founded by Drexel, is a testament to that call.

As a young woman, Drexel grew up with social advantages and an gigantic trust fund. But, the woman from Philadelphia gave it all up at the age of 31 to become a nun and founded her own order, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She specialized in ministering to Native Americans and black people, and helped found Xavier University in New Orleans, a historically black, Catholic college.

Sister Mary Rogers Thibodeau, herself a black nun, said the pope’s visit has been gangbusters for the Shrine of the St. Katharine Drexel, which extended its hours from 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and invited those traveling by bus to come visit.

Inside the shrine are some relics from Drexel’s life, including a wooden wheelchair she used and pencils worn down to a nub of lead and cedar.

While she was beatified relatively recently — in 2000 — many at the shrine have a relationship with the saint that goes back longer.

Volunteer John T. Fritz said he got involved with the order in 1995 and that the atmosphere has made him, “hopefully more Christlike.”

“I became more involved after I came here with organizations that work for the poor, like St. John’s hospice,” he said.

Associates of the Order of the Blessed Sacrament visited from Boston, where Drexel set up schools and services for black families. Pauline Coulter said you don’t have to be a sister to do work of the spirit.

“We didn’t take the big vow, but we’re still doing the same work that they do,” she said.

She said the pope’s message – “love everyone” – follows in the spirit of Katharine Drexel. “To me right now one of the reasons I’m here is the pope’s message. He’s saying love….because that’s what she said.”

While Drexel has already been beatified and has at least three miracles to her name, regular shrine attendee Kathleen Mulvihill said she has a couple more to add to that list.

Mulvihill credits Drexel with helping to save her daughter’s life during a particularly difficult labor — for mother and child.

“Today, [my granddaughter] Cecilia is bright and intelligent, my daughter is a school teacher and she’s very vibrant,” said Mulvihill.

As for the homegrown saint, she didn’t have enough good things to say. “She’s very powerful and she’s done such wonderful things for so many of the underprivileged.”

Pope Francis, who visited a prison, spoke on immigration and met with survivors of clergy abuse, clearly had that legacy in his sights during his visit to Philadelphia.

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