This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!). It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself! Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house. As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital. Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.
The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers. It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools. Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.
My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later. Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child. I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded. But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel. Both belonged to the Drexel family.
The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters. The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry. The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”. This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names. In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes. This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.
The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons: Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint. Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in. In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth. But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.
Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her. When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth. Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.
When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west. She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans. Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south. Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people. But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people. At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun. She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.
Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents. Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96. She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.
Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood… When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old. A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill. When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem. The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s. Today, their old home is used as an office building. The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”. I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.
The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family. But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood. Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds. It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood. Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.
For more information:
- Elizabeth Fisher, “Hospital continues a caring tradition”, http://www.phillyburbs.com/drexel/0820hospital.shtml – “History, architecture and healing are intertwined at Frankford Hospitals Torresdale Campus, once the summer home of the Drexel family.” This includes photos of the house and chapel I discuss above.
- Saint Katherine Drexel, http://www.katharinedrexel.org/katharine.html – This site has some wonderful photos of Katherine as a child, her sisters, and her parents. There are also links for more information about her order, shrine, and mission center.
- Jenny Vengalil, “Mother Katharine Mary Drexel: A Blessed Presence in the History of Philadelphia”, http://www47.homepage.villanova.edu/charlene.mires/tours/drexel.htm – includes a tour of Drexel sites and a large bibliography.
[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live. All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today. I'm afraid written history doesn't go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]