I visited the National Shrine of St. John Neumann here in Philadelphia when I was 12 years old, and I remember staring in awe through the glass case separating me from the remains of the first American male saint.
I couldn’t believe a real life saint was buried, much less lived, in Philadelphia.
Eight years later, I am hoping to encounter another great Catholic leader in the very same city, this time alive and in the flesh. Pope Francis is coming to Philadelphia this weekend for the eighth World Meeting of Families, the first to be held in the U.S.
While the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia is surely a historic one, our city already has a strong Catholic history in place stemming back three centuries—I think this is why the Pope and his advisers chose to have the World Meeting of Families here in the first place.
Philadelphia’s Catholics and other Philadelphians taking part in the celebration of the Pope’s visit this week should learn about our city’s rich Catholic history before getting too completely swept up in all the upcoming festivities.
While 300 years of Catholicism may not be impressive in comparison to the faith’s history in other global cities, it is important to remember the U.S. only became a nation in 1776. At this point, Catholics had already celebrated the first Mass in Philadelphia 69 years prior.
Philadelphia has crammed an impressive amount of Catholic history into a relatively small period of time and has continually served as an important religious center for Catholic Americans in a nation known for being a melting pot.
Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez, an assistant professor in the religion department, counts Philadelphia among the few big U.S. cities with strong Catholic ties.
“This is one of the great Catholic cities,” Alvarez said, citing the city of brotherly love with one of the highest U.S. Catholic populations.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which oversees the city, Philadelphia County and some surrounding counties, is home to about 1.46 million Catholics. Alvarez said Philadelphia is a notable U.S. city among a select few, like Boston, Baltimore and New York City.
Alvarez even dedicates part of the “Religion in Philadelphia” course she teaches this semester to exploring the city’s Catholic roots, starting with the arrival of the first Catholic immigrants in Philadelphia who came from Germany close to the beginning of the 18th century.
Philadelphia has also been home to many firsts for Catholicism in the U.S. The first Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Herald, was established here in 1833, and the city is the birthplace of the nation’s first Catholic school system.
Father Shaun Mahoney, the director of Temple’s Newman Center, said the city’s claim to fame in terms of its Catholic presence stems from this school system, which was developed by St. John Neumann during his time as the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia is really noted for its extensive parochial school system,” Mahoney said. “We are kind of one of the leaders with the number of parish schools and high schools.”
St. John Neumann’s work, along with the presence of strong Catholic institutions in the city, like Catholic hospitals and universities have allowed Philadelphia a unique place of honor in the history of American Catholicism.
When many Americans think of Philadelphia’s history though, they only point to Independence Hall or call to mind famous historical figures dating back to the Revolutionary War and our nation’s founding.
While great historical heroes like Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross walked the streets of Philadelphia at one point in time, Americans less familiar with Catholicism might not realize St. John Neumann and St. Katharine Drexel did, as well.
These are two saints of only a small handful of Americans canonized by the Catholic Church, and they both called Philadelphia home at one point in their lives.
Take a trip to Old St. Joseph’s Church, the first Catholic Church in Philadelphia, or visit Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, the first church in America dedicated specifically to a national group.
By all means, stay present in this moment too. Invest in Pope Francis bobbleheads or those toasters that can display his image on your morning toast and flock to the Art Museum stairs Sunday. Enjoy this moment in history and embrace all that comes with it, but don’t forget about our city’s Catholic past.
Jenny Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.