A Day For St. Katharine From Rome To Phila., Much Rejoicing

Posted: October 01, 2000

ROME — Her giant banner has hung since midweek from the face of St. Peter's Basilica.

A canopied, outdoor altar stands on the steps of the spiritual center for her canonization Mass.

A sea of gray chairs fills the center of St. Peter's Square.

And thousands of her friends and admirers are here in the Eternal City, scarcely able to believe "the day" is at hand.

Forty-five years after Philadelphia's Mother Katharine Drexel died at 96, Pope John Paul II will formally declare her a saint of the Roman Catholic Church early today during a canonization Mass scheduled for 10 a.m. in Rome, 4 a.m. Philadelphia time.

She joins St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Frances X. Cabrini, and St. John Neumann, a Philadelphia bishop who was canonized in 1977, to become the fourth American saint of the Catholic Church. Philadelphia is now the only Catholic diocese in the United States that can boast two saints.

"Can you believe it?" Sister Beatrice J. Jeffries, vice president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, cried out when greeting some of the members of the order as they arrived at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport. It has been 37 years since the late Cardinal John Krol, former archbishop of Philadelphia, first proposed Mother Drexel as a candidate for sainthood, and 35 years since the Vatican accepted her case for review. Around Rome yesterday, pilgrims from Philadelphia and across the United States were touring this city's great basilicas and churches, gazing at the marble and bronze and mosaic and painted images of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John and St. Francis of Assisi, and marveling that the same nun who had walked the halls of the pilgrims' schools and convents was just hours away from joining the canon of Catholic saints.

"I came for the canonization because I taught in her school, St. Leo's, in Leonville, La.," said Ruby Letterlough, now retired, of Greensboro, N.C., who was visiting the fifth-century Basilica of St. Maria Maggiore. "I met her, oh, so long ago I don't remember," Letterlough said. "It was her last tour of her schools down in Louisiana and Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia. She was very old."

St. Katharine, as she is now known, was one of three daughters of a wealthy investment banker, Francis A. Drexel. Upon his death in 1885, the three young women inherited $14 million, but Katharine rejected the life of a socialite. In 1891 she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Bucks County, and devoted her life and fortune to bringing the Catholic sacraments and educational opportunities to African Americans and American Indians.

During her lifetime, she built an estimated 300 schools and missions, most of them in the South and Southwest, and earned a reputation for exceptional holiness. Since Mother Drexel's death in 1955, the Catholic Church has ascribed two miraculous cures of deafness to prayers of intercession to Katharine Drexel, paving the way for today's canonization.

"We got to know about Katharine Drexel when our grandson had a brain tumor," said Peggy Koller of Roxborough. She and her husband, Bill, were also visiting St. Maria Maggiore yesterday. The Kollers prayed at Mother Drexel's shrine and tomb at the Bensalem motherhouse for the life of their 12-year-old grandson, David Stokes.

"She still needed a second miracle" to be declared a saint, Peggy Koller said. "We hoped it would be David." The boy died in 1990, but they remained devoted to Mother Drexel nonetheless. "She was such a good person," Peggy Koller said. "I still pray to her."

One unlikely pilgrim attending today's canonization Mass is Lucas Wegman of Newcastle, Maine. Late this summer he happened to sail his boat into Bar Harbor, where he attended Sunday Mass at a local parish. As the priest described the life and works of Katharine Drexel, whose family used to vacation in Maine, and spoke of her canonization, Wegman was inspired. "I thought: 'What a marvelous way to see Rome!"

An estimated 1,500 people from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have traveled to Rome for today's ceremony, including Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia; the archbishops of New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Denver; 10 bishops; dozens of clergymen; and about 100 Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Today's ceremony is the talk of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Special prayers and observances to mark the canonization will be held at churches throughout the region.

At the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, there will be daylong tours and other special activities.

Also marking the occasion are churches in the Diocese of Camden, including St. Bartholomew in Camden, which for many years had a school staffed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

"It's a special day," Robert Gutherman, 40, of Bucks County, said Friday from Rome.

When he was 14 and a member of St. Charles Borromeo parish in Bensalem, a throbbing pain began in his right ear and would not stop. Doctors at St. Christopher's Hospital operated, only to discover that an infection had dissolved two of the three ossicle bones of his inner ear; there was nothing they could do, they said.

But when the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, for whom Robert's older brothers worked after school, heard about his ailment, they immediately included him in their prayers to the woman they remembered as "Mother Katharine." Two weeks later, after Robert kept insisting that he could now hear, doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital examined him and discovered that the two bones had inexplicably grown back.

"Do I still think it's a miracle? Absolutely!" Gutherman - now married with two young daughters - declared in an interview on the rooftop terrace of his hotel, within walking distance of the Vatican.

Gutherman's story explains the presence in Rome today of 8-year-old Amy Wall of Holland, Bucks County.

She was born in 1992 with near-total nerve deafness, but after watching a public television special in 1994 about Gutherman's healing, Amy's mother, Constance, urged her family to pray to Mother Drexel for "communication" with Amy, who was then about 17 months old.

Amy's brother Jack, then 7, insisted that they pray for a cure instead, and so they did. Within weeks, a teacher at Amy's school for the deaf noticed that she was responding to ordinary sounds, and a medical examination revealed that her hearing was completely restored.

The miracle, the canonization and the media attention are "hard for her to grasp," Amy's father, John Wall, said before a brief morning press conference Friday.

Nevertheless, she will be among the handful of worshippers, including Gutherman, who will receive Holy Communion directly from Pope John Paul II today.

The Vatican initially wanted Amy to sit apart from her family at the front of the estimated 10,000 worshippers seated before the special altar on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. (Two other nuns - Sister Maria Josefa from Spain and Sister Josephine Bakhita of Sudan - as well as 120 martyrs killed in China, will also be canonized today.) But sitting by herself for more than two hours - in a ceremony that includes almost no English - seemed too much to ask of an 8-year-old, her mother, Constance Wall, told Vatican officials. So Amy will sit with her mother.

The Vatican has not yet announced whether it will name St. Katharine a patron saint of any ailment or cause, and no announcement is expected today. But Gutherman (whose younger daughter happens to be named Mary Katharine) has a suggestion: "She saw people for who they were: She saw Christ in everyone, including blacks and Native Americans," he said. "So instead of making her patron saint of hearing, why not patron saint of listening?"

David O'Reilly's e-mail address is doreilly@phillynews.com

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