Last week the Historical Commission of the City of Philadelphia voted to permit demolition of the former Assumption Parish on Spring Garden Street. Seemingly, this is the end of a long struggle to preserve the historically significant structure that has languished for many years waiting for the final rendering to come. There are many levels of culpability and many groups and individuals have contributed to the demise of this architecturally significant piece of Philadelphia’s long legacy. My point is not to lay blame or to indicate what could have been, should have been, or might have been in regards to the proper administration of the former parish.
The facts concerning Assumption are simple and clear. The parish holds historical significance for the people of Philadelphia because of two individuals that were part of the life of the historical parish of the 19th and 20th centuries: John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. As Bishop of Philadelphia, John Neumann assisted in the solemn consecration of the newly constructed church. As a newborn child, Katharine Drexel was baptized at the church, entering the Catholic faith, destined for a life in excess of ninety years. Remarkably, if not for the events that happened in the years after both Neumann’s and Drexel’s common association with Assumption Church, they would have disappeared into history.
We know however, that the lives of these two Philadelphians — one a priest and bishop, the other an heiress to a large financial legacy and later the foundress of a community of sisters — would transform life for not only Philadelphia, but for people throughout the world.
Bishop Neumann, as Bishop of Philadelphia, deserves recognition not just because he participated in the consecration of Assumption Church, but because he was one of the most influential Philadelphians of the 19th century. His pastoral initiatives encompassed the entire State of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Southern New Jersey. He was the principle driving force behind the foundation of the Catholic educational system in Philadelphia and subsequently the entire United States. He worked as a priest and bishop to zealously unite the multicultural tapestry of 19th century Philadelphia into a cohesive city that lived up to the ideals of Penn’s vision of a City of Brotherly Love.
Katharine Drexel, as a citizen of Philadelphia, nurtured a vision of charity that extended to peoples of all races, especially African-American and Native American peoples. Combining her love of the Catholic Eucharist, a perspective on the unity of all peoples, courage in addressing social inequities among minorities, and the total distribution of her personal inheritance to victims of poverty and racial injustices, Katharine Drexel’s legacy straddles the 19th & 20th centuries in Philadelphia and the entire United States.
The period of Katharine Drexel’s life was one that witnessed an incredible amount of racial inequality between African Americans and Caucasian peoples. In Philadelphia, Katharine Drexel provided the bedrock foundation of the American Civil Rights Movement, long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream of racial equality in America. Mother Katharine Drexel established a religious community of sisters that exclusively ministered to the needs of what was then called, Black and Indian Peoples. Over the course of her lifetime the Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament distributed more than 39 million dollars to the needs of African Americans and Native Americans in order to insure that these minorities were properly educated and received proper care and nutrition.
Both Bishop Neumann and Mother Katharine Drexel have been the victims of oversight on the part of the Philadelphia Historical Society in relationship to their participation in the life of Assumption Parish on Spring Garden Street. The purpose of historical preservation is to preserve, restore, and conserve significant places in Philadelphia — and not simply because of their architectural importance. The mission of the Philadelphia Historical Commission is to accomplish preserve places that involve a historical person or event.
In addition to the exceptional architectural heritage — connecting to the prolific ecclesiastical architect of the period, Patrick Charles Keely — the church provides the historical structure for two of the most significant citizens of Philadelphia’s life and history since Benjamin Franklin. The City of Philadelphia has been especially generous in honoring Benjamin Franklin. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Franklin Institute, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and so on. However, there are no streets, parks or sites named to commemorate the lives and accomplishments of Saints John Neumann and Katharine Drexel.
The most significant acknowledgment of both Neumann & Drexel is of course the Catholic Church’s elevation of both of these exceptional individuals to the altars and designations of Sainthood. However, both Neumann & Drexel deserve recognition from a civil perspective in recognition of their lives and accomplishments in making Philadelphia a city of racial and religious tolerance in the 19th & 20th centuries.
The battle to preserve Assumption Parish on Spring Garden Street is now lost. The shifting demographics of Catholics, in addition to other factors contributed to its elongated process of death. However, Philadelphia Catholics and quite frankly all Philadelphians need to learn a lesson from this parish about the need to preserve our historical treasures that transcend architectural significance but point to the promotion of religious and ethnic harmony between peoples of all races, creeds, and colors. The Philadelphia Historical Committee needs to step back after this insensitive oversight against not only Philadelphia’s Catholics, but all Philadelphians of good will and recognize Saints John Neumann and Katharine Drexel with a park, a street, and yes, perhaps even statues on the illustrious Benjamin Franklin Parkway, not because they were and are Catholic Saints, but because they were illustrious Philadelphians that transformed Philadelphia and the world.
The Sisters Cities Plaza that is directly in front of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul would especially benefit from a new designation in honor of Bishop Neumann and Katharine Drexel. Without diminishing the importance of “Sister Cities”, both Neumann and Drexel, as Philadelphia Catholics, participated in events at the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. What more appropriate place to honor and recognize their contributions than the development of a commemorative park dedicated to the principles of religious and racial tolerance for all peoples of Philadelphia and the nation.