A Brief History of St. Katherine of Siena Church
On June 19, 1922, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, established two parishes along the historic and highly traveled Bristol Turnpike which today is also called Frankford Avenue. These new parishes were St. Katherine of Siena, Torresdale; and St. Thomas Aquinas, Croydon.
St. Katherine parish was equidistant between St. Dominic parish, Holmesburg, and St. Charles Borromeo parish, Cornwells Heights. St. Thomas parish was the midpoint between St. Charles Borromeo parish and St. Mark parish, Bristol. Father James E. Coakley, ordained in 1906, an Assistant Pastor of St. Dominic Church, was designated founding Pastor of the parish of St. Katherine of Siena.
Among the founding parishioners of Torresdale’s new parish was Mrs. Louise Drexel Morrell, sister to Mother Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters.
From June to December 1922, parish Masses were celebrated in the chapel of Louise Morrell’s home on Knights Road. This chapel later became St. Michael’s chapel and ultimately, the Shrine of the True Cross. Today, the Morrell home and Shrine are part of the administrative complex of Jefferson-Aria Hospital.
The Morrell estate was also the setting for Catholic schooling for children from the Torresdale – Cornwells Heights area, still very rural in the early years of the twentieth century. This school had its beginning about 1900 and continued until 1922. One early student was Anne O’Rourke, whose parents had built a family home that today is the parish rectory.
To show his thanks to Louise Morrell and to honor Mother Katharine, each of whom was neighbor and benefactress, Father Coakley chose to spell the name of the new parish with a “K” rather than with a “C.” The traditional name of the parish’s patron, and Mother Katharine’s patron, was spelled “Catherine,” a fourteenth century saint from Siena, Italy, and a Doctor of the Church who lived from 1347 to 1380. St. Catherine of Siena continues to be an inspiration in her heroic loyalty to the Church.
In 1907, Mother Katharine Drexel visited the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome. Here a major relic of the Saint from Siena who was also Katharine’s patron is venerated. On October 1, 2000, Mother Katherine became the first female, canonized saint from Philadelphia.
On December 10, 1922, Father Coakley celebrated the first Masses on St. Katherine’s parish property in the combination Church/Rectory. In the early years of the parish, the number of parishioners was relatively few, and this Rectory/Church arrangement was, in some sense, adequate. However, in the late forties and early fifties the growth rate of the parish population was notable, and a larger church was a necessity. Accordingly, on November 14, 1954, Father Thomas P. Fitzgerald, the third pastor, broke ground for our present church.
On Wednesday, October 24, 1956, Monsignor Thomas F. McNally, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, blessed and laid the cornerstone of the church. This event was followed on Saturday, October 27th by the consecration of the main altar by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McShea. Finally, on Sunday, October 28, 1956, Bishop George L. Leech of Harrisburg, a friend from seminary days of Father Fitzgerald, dedicated the church and celebrated the First Solemn Mass in the new edifice.
Ten years later, and as one result of the Second Vatican Council, languages other than Latin were permitted in parts of the Mass. Thus in 1966 the initial step was taken eventually leading to the present day use of English for the celebration of Mass. Permission was also given for churches to have a freestanding altar with the Celebrant facing the congregation.
In September 1967 the Parish Council encouraged Father William F. Drobel, our fourth pastor, to move the main altar forward and to add a marble lectern for use by the Cantor. Under the direction of Father Drobel, all work affecting both altar and tabernacle was completed, and the first Mass was celebrated with the newly configured Sanctuary on March 8, 1969.
Around the time of the changes to the Sanctuary a near disaster was luckily averted after a lightning bolt hit the original cross above the front door of the church. A replacement cross was fashioned by parishioner Edward Litvinas and placed atop the church by Atkinson & Sons Steeplejacks also parishioners.
From the changes made to the altar to the present, the integrity of our Sanctuary has remained relatively untouched. Following the 1999 closing of St. Anthony of Padua Church in the Schuylkill section of the city, Monsignor James P. McBride, our fifth pastor, was fortunate to acquire two large marble angels that today stand in our Sanctuary. These statues which enhance the prayerful atmosphere of the sanctuary were given in memory of longtime parishioners Charles and Nancy Hausmann, and Charles Scully. Further improvements inside the Church centered on the location of the Baptismal Font and the upgrading of the lighting and amplification systems.
A further improvement made during Monsignor McBride’s pastorate was the addition of a handicapped accessible ramp at the front of the church. The ramp, which matches the beautiful stone work of the original building, was designed by Rick Paul and installed by Jim Vallorani in 1995. Completing the effort of these two parishioners was a third member of the parish, John Hladczuk, who fashioned and installed the hand railings and wrought iron supports, which complete this practical addition. Hladczuk would once again be called upon in 2017 to install a safety railing on the balustrade of the choir loft and four additional railings in the Sanctuary. Two railings at the entrance and two railings on either side of the Altar of Sacrifice,
To commemorate the beginning of the 21st Century and to pay tribute to the patronage of St. Katherine of Siena and St. Katharine Drexel, Monsignor McBride commissioned the Callanan Stained Glass Studio to install two new windows at the side entrances of the church. These tasteful additions enhance the beauty of our church and remind us all of our holy patron and saintly benefactor.
In the year 2006, the Golden Anniversary of the dedication of St. Katherine of Siena Church, our parishioners once again enhanced the Church’s beauty. Through the successful “Refurbish – Repaint – Repair” campaign under Father Paul M. Kennedy, our sixth pastor, the complete interior of the church was painted while the exterior was sandblasted and treated for protection against the elements.
In 2010 a small, hand-carved wooden chest was installed on the altar dedicated to St. Joseph. This chest, with shelves behind a glass door, is called an “AMBRY” and is distinctively fashioned in the shape of St. Katherine Church. In it are displayed three holy oils used in the celebration of four sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and Anointing of the Sick. The Ambry was blessed by Bishop Joseph P. McFadden during Mass on March 12th, within which the Sacrament of Confirmation was also celebrated.
Each year on Holy Thursday morning during the Chrism Mass in the cathedral, the Bishop blesses these oils. In small containers, the oils are distributed to all parishes in the diocese. The oils are Sacred Chrism, Oil of Catechumens, and Oil of the Sick.
The word “ambry” comes from the Latin for a military chest in which weapons were stored. In a sense, the holy oils are weapons in the Christian’s fight against the devil who is the enemy. In biblical times, oil was a sign of abundance and joy. Oil is also associated with cleansing, healing, strength and consecration to God. Priests and kings were anointed The word “Christ” and “Christian” fittingly mean “Anointed One.”
In niches on the front of the Ambry are two pewter statuettes, St. Peregrine and St. John the Baptist. St. Peregrine’s intercession is invoked for the sick and in particular for persons suffering from cancer. St. John the Baptist was the herald of Jesus and baptized Him in the waters of the Jordan.
Through the invocation of these saints and also that of our patroness, St. Katherine of Siena, we pray for all those who, through these Holy Oils, will be brought closer to the Lord Jesus.
We are indebted to local woodworker Timothy Dalessandro for his detailed work and artistry. In depicting the Ambry as the façade of St. Katherine of Siena Church, we grow more aware of the sacramental bonding between our parish church and parishioners.
The planning for a new church takes considerable time, expertise and patience. When Fathers Fitzgerald and Dougherty and the parishioners of St. Katherine of Siena chose the Jean Barillet studio from Paris, France to design and execute the stained glass windows, they were indeed pleased. Each window has a beauty of its own, and together they add a certain majesty and grandeur to our church. After fifty-four years these works of art began to show signs of age and wear. The dark colors, and the deep hues, catch and hold the heat of the sun which beats equally on each side of the church truly from sunrise to sunset. During the summer of 2010 a process was begun to clean, restore and brace each of these masterpieces.
Certainly, the show piece of our church’s stained glass is the magnificent window of St. Katherine of Siena located in the choir loft above the main doors. During the restoration it was found to be in need of extensive and immediate repair. The glass was carefully removed and expertly tended to by artisans from the David Albert Studio under the direction of Daniel McIntyre. Finally, all twelve sections of the newly restored windows were re-installed. Also installed at that time were new ventilator windows with screens in the choir loft, and in the six large windows in the nave of the church.
Please take a moment on your way out of church to admire the artistry of the fabricators of our windows, as well as the skill of the restorers. Then say a prayer of thanksgiving that this process has once again allowed the light to shine through St. Katherine.
From its earliest days, the parish has always provided for the education of the elementary school aged children. The early student parishioners continued their education at St. Dominic’s School under the guidance of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In 1932, ten years after the founding of the parish, St. Katherine of Siena parochial school was opened by the Religious of the Sacred Heart who were at the same time teaching at Eden Hall. In recognition of the work of these fine educators, a statue of the Sisters’ patroness and foundress, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat was placed in the new Church. This beautiful marble statue stands in our Church today as a reminder to us of the inspiring work that the “Madams” of the Sacred Heart accomplished in our parish from 1932 until 1960.
When Father William Drobel built and moved St. Katherine of Siena School from the grounds of Eden Hall to the parish campus, he was fortunate to secure the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth as teachers.
In 2010, in memory of the many Nazareth Sisters who served in St. Katherine of Siena Parish over the first fifty years, and in honor of the Sisters who were at that time associated with the parish, a statue of the Holy Family was commissioned. Designed and executed by the Timothy P. Schmalz Studio of Ontario, Canada the statue was installed in the summer of 2010.
This life-sized, bronze statue which was placed on the circle at the entrance of McBride Hall is one which catches the love, excitement, energy and normalcy of the Holy Family. The presence of this magnificent rendition of the Holy Family is a constant reminder to all who view it of the presence of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in our midst.
Sixty years in the life of a building can be trying and telling. Late in 2014 the ceiling of the Church began to show some signs of deterioration. After climbing into the rafters, it was found that the 59 year old ceiling was not actually falling but like many of us, was sagging under time and weight.
Over the years several attempts were made to secure the ceiling of our Church. Originally the ceiling consisted of hundreds of 12 x 12 acoustical tiles. At some point, Father Drobel had vinyl wallpaper installed to cover the loosening tiles which held up until the present time. What was originally thought to be a lasting solution had brought us to a crossroad. Instead of individual tiles loosening, sagging and eventually falling, now entire sections were jeopardized.
During the Lenten Season of 2015 Father Kennedy once again asked our parishioners to step forward to solve the problem, and they did so with characteristic generosity. The original tiles and repairs to the ceiling were removed and replaced with Armstrong Ultima 72 x 24 panels. With limited disruption the project was completed in a month’s time and we were worshiping securely under a new, safe ceiling.
Many who visit St. Katherine of Siena Church would often remark on the quality of the materials that were originally chosen for the construction of the church building. But as with anything, even things of quality, time and wear and tear take their toll. This could be said especially of a floor. In the early winter months of 2016, sixty years after the flooring of the church was originally installed, the project of upgrading the floor was undertaken. The Roman Mosaic and Tile Company of West Chester, Pennsylvania was commissioned to install a terrazzo floor in the main body of the church.
For the two months that the extensive project spanned, Daily Mass was celebrated in Fitzgerald Hall while the five weekend Masses were held in McBride Hall. The Blizzard of ‘16 notwithstanding the entire process progressed quite smoothly and on time. The young people of the parish, too numerous to mention, in particular the members of the CYO and their Coaches under the direction of Father Joseph Zaleski, were invaluable in the setting and re-setting of the chairs on the floor of the gym for a record 23 times.
The color of this floor, both in the aisles and under the pews, has brightened the interior of the church and has enhanced the majesty of the worship space. The base color of cream flecked with emerald and lighter greens, connects the body of the church with the green marble of the Sanctuary. This use of joining several colors already existing in the church with the new floor establishes a unifying presence wherein the Eucharistic Sacrifice beginning on the altar flows out among the worshipers.
In the center aisle a trefoil the symbol of the Trinity was installed recalling St. Katherine of Siena’s devotion to the Blessed Trinity and the opening words of her oft cited prayer:
O Eternal Trinity, my sweet love!
You, Light, give us light.
You, Wisdom, give us wisdom.
You, Supreme Strength, strengthen us.
At the same time, retaining pillars were installed in Fitzgerald Hall to support the additional weight of the new floor and the original pews were removed, cleaned, re-varnished, tightened-up and reinstalled all in time for the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation by Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald on February 28, 2016.
In 1975 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia two mosaic murals designed by Leandro Velasco were commissioned for the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. In 2016 the studies for these pieces were obtained from the art collection of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary by St. Katherine of Siena Parish. Early in 2017 they were installed on the rear wall of our church on either side of the main door enhanced in frames fashioned by local woodworker Timothy Dalessandro.
The theme of the north mural is the life of the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia John Nepomucene Neumann with the saintly Redemptorist at the center of the work. Seen throughout the mural are phrases in Latin, Italian and German translated as “For God Alone” the phrase around which Bishop Neumann’s shaped his own life.
In the scene on the right we find Bishop Neumann present in Rome as Pope Pius IX proclaims the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Below that are representations of the 80 plus churches that the Bishop founded during his tenure as Ordinary.
Sweeping up the left side of the work are reminders of the various Religious Communities of women and men that Neumann brought to Philadelphia, primarily to staff what many view as his greatest vision, the Parochial Schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The top left of the panel shows a monstrance symbolizing the popularization of the 40 Hours Eucharistic Devotion that Bishop Neumann introduced into the Archdiocese in 1853.
Topping the work is the façade of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the completion of which in 1859, gave the Bishop great joy. He did not live to see the interior of the Cathedral finished. Bishop Neumann died on January 5, 1860 and was canonized a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977.
The south mural depicts people and events in the Church’s involvement with Pennsylvania history. At the top are the coats of arms of Pope Paul VI and John Cardinal Krol, and the bottom is the symbol of the 41st Eucharistic Congress, Philadelphia, 1976.
The historic scenes are of George Washington and members of the Continental Congress at Old Saint Mary’s Church; Saint Katharine Drexel, Sisters of Saint Joseph caring for the wounded on the Gettysburg battlefield; and Commodore Barry, founder of the United States Navy.
The representation of Saint Charles Seminary, founded by Bishop Kenrick in 1832, includes a silhouette of the artist, Thomas Eakins, on a bicycle. The other buildings are St. Michael and St. Augustine churches, burned and rebuilt during the “Know-Nothing” riots and St. Martin’s Chapel at Saint Charles Seminary. Saint Mary’s Church was the first Cathedral of Philadelphia and it was the site of the first public religious commemoration of Independence Day on July 4, 1779.
The Centennial celebration of the parish (1922 – 2022) was inaugurated with a Pontifical Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph L. Coffey a former Parochial Vicar of the parish. Joining Bishop Coffey in this historic Mass were Monsignor James P. McBride, Monsignor Paul M. Kennedy, and Father David M. Buffum, the Pastor Emeritus, Pastor and Parochial Vicar of St. Katherine of Siena parish. In addition twenty-two other priests joined in the celebration of the Mass. These priests represented the former Parochial Vicars and Resident Priests who have served at SKS over the past years. Three special Priest guests were noted at the celebration. They were: Father Edward T. Kearns the Pastor of St. Dominic Parish, the Mother Church of St. Katherine of Siena Parish, Father James J. McKeaney a Priest son on the parish, and Father Michael J. Ryan, the great-grandson of Michael O’Rourke who in 1905 constructed the building which became the original Church/Rectory in 1922.
At the conclusion of the opening Centennial Mass the magnificent window of St. Katherine of Siena overlooking Frankford Avenue was back-lit illuminated. May this image of our patron Saint ever light the way of all who place themselves under her protection.
In the midst of the Centennial Year, The Most Reverend Nelson J. Perez made his first official visit to St. Katherine of Siena Parish as Archbishop and was the main celebrant of a Concelebrated Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2022. In his homily Archbishop Perez encouraged the parishioners by saying that “the central mission of the parish is to be a house of consolation that reflect the very mercy of Christ.”
He went on to quote from Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel, where the Pope exhorts parishes, “to be a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.” For the past 100 years St. Katherine of Siena Parish has tried to do just that. Through the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments, in service to the poor and afflicted, in the education of the young people of the parish and by many other means of outreach, SKS parish has tried to follow the example of its patroness to “Set the world on fire.”
In October 1956, the priests and parishioners of St. Katherine of Siena parish were overjoyed to finally have their own distinctively beautiful church. They had worshipped in the rectory basement and on the first floor of the rectory since 1922. Father Fitzgerald and his parishioners showed great vision in breaking ground in 1954. Their vision and sacrifices resulted in our beautiful church, which is today, and always will be, the heart of St. Katherine of Siena parish.