With major construction underway at Aria Health Torresdale, there has been some concern in the Northeast Philadelphia historical community about the fate of two historic buildings on the hospital’s campus.
The buildings are the Mansion House, the summer home of the Drexel family, and St. Michael’s Chapel, which was built as part of a Catholic pilgrimage center that the Drexel family established on the property. These buildings are among the few tangible reminders of one of Northeast Philadelphia’s most high-profile families and one of its most beloved citizens, Saint Katharine Drexel.
Christine Winn, Aria Torresdale’s executive director, recently assured local historians that the hospital is well aware of the history of the two Drexel buildings on its campus and is committed to preserving them.
Francis A. Drexel was a wealthy Philadelphia financier who lived with his family in a lavish mansion at 15th and Walnut streets. The family included Francis; his wife, Emma Bouvier Drexel (ancestor of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy); and their three daughters — Elizabeth, Katharine and Louise. (Emma was actually the step-mother of Elizabeth and Katharine; Francis’ first wife died from complications during Katharine’s birth.)
In 1870, Francis Drexel purchased a 90-acre farm at Red Lion and Knights roads in Torresdale as a site for a summer home for the family. He engaged noted architect Addison Hutton to design the building. The family named the new house San Michel in honor of St. Michael and spent much time there. San Michel today is known as the Mansion House.
The Drexels were devout Catholics who were very committed to religious and social causes. Francis gave generously to charity, and the girls were taught that their great wealth also brought great responsibility. Emma Drexel regularly opened their Walnut Street home to the poor, and daughters Elizabeth and Katharine taught Sunday school to the children of the employees of San Michel. On trips to the American south and southwest, the girls also saw firsthand the poverty in which Native Americans and African-Americans lived and were deeply moved by the plight of these communities.
Major changes came to San Michel in the 1880s and early 1890s. Emma Drexel died in 1883, followed by her husband, Francis, two years later. The deaths of their parents left Elizabeth, Katharine and Louise Drexel extremely wealthy. According to the terms of Francis’ will, 10 percent of his $15 million estate went to specific charities, and the balance was put in trust for his daughters. The young Drexel women each reportedly received $1,000 a day in income from the estate.
In 1889, Louise married Edward de Veaux Morrell, a wealthy, politically connected lawyer from an influential family. They purchased the property adjoining San Michel, which they called San Jose. The area is now Morrell Park. In January 1890, Elizabeth Drexel married George Walter Smith, son of Civil War Gen. Thomas Kilby Smith of Torresdale. Sadly, Elizabeth died in childbirth in September 1890.
Katharine Drexel had always been a deeply spiritual woman who searched for meaning and purpose in her life. She had been considering a religious vocation for some time, and the deaths of her parents and sister further motivated her in this direction. In 1891, she took her vows as the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, a religious order that focused specifically on ministering to Native American and African-Americans.
The San Michel property, now owned by Mother Katharine and Louise Morrell, was approved as a temporary novitiate for the new religious order. On May 13, 1891, Mother Katharine, 13 novices and three postulants of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament moved into San Michel. They brought with them Ida Mae Coffey, the first child to live in Holy Family House, which Mother Katharine opened for African-American children in one of the cottages at San Michel.
While San Michel may have been a spacious mansion for the Drexel family, it proved to be too small for the many nuns. In 1897, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament moved to their new home, St. Elizabeth Convent, in nearby Andalusia, Bucks County.
Again, San Michel was empty. Louise Morrell later refitted the first and second floors of the house to serve as a chapel for Catholics who lived nearby. After St. Katherine of Siena Church was built on Frankford Avenue in Torresdale in 1922, the San Michel chapel served the many Polish people who were moving into the area. These people would later form Our Lady of Calvary parish.
Edward Morrell, Louise’s husband, died in 1917. Needing to fill the void left by his death and wishing to continue the family tradition of service, Louise traveled with Mother Katharine to different Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament missions throughout the nation and saw the need “to promote a good interracial spirit between the white and Negro races.”
Louise paid for and oversaw the renovation of San Michel into a Catholic pilgrimage center. In 1924, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave permission for Louise to build a shrine church on the property. The new chapel was named The Shrine of the True Cross and the San Michel property became known as St. Michael. A retreat house and a mission center also were built. When the work was complete, Louise Morrell signed the deed to St. Michael over to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She continued to pay the taxes, however.
Louise Drexel Morrell died in 1945, and Mother Katharine Drexel passed away in 1955. Retreats continued at St. Michael until 1966, and the mission center remained open until 1974. The following year, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament sold the property to Frankford Hospital, which opened its Torresdale Campus on the site in 1977. The hospital incorporated St. Michael’s Chapel and the original San Michel home, renamed the Mansion House, into its complex of buildings. Frankford Hospital became Aria Health in 2009, at which time the Torresdale campus was renamed Aria Health Torresdale.
Katharine Drexel was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1988 and canonized a saint on Oct. 1, 2000. She was inducted into the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2009.
When construction began this past spring on a major expansion of Aria Torresdale’s emergency department, there was concern about the fate of the Mansion House and St. Michael’s Chapel, particularly in light of the fact that the expansion included the demolition of some existing buildings on the hospital’s campus. In response to inquiries about the Drexel buildings, Aria Torresdale’s Winn provided the following statement:
“The significant impact of the Drexel Family is valued by Aria Health. As a community member, the Aria Torresdale campus seeks to ensure that the historical significance of both the Mansion House and [St. Michael’s Chapel] continue to be sources [of] pride within our area and provide an ongoing connection with the [hospital’s] contributions to the rich history of the neighborhood.
“We have incorporated the colors and distinctive architecture in the look of the new ER Building and have taken great care to preserve these buildings, while still expanding our health service offerings for our community.”
We are fortunate that these two important buildings will remain part of the physical and historical landscape of Northeast Philadelphia.
— Jack McCarthy is a longtime Philadelphia-area archival/historical consultant. He is co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network and Director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame. Patty McCarthy is an active member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network.