NE historic buildings will be preserved

Two loc­al his­tor­ic build­ings on Aria Health Tor­res­dale’s cam­pus will not be harmed dur­ing ma­jor con­struc­tion pro­jects. 

His­tor­ic­al ex­cel­lence: The Man­sion House, a sum­mer home of the Saint Kath­ar­ine Drexel fam­ily, is loc­ated on the Aria Health Tor­res­dale cam­pus. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF JACK MC­CARTHY

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.

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