Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament – Architectural Information and History
This stunning, historical property is home to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament motherhouse in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The 44-acre property contains ten buildings, including the National Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel, the Chapel, and the Mission Center. This site is unique because of its architectural design and Spanish/French influence. It opened its doors in 1892, and continues to welcome visitors into its beautiful, peaceful setting.
The tomb of Saint Katherine Drexel is located on these premises beneath the chapel. A museum dedicated to her life and mission is a part of this National Shrine. Visitors come from all over to honor the life of St. Katherine Drexel and learn more about her life and the sisters who have followed in her footsteps.
The History of the Property
The Drexel family had a summer home near the Bensalem, Pennsylvania property, so St. Katherine Drexel was familiar with the area. When she began her religious life in 1891, she began the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve poor Native Americans and African Americans. Along with ten other sisters, she moved to the family summer home to wait for construction to be completed on the motherhouse in Cornwell Heights (an area of Bensalem) to be completed.
In 1892, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament moved into the motherhouse on this property. Soon after, they built a boarding house for black children adjoining the chapel. Th original premises consisted of five buildings: the St. Elizabeth Convent, the Chapel, the Boarding School, the Laundry Building, and the Utility Building.
The architect, Charles Burns, designed the buildings on the property to all resemble the early Spanish Indian Mission of New Mexico and California. Additionally, the architect incorporated the Spanish French styles of European monasteries he saw during his visits to Southern Europe. This is easily evident to visitors from the grey stone buildings with red Spanish tiled roofs. All the original buildings were designed by Burns.
The property also includes an enclosed courtyard with a high wall. In order to enter the courtyard, one enters through a beautiful wide arch with a hipped roof. However, the two and a half story St. Elizabeth Convent is the main building on the property. The motherhouse is a key focal point of the property.
St. Elizabeth Chapel was funded by St. Katherine Drexel in honor of her sister. Its unique design includes seats that face one another. This was done so that the sisters may face one another during prayers with the altar remaining a focal point. The chapel also has a large semicircular window and a Flemish gable. There is also a bell tower.
Changes and Renovations
Unfortunately, the original Holy Providence Boarding School burned down in 1967. The school was removed in its entirety in 1973. However, several new buildings have been designed in the same style as the original buildings and are made of the same materials. Currently, there are ten buildings on the property.
There have also been renovations made to the original buildings. In 1988, St. Elizabeth Chapel was modernized and cleaned. Additionally, they began to introduce artwork by Native Americans in the Chapel. These art pieces elegantly depict their mission.
Upon St. Katherine Drexel’s canonization in 2000, a major renovation took place. A new entrance was erected, along with an elevator and stair tower. A drop-off and circular walkway was designed for visitors. Other major renovations included: a café, an outside terrace, a 100-person seating auditorium, and a gift shop. The architects designed these permanent additions to complement the original structures.
The Current State
The motherhouse was St. Katherine Drexel’s home for decades. It continues to be a home for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. With many Sisters retired and no longer working, the property is currently being sold. However, the National Shrine of Saint Katherine Drexel remains open and welcomes visitors through 2017. Eventually, Saint Katherine Drexel’s tomb will be relocated to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. At this point, no one has bought this unique, historical property.