Xavier University’s choir honors St. Katharine Drexel

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

A contingent from Xavier University of Louisiana’s Concert Choir traveled from New Orleans to Philadelphia to honor, in song, St. Katharine Drexel, the Blessed Sacrament order founder who made their education possible by opening Xavier University in 1925.

The choir performed a 15-minute prelude at the solemn Mass and celebration of the “Installation of the Tomb with the Sacred Remains of St. Katharine Drexel” Nov. 18 at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput was the celebrant and homilist.

From the planning stages of the event, the Xavier Concert Choir was always included, according to Father Dennis Gill, rector and pastor of the Basilica.

“It was important for us to have representatives from her life and work in this country, so naturally we turned to Xavier University to be part of the celebration,” Father Gill said.

The Mass marked the official moving of St. Katharine Drexel’s body, originally buried at St. Elizabeth Convent at the Blessed Sacrament Motherhouse in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, to her hometown of Philadelphia. The move was required due to the Blessed Sacrament Sisters selling their motherhouse property. Her sacred remains were actually translated to Philadelphia Aug. 2, but it took time to reconstruct the tomb from the motherhouse in the basilica, Father Gill said.  

Performed three times

The Xavier University concert Choir also sang at an alumni gathering for Drexel University graduates Nov. 17 on campus, opening with a prelude of “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl; and choir member and Xavier senior vocal performance major Kayla Lewis performing the aria “Sovra il Sen la Man Mi Posa” from the opera “La Sonnambula” by Vincenzo Bellini, according to Dr. John Ware, Xavier University’s Rosa Keller Endowed Professor of Music and director of Choral Activities for its Department of Music. They performed a second time Nov. 18 at the end of the Mass at the basilican as people were leaving.

He was extremely gratified with his choir’s performances at the basilica and alumni gatherings and said members were awed by the ceremony.

Ware had written an original composition entitled “Gentle Mother, Like Our Lady” dedicated to St. Katharine Drexel, but it wasn’t scheduled to be performed at the ceremony or the alumni gathering.

When one of St. Katharine’s descendants happened to hear about the song at the Drexel University alumni event, Ware was asked if the choir could sing it, even though they had concluded their performance.

“We all gathered around, and everybody started singing,” Ware said. “It was special to me because it became apparent it was supposed to be sung. … I was really proud of the choir, so I was really excited when alumni asked us to sing more.”

Performance was special

The Xavier University’s Concert Choir had sung at the canonization of St. Katharine Drexel in Vatican City in 2000, Ware, a Xavier University of Louisiana graduate, said. But this celebration of the translation of her body to the basilica was different. The Vatican ceremony, as special a place as it is, didn’t have the intimate feeling as the several thousand gathered to honor  St. Katharine in Philadelphia.

“There was a wonderful sense of community there and a sense of hospitality,” Ware said. “I think the common denominator was everybody was committed to or dedicated to or touched by St. Katharine, either by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and their work or by St. Katharine directly. Those thousands of people were there for St. Katharine, and the choir got to be a part of it, too. … I was a Xavier graduate formed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and St. Katharine’s model of Christian charity and social justice. That has made me who I am. That is what I try to pass on to my students. That is the Xavier legacy left by St. Katharine that we all try, in our own way, to emulate.” 

St. Katharine’s life

St. Katharine Drexel was born Catherine Mary Drexel on Nov. 26, 1858, in Philadelphia, the second child of wealthy investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel and Elizabeth Langstroth Drexel, according to a Catholic News Service (CNS) story from July 2018. She decided religious life was her calling, and, in 1891, founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to help the African-American and Native American population. 

Upon her death in 1955, her funeral was celebrated at Sts. Peter and Paul Basilica, a place where her family sometimes attended Mass. The cathedral also was the site of an annual memorial Mass for St. Katharine, CNS said. 

St. Katharine and her sisters had previously donated an altar to the basilica, Father Gill said,  in honor of their father and stepmother Emma Bouvier Drexel who raised them. (Their mother died after her birth.) 

Her remains were relocated to the reconstructed tomb next to the Drexel family altar in rear of the cathedral on the left as you walk inside the basilica, according to its website which gives a history of St. Katharine. It states she is the second American-born person ever to be canonized.

“Today, we rejoice in a most solemn and fitting way, that the sacred remains of St. Katharine Drexel have been translated from the motherhouse of the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament … to this cathedral in center city in Philadelphia,” said Father Gill to open the Nov. 18 celebration. “This is a  historic moment for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and for our cathedral parish. We have confidence in the heavenly intercession of St. Katharine Drexel to pray for all of us.”

The relocated tomb is open for visitation and prayer, according to Sts. Peter and Paul website. To see the live Holy Mass with the dedication of St. Katharine Drexel to her tomb in Philadelphia, visit http://www.saintkath arinedrexelshrine.com.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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