The cathedral church (Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul) is the principal church of the diocese, because it is here that the bishop as local ordinary of the diocese has his throne (chair), called the cathedra. Open since 1864 and located at the East side of Logan Square on 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the cathedral is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It is the largest brownstone structure in Philadelphia and the largest Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. The history of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is central to the history of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
In June 1784 the prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Cardinal Leonardo Antonelli, issued a decree establishing the Catholic Church in the United States as a distinct administrative area. In 1789 Father John Carroll was appointed as the first Bishop of Baltimore with jurisdiction over what was then the entire United States.
On April 8, 1808, Pope Pius VII established Baltimore as the first archdiocese in the United States and created four new dioceses: Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Bardstown, Kentucky. On the same date the first bishop of the Diocese (the entire State of Pennsylvania, the entire State of Delaware, and half of the State of New Jersey) of Philadelphia, was named. The Diocese of Philadelphia as established comprised about 43,000 square miles. The pastor of Saint Mary’s Church, Father Michael Egan, O.S.F., was appointed the first Bishop of Philadelphia and was ordained a bishop in October 1810. Saint Mary’s (4th Street near Spruce) would serve as the cathedral, and there the bishop would serve as pastor. Bishop Egan died in 1814 and his body was buried in the church yard of Saint Mary’s. After Bishop Egan’s death, Philadelphia had no bishop for nearly five and a half years. Egan’s successor was Bishop Henry Conwell, who was Bishop of Philadelphia from 1820 through 1842. As old age weakened Bishop Conwell, he was given assistance by the appointment of Bishop Francis Kenrick as coadjutor bishop. The young Bishop Kenrick was able to visit many of the parishes and quickly doubled the number of parishes in the City of Philadelphia. He established Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in 1832 and taught the first classes in his residence.
As the Catholic population grew, and the Diocese of Philadelphia became more organized and its institutions more visible, the intolerance of Catholics grew as some saw the Catholic Church as a threat to traditional American values. Closely tied to this anti-Catholicism was a political movement known as “nativism” that blamed recent immigrants (1840’s), especially the Irish, for changing the conditions of life in the City of Philadelphia.
In 1844 when Roman Catholics were a minority in Philadelphia and the “Know-Nothing” riots did not provide a hospitable environment for building a grand new edifice, the property where the Cathedral Basilica stands was purchased. Before an official visit to Rome to report that there were 100,000 Catholics (in a population of one million), sixty churches, fifty priests, and twenty-six seminarians in the Philadelphia Diocese, Bishop Kendrick sent a letter to the clergy announcing his plans for building a cathedral at the corner of Race and 18th Streets.
Bishop Kenrick authorized a Mr. Mark Anthony Frenaye to look out during his absence for an eligible site for a project he had entertained, the construction of a new Cathedral. In 1845 a building adjoining the Seminary property, met with financial failure and was offered for sale. The owner of the property was the Farmers’ Life and Trust Company. Mr. Frenaye secured the property. Bishop Kenrick on his return approved of and ratified Mr. Frenaye’s action. The city authorities complied with a request to change the line of a small street at the rear in order to give the depth necessary for the Cathedral. At the same time a large dwelling at the southeast corner of Eighteenth and Summer streets (now the entrance to the parking lot) was offered for sale by its owner. This property was also bought for the Bishop by Mr. Frenaye. As the bishop had no immediate use for the building, it was temporarily offered to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart where they opened their first school in Philadelphia. Bishop Kenrick thought that the choice of the site next to the Theological Seminary was advantageous because it would afford both students and faculty the opportunity to practice certain sacred ceremonies which they needed to perfect. The advantage of placing a cathedral on a large public square was also stressed, and the Bishop enjoined all members of the diocese to participate in the erection of this important edifice.
On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 1846, Bishop Kenrick initiated the building venture, during a period of strife between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Philadelphia, and issued a pastoral letter stating that the location was highly suitable for the construction of the new cathedral as the property fronted on a large public square and the ground was sufficiently spacious for the erection a building which would become the chief church of the diocese. The twenty-five year old Philadelphia architect Napoleon LeBrun was engaged and the cornerstone, a gift of Mr. James McClarnan, was laid on September 6, 1846 in the presence of some 8,000 persons.
Early in his career, LeBrun worked in the offices of Architect Thomas U. Walter who executed the U.S. Capitol Dome project. LeBrun was a native of Philadelphia born to French Catholic parents. LeBrun also designed The Philadelphia Academy of Music, Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church (Twentieth Street), Saint Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church (Fifth Street), Saint Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church (4th Street) and St. John Chrysostom’s Albanian Orthodox Church (17th Street) in Philadelphia as well as some of the earliest skyscrapers (Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower)in New York City.
Shortly after the start of the economic depression progress on the Cathedral slowed-down. John Notman, whose work in Philadelphia includes St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Locust Street), the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity (Rittenhouse Square) and Saint Clements had been hired to work on the façade, and John Mahoney assumed LeBrun’s responsibility.
The Cathedral was built with only very high clerestory windows to prevent vandalism. The fact that the cathedral was designed with no windows at street level is a reminder of the “Know-Nothing” riots. The original design included light-colored tinted windows only in the clerestory so that natural light could be admitted and stained glass windows in the dome, some seventy-five to one hundred feet above street level. Legend is that the architect and construction workers threw rocks and as high as they could be thrown was were the clerestory windows were placed. Lower stained glass windows were added to the new sanctuary apse and baptistery during the 1955-1957 renovation and expansion. During the construction of the Cathedral, Bishop Kenrick, who initiated the building venture, was elevated to be the Archbishop of Baltimore in August, 1851. In leaving Philadelphia, Bishop Kenrick indicated that in spite of the honor awaiting him, an important part of his thoughts were with the unfinished Cathedral and Seminary into which he had put so much of himself. His successors Bishop Neumann and Bishop Wood continued the work. Czech-born Redemptorist Father John Nepomucene Neumann was appointed the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. One of the first tasks to which the new Bishop, John N. Neumann, addressed himself, was the completing of the Cathedral. During the week following his installation, he sent out a pastoral letter to his clergy; it included a request for them to put forth effort to aid in the completion of the Cathedral. Although Bishop Neumann was eager to have the work go forward, he was in complete accord with Bishop Kenrick’s policy of avoiding debt and of undertaking work only when the money was at hand. Unfortunately, the appeal did not succeed, for the money did not come in. Although there were many poor people in the diocese, there were also persons of wealth who could have given money, but did not.
Saint John Neumann’s successor, Bishop James Wood, a native Philadelphian entered the Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was appointed a coadjutor to Bishop Neumann in 1857, and in 1875 became the first Archbishop of Philadelphia.
In recognition of its importance and strategic location Philadelphia was raised to the rank of an archdiocese in 1875. Bishop Wood became the first Archbishop of Philadelphia. Archbishop Wood’s tenure saw the completion and dedication of the Cathedral and the building of a new seminary campus in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. The cathedral was dedicated and solemnly blessed, Bishop Wood officiating, on November 20, 1864 at the time the Civil War was in high gear. The assistant priest on the occasion was the Very Reverend William O’Hara, V.G., who became the Bishop of Scranton. The sermon was preached by Archbishop Spaulding of Baltimore. The Cathedral was solemnly consecrated on June 30, 1890 when the mortgage was paid. The venerable edifice was completely renovated in 1914 under the direction of Archbishop Edmond F. Prendergast.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is modeled after the Lombard Church of Saint Charles (San Carlo al Corso) in Rome. It is an excellent example of Roman-Corinthian architecture. The façade is Notman’s greatest achievement while serving as architect. The Palladian façade and aqua oxidized-copper dome are in the Italian Renaissance manner. The façade is of brownstone, now atmosphere and weather-worn and pinkish in color. The stone originally came from quarries in Connecticut and northern New Jersey. The façade is graced by four massive stone columns of the Corinthian order, over 60 feet high and 6 feet in diameter. The four statues in the niches are: the Sacred Heart, to whom the diocese was consecrated by Bishop Wood on October 15, 1873; Mary, the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed patroness of the United States at the First Council of Baltimore in 1846; and Saints Peter and Paul, dauntless defenders of the faith, patrons of the Cathedral Basilica. The statue of Mary, the Immaculate Conception was placed in the niche in 1918. It was sculpted at the Joseph Sibbel Studios. The Statues of Saints Peter and Paul were sculpted in the Gorham Studios. The Cathedral Basilica measures more than 250 feet in length, 136 feet in width, and approximately 156 feet in height from the floor to the top of the dome. The total height is 209 feet from the floor to the top of the 11-foot gold cross atop the dome, bringing the total height of the Cathedral to 314 feet above the pavement. The dome is an iconic symbol of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. The great dome is a recognizable sign of this religious landmark among the many civic ones on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The building of the Cathedral continued through the tenures of Saint John Neumann and Archbishop Wood, and was completed in 1864. At the time of the completion of the Cathedral Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States. On July 6, 1877 the altars dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart were blessed.
The ends of the transept are decorated by two large paintings representing the Ascension of our Lord and the Adoration of the Kings from the East.
In 1890 the consecration of the Cathedral took place. It was the most important religious event, of the time, to take place in Philadelphia.
Cast bronze doors lead from the main façade into the narthex, or vestibule. The handrails, along with the doors of the Race Street entrance to the Cathedral, are also of bronze. These were all installed during the renovations of the 1950’s.
The interior of the basilica is in Roman-Corinthian style, is spacious with an oversize apse of stained glass and antique marble in magnificent proportions reminiscent of Roman churches and cross-shaped in form. The great nave is 50 feet wide and 192 feet long. Its vaulted ceiling is 80 feet above the floor. Massive pillars separate the nave and transept from the side aisles, which give way to arched recesses for altars and the Baptistery. The interior was largely decorated by Constantino Brumidi who also painted the Capitol in Washington. When the walls were first raised there were no original side windows because of the danger of destruction in the “Know-Nothing” era. Natural light is admitted through the lightly tinted clerestory windows close to the ceiling. The windows have simple religious symbols – JHS (Christ), Three lilies representing the Trinity, a key (Saint Peter), a Cross, a Crown of Thorns, a Sword and Scripture (Saint Paul) – as their most prominent decoration. Gold rosettes on a rich blue background adorn the coffered ceiling. Bronze chandeliers, weighing a half ton each, light the nave. The floor is marble tile. A white marble altar rail with three bronze gates separates the nave and transept from the sanctuary.
Inside the great dome rising 156 feet above the floor of the Cathedral Basilica reveals a striking painting of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. At the next level are panel paintings entitled “Angels of The Passion.” With each group of angels is an emblem of the Passion. In clockwise order (facing the Main Altar) they are: the chalice (Blood of Christ), the cross, the crown of thorns, Veronica’s veil, angels weeping, stripping of garments and scepter, the host (Body of Christ), angels weeping, the nails, the banner reading INRI, the sponge on a reed, and the scourging pillar. The third level are stained glass windows depicting the Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus, Saint Peter on her right and Saint Paul on her left. The remaining are all Doctors of the Church. In clockwise order (facing the Main Altar) the windows depict Mary holding the Child, Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint Leo, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Cyril, Saint Athanasius, and Saint Peter. The oil on canvas paintings of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (at the top of the great dome), the pendentives, and the four Evangelists – Matthew (Angel), Mark (Lion), Luke (Winged Ox), and John (Eagle) – in the medallions on the spandrels at the base of the dome were painted by Constantino Brumidi, the famed artist of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
On the Feast of the Maternity of Our Lady, October 11, 1955, The Chapel of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, newly-built, on the north side of the Basilica, was dedicated. It replaced the old chapel that was built in 1856. From 1956 to 1957, shortly after the Chapel was completed, major renovations to the Cathedral were carried out. The principal work of the 1956-57 renovation was the construction of the semi-circular apse, to extend the sanctuary to its present dept of 54 feet. The focal point is the main altar. The altar is constructed of Botticino marble with Mandorlato rose marble trim. Three gilded bronze discs decorate the front, the central one bears the Greek inscription of Jesus Christ, IHS. The canopy, or baldachin, over the altar is of Antique Italian marble. It stands thirty-eight feet high and is surmounted by a semi-circular bronze dome. The underside of the dome is a marble mosaic. Its central figure is a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The mosaic carries in Latin an inscription which translates: “In every place there is offered and sacrificed in My Name a clean oblation.” At the corners of the baldachin stand ten foot high white Italian marble Angels. Its decorative rosettes are of Botticino marble.
The choir-stalls and the Cardinal’s chair are American black walnut. The wooden screens are inspired by the famous metal rejería found in many cathedrals in Spain. The pulpit, opposite the Cardinal’s chair, is octagonal in shape. It is constructed of marble matching the altar and has a carved walnut canopy. In the Sanctuary, stained glass windows contribute both beauty and light. The stained glass windows behind the altar were added in 1957. The center window is devoted to the Eucharist and depicts the sacrifice of Melchizedeck, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the Last Supper. The window to the left portrays three events in the life of Saint Peter – his call by Christ to be a fisher of men; Christ giving Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, the keys to Heaven; and his death, being crucified upside down. The right window portrays three scenes from the life of Saint Paul – his conversion, his preaching to the Athenians, and his death by beheading. Between the stained glass windows are two marble mosaics – Saint Peter and Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint Paul and Saint Paul’s, Outside-the-Walls Basilica in Rome. The two side altars are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The inscription translation over the main altar in the Sanctuary reads: “Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
The Baptistery was also enlarged in 1957. The apse was added with the stained glass window, from Conmick of Boston, depicting the Baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist and Saints Peter and Paul baptizing prisoners in the Mamertine prison in Rome with water from a miraculous spring. The Mandorlato Rose Baptismal font is surmounted by a bronze dome with the inscription of the Sign of the Cross. The baptistery is enclosed by a bronze screen inspired by a similar one in the Cathedral of Toledo in Spain. Set into the top center of the screen is the Coast of Arms of Cardinal O’Hara, carrying his motto in Latin “If you follow her you shall not go astray”, referring to our Lady.
The altar to the left of the Baptistery is dedicated to the Holy Souls modeled after the Blessed Sacrament Altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
In 1975 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia two mosaic murals designed by Leandro Velasco were set in place. The north 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’s and St. Augustine’s 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 Cathedral Basilica seats approximately 1,240 people (1,500 with added temporary chairs) in pews of walnut wood. Since the 1856 renovations, the confessionals, too, are of walnut finish; their privacy is secured by red velvet curtains. The floor is of white and black marble tiles.
During the episcopate of John Cardinal O’Hara, in the years 1956-1957, the interior was extensively renewed and enlarged to provide an adequate sanctuary for pontifical functions. The ambulatory was added and the sanctuary was extended fifty-four feet. The mail altar was replaced with a free-standing altar, beneath a bronze baldachin, its interior being fitted with a gold mosaic depicting a dove in blue and white and crowned with four ten-foot-tall angels of Italian marble atop each supporting pillar.
The Holy Father on fitting occasions expresses his grateful appreciation to the faithful for outstanding catholic action rendered to the Church and the people of God. This great honor was bestowed on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at the request of Cardinal John J. Krol, after it hosted the 41st International Eucharistic Congress. The archdiocese welcomed dignitaries like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dom Helder Camara, Dorothy Day and Cardinal Wojtwa, later Pope John Paul II to the Congress. Cardinal Krol participated in both conclaves in 1978 electing Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II, who visited the Archdiocese for two days in October, 1979.
Cardinal Rigali has been overseeing many renovations to the Cathedral Basilica and the Cathedral Chapel. In 2007, the Tabernacle was moved from the side altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary to the main altar. The Sanctuary Light indicating the place of reserve for the Blessed Sacrament was also moved to the main sanctuary.
The shrine to the Eucharist was removed in 2008 to install the new, more classical shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of Grace/Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. An heirloom copy of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in the marble frame, was enthroned by Cardinal Rigali in June 6, 2009 at the time he blessed the other three new and/or refurbished marble side shrines (Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John Neumann, Saint Katharine Drexel) in the Cathedral.
The shrines dedicated to Saint Katharine Drexel and Saint John Neumann were especially challenging because the seven-foot sculpted marble statues of these recent saints had to be based on true likenesses that are known and had to be captured by the sculptors. It was especially important that the original altar be retained at the Saint Katharine Shrine because it was donated in the 19th century by Saint Katharine herself, along with her sisters, Elizabeth and Louise, as a memorial to their deceased parents, Francis and Emma Drexel.
The altar to the right of the Altar dedicated to Saint Katharine Drexel is the memorial altar to Archbishop Ryan, designed with the ancient Celtic Cross. The statue to the left of the Celtic Cross is Saint Patrick; the statue to the right is Saint John the Evangelist.
The altar on the south side, between the Shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and the Bapistry, is modeled after the Blessed Sacrament altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and is dedicated to the Holy Souls.
In December, 2009 the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe was installed in the Cathedral Basilica. The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was the thought of Cardinal Rigali.
The choir loft is at the rear of the Cathedral. High above can be seen the majestic stained glass window of the Crucifixion. Below the window is the organ screen, or casing, constructed of carved walnut. The richly ornamental screen is the design of Otto Eggers, who also designed the Jefferson Monument, the Mellon Art Gallery, and the National Gallery of Art, all in Washington, D.C. The casing which encloses the pipes is one of the most outstanding in the country. It has been cited in national organ periodicals and organ-building manuals. The case enclosing the organ was most likely built by Edwin Forest Durang, one of the cathedral architects and builders.
The Cathedral organ is one of the largest in the city of Philadelphia, having seventy-five ranks of pipes, ninety stops and 4,648 pipes on four manuals and pedals. The first pipe organ known to have been installed in the cathedral was built by John C.B. Standbridge in 1868 at a cost of $10,000.00. It was replaced, except for the 16’ Subbass, which still plays today, by a new instrument, Opus 939, built by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut for a cost of $30,000.00 in 1920. The contract, signed by the Cathedral Rector Reverend Daniel Gercke, for the Austin Organ Opus 939 contained some interesting features. In the 1957 renovations it was rebuilt by the Tellers Organ Company and a new console was installed. During these renovations the organ loft was expanded to provide more room for the choir, which had been established in the 1920’s. During 1975-76 major renovations were completed on the organ in preparation for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress and the United States Bicentennial. In 1977 the Tellers console was replaced with a used Austin Console, originally built in 1922 for the Rochester Theatre. Further restoration, undertaken in 1987, included the addition of the Trumpet chamade, situated on the ceiling of the organ case. The organ is considered perfectly placed, speaking directly into the nave. Plans are underway for a new Cathedral Organ, however, the very best stops of the previous organs will be retained and restored.
The organ is known only from historical sources, including a pencil sketch of the case made by the Austin Organ Company. Standbridge began building organs in 1840 and quickly gained a reputation for building exceptional pipe organs in prominent churches in Philadelphia and the surrounding area.
The Statues of Saint Peter (South side/rear) and Saint Paul (North side/rear) Patrons of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul were placed in the Cathedral Basilica in August of 2009. They were moved from the Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament, now closed, in Philadelphia.
The burial crypt under the main altar of the Cathedral is the final resting place of the remains of most of the ordinaries of the Archdiocese as well as other Bishops and clergymen of Philadelphia.
With its majestic facade, vaulted dome, ornate main altar, eight impressive side chapels, and main sanctuary the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is one of the largest brownstone and architecturally-eminent structures in the City of Philadelphia. The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is ranked among the outstandingly beautiful and architecturally perfect structures in Philadelphia and in the United States.
An audio tour is available for your MP3 device to assist you on your next visit to the Cathedral Basilica. The tour is approximately twenty minutes in length and the download is free. Click here to download the Cathedral audio tour.
Please click on the link below to view a gallery which contains pictures of the beautiful Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.