History

In Germantown, a 152-Year-Old Shrine Connects Communities Through Worship

June 11, 2024 | by Jacob Downs

The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, a well known and impressive structure in the heart of Center City that most residents are likely familiar with, is not the only minor basilica in Philadelphia. Tucked away in the eastern section of Germantown is another impressive church which shares the same papal designated title as a minor basilica: the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

The story of the shrine begins in the early 19th century, when a Catholic society of apostolic life called the Congregation of the Mission arrived in the United States. The members of this congregation, typically referred to as Vincentians (after their founder, Vincent de Paul) arrived in the area around 1816 at the request of Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia. Upon arrival, the Vincentians served at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Their early missions sought to establish parishes for Irish immigrants migrating to East Coast cities.

The Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at 500 E. Chelten Avenue. | Photo: Jacob Downs

By 1865, the number of Vincentian society members had expanded, triggering their purchase of land in Germantown to build the St. Vincent’s Seminary. Its cornerstone was laid in 1868 at the intersection of Germantown’s Chelten Avenue and Magnolia Street. By 1872 the seminary was complete. Soon thereafter, the Vencentians planned to erect a chapel on the seminary grounds. While initially the chapel was meant only to serve the seminarians, Archbishop James Frederick Wood of Philadelphia expanded its purpose to serve the growing Irish immigrant community.

This chapel, known at the time as the Chapel of Immaculate Conception, had its cornerstone placed in 1875 and was completed four years later. It remains only a small part of the large basilica that can be seen today. As the population of Philadelphia exploded in the late 19th century, the chapel needed to expand to handle its growing congregation.

The Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal was completed in 1872. | Photo: Jacob Downs

In 1927, Germantown native Father Joseph A. Skelly led an initiative to expand the chapel. Driven by his deep devotion to Mary and the Miraculous Medal, the expansion sought to create a dedicated area for “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal,” a title for Mary that originates from her appearances to Saint Catherine Labouré in the Rue du Bac Chapel in Paris. According to the story, Mary appeared to Labouré three times. During the second visit, Mary was seen inside an oval frame with rays of light extending from her fingertips. The frame then rotated to reveal 12 stars, a large letter M intertwined with a cross. Mary instructed Labouré to present these images to her father confessor and have them placed on medallions that could be given to the faithful. This led to the creation of the Miraculous Medal, which was quickly embraced by Catholics. Father Skelly, for example, wore a Miraculous Medal given to him by his mother.

On December 8, 1930, Skelly began the first Perpetual Novena, a series of weekly prayers commemorating the story of Saint Catherine Labouré’s visions of Mary. Thousands of devotees would attend these sessions throughout the 1930s and into the war period. By 1950, it was estimated that nearly 15,000 people attended the weekly Novena. At its peak attendance, there were 12 services held each Monday to accommodate the massive crowds.

Inside the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. | Photo: Jacob Downs

Today, the number of attendees has dropped. While the shrine may no longer see thousands of people each week, participation has become global as viewers from around the world can tune in to the Novena via various social media platforms. Remarkably, the Novena has been held every Monday for 95 years without interruption.

Throughout the 20th century the shrine emerged as a significant site for both migrants and immigrants. As African Americans relocated to Philadelphia during the Great Migration, it became a central hub for their worship. In more recent years, the basilica shrine has partnered with various communities and organizations to establish devotional shrines that resonate with that community’s specific cultural traditions. For example, Our Lady of Guadalupe was created for the Latino community, Our Lady of Knock for the Irish community, Our Lady of FIAT for the Filipino community, and Our Lady of Vallankanni for the Indian community. Further, to accommodate the large Hispanic population of Philadelphia, Mass and the Novena are held in the Spanish language every month.

Inside the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. | Photo: Jacob Downs

What is seen today is largely unchanged since the early 20th century. The building exhibits many characteristics of Romanesque Revival architecture, including large heavy stone construction, rounded arches over windows and doors, and large arched doorways. Above the three doorways into the upper shrine is an impressive stained glass rose window. On either side of the entrance stand two turrets, and behind stands a 125 foot bell tower which holds the basilica’s Carillon Bells, a series of 23 bells that can be played by keyboard and have been used since 1901. Atop the belfry stands a 14-foot bronze statue of Mary.

Inside the structure, a grand sanctuary unfolds with large columns supporting a domed ceiling inlaid with ornate golden murals of Mary. The half-domed front of the sanctuary holds the altar, surrounded by three 18-foot murals depicting the Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, and the Nativity. Above the altar another mural of Mary covers the dome’s ceiling. To the right of this area stands the main shrine of the Miraculous Medal, where a life sized Carrara marble altar stands with an ornate statue of Mary. This statue is posed as she reportedly appeared to St. Catherine and how she appears on the Miraculous Medals. To either side of the statue of Mary are the front and back of the Miraculous Medal. Surrounding this altar are seven gothic style stained glass windows depicting the life of Mary from birth to her coronation. In the lower shrine, separate alcoves house devotional shrines that honor the cultural and ethnic traditions of the surrounding community.

Inside the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. | Photo: Jacob Downs

In December of 2022, Pope Francis named the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal as the 92nd minor basilica of the United States and second of Philadelphia. With the recognition, the shrine was renamed as the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. With the new designation comes new celebrations, specifically the Feast of the Chair of Peter on February 22, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29, and the anniversary of the pope’s inauguration. Aside from these celebrations, the basilica shrine now can display the Vatican City’s coat of arms on its facade as well as the crossed keys of Saint Peter. They can display the ombrellino, a yellow and red silk canopy, as well as the tintinnabulum, a bell mounted on a pole, both of which symbolize the basilica’s link to the pope.

From its origins as a seminary on a small plot of land in Germantown to a globally recognized minor basilica, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal stands as an enduring legacy of the Vincentians who arrived in the United States in the early 19th century. Thanks to its recent historic designation, the shrine will continue to serve the Catholic community across the region.



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About the Author

Jacob Downs is a Philadelphia native who was born and raised in the city's far Northeast. As an undergraduate, he studied American history and political science. He continued his history education with a master’s degree focusing on perceptions of gender during Philadelphia’s industrial past.

2 Comments:

  1. David D. says:

    FYI-The Shrine is not a cathedral as it is not the seat of the Archbishop of Philadelphia.

  2. Joan walker says:

    A satellite branch of the Germantown church was at 1903 Spring Garden Street for almost a century. For more see: https://www.baldwinparkphilly.org/la-milagrosa-chapel-1

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