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Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014

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In anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of the Families from September 26-27, 2015, we look at the history of the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the largest Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
 

The History

With the passage of the Charter of Privileges in 1701, William Penn officially secured religious freedom for all Pennsylvanians.  In a time when such a freedom was rare, individuals persecuted for their religious beliefs from across the globe flocked to Philadelphia. Catholic populations from England, Ireland, and Germany were among the first religious groups to settle in Philadelphia in the early 18th Century. The first Catholic Mass in Philadelphia was celebrated in 1707 and the first Catholic Church, Old St. Joseph's was constructed in 1733.
 
By the time America had declared its independence, nearly one quarter of all Philadelphians were Catholic.  As the Church continued to grow, Bishop Kenrick announced plans to build a grand Cathedral to serve as the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1846. To be called the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, construction would not be completed on the building until nearly two decades later in 1864. As it turned out the Cathedral would be worth the wait.  
 
Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
 
Designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the Cathedral is built in the Roman-Corinthian style and modeled after the Lombard Church of St. Charles in Rome.  The Church was immediately recognized as a significant work of architecture.  The exterior is clad in brownstone, making the Cathedral the largest brownstone building in Philadelphia. The interior of the church is ornately decorated, especially the main alter which sits beneath the vaulted dome of the church.  The large church contains eight side chapels aside from the main alter and all told can comfortably hold 2,000 people for worship.  Each of the side chapels pays tribute to a saint within the Catholic Church including Philadelphia’s two native saints, St. Katharine Drexel and St. John Nepomucene Neumann.  The cathedral was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
 
Perhaps the biggest day for the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul was the 1979 Mass given by Pope John Paul II.  On October 3rd 1979 Pope John Paul II arrived in Philadelphia and that afternoon he said Mass to an estimated 1 million people in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. This Mass still stands as one of the largest public gatherings in the history of Philadelphia.  People gathered all up and down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the hopes of hearing Pope John Paul II speak.
 
1979 Papal Mass In Philadelphia - Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
When Pope Francis arrives in late September of 2015 a similarly huge crowd is expected to once again gather in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.  Pope Francis will be arriving for the final days of the September 22-27 World Meeting of the Families and is expected to celebrate Mass.
 

What to See

Those who are planning to visit Philadelphia for the 2015 World Meeting of the Families will have plenty of opportunities to get an up close look of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul as many of the events will be centered upon the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s mother church.  The main home of the World Meeting of the Families will be the nearby Pennsylvania Convention Center which is located a short 5 minute walk away from the Cathedral.  
 
At this point, many of the events and activities that will be available for the 2015 World Meeting of the Families are still in the planning phase, as the event approaches you can check for updated itinerates at the event’s website.
 
If you do wish to take in the beauty of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, we would recommend avoiding trying to do so anytime close to the papal mass.  The Papal Mass given by Pope Francis himself is expected to draw over a million people and will likely prevent you from getting anywhere close to the actual Cathedral.  If you can’t get a seat close to the Cathedral, its location directly across the street from Logan Square and next to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway means that you may be able to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis even from thousands of feet away.  At the Papal Mass in 1979, people sat as far away as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, located nearly a mile away from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
 
Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
 

Insider Tips

Under the main alter of the Cathedral there is burial crypt which contains the remains of many of Philadelphia’s most important Catholics.  This includes Francis Kenrick who was influential in the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.  Also entombed within the crypt is Dennis Joseph Dougherty, the eighth Bishop of Philadelphia and the first to rise to the status of Cardinal.  While access to burial crypt will likely be difficult to come by during the immense crowds that are expected to arrive during the 2015 World Meeting of the Families, those visiting at another time may find more success.  
 
A free audio tour which you can download here may enhance your visit to the Cathedral.
 

How to Get There

Those who wish to drive can find street parking in the area surrounding the Cathedral as well as numerous parking lots and garages in the area.  However during the 2015 World Meeting of the Families the immense crowds will make driving a poor choice.  Luckily the Cathedral is easily accessible by foot as it is located centrally in Philadelphia and is well served by public transit.
 
Guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour can easily walk to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.  If you start at the National Constitution Center, where all of our tours both begin and end, simply start walking west on Arch Street until you reach the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  From there, turn right onto the Parkway and the Cathedral will be on your right as you approach 18th Street.  
 
The Cathedral is easily accessible by public transit as it just a few minutes away from Suburban Station, a hub for regional rail trains in Philadelphia, as well as both 15th Street Station and Race-Vine Station, serving both the Market-Frankford Subway Line and the Broad Street Subway Line respectively.
 
The Cathedral is also one of the stops on The Constitutional Bus Tour, ensuring all of guests of that tour a chance to view the impressive building.  Groups will a special interest in seeing the Cathedral up close can also arrange for our bus tour to make a special stop at the Cathedral allowing visitors to go inside.
 

Hours

Monday – Friday: 7:30AM – 5:00PM
Saturday: 9:00AM – 5:15PM
Sunday: 8:00AM – 6:30PM
(Note: these hours are subject to change, and you may want to contact the Cathedral Basilica to confirm)
 

Additional Information

18th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19103
 

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