The rooms where the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament forged a ministry devoted to underserved communities are now a backdrop for an auction that will offer pieces of the nuns’ history for sale.
Sculpture from Haiti, Native American sand paintings, and dolls and record albums on African American history fill tables inside parlors where the sisters once met. Religious art leans against the walls of their formal dining room. A grand piano sits in a room where an auctioneer will likely ask, “What are my bids?”
The auction scheduled for Friday is yet another step in the religious community’s years-long farewell to the place that was once a Catholic shrine housing the body of St. Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress who founded the community. The nuns are selling the 44-acre estate that has been their headquarters since 1892.
Nearly 200 items will be sold in an in-person and online auction that starts at 11 a.m. at the property at 1663 Bristol Pike. A preview will begin at 9. The auction, which is being administered by Stephenson’s Auctioneers & Appraisers of Southampton, is expected to continue to about 2 p.m.
The sale will feature antique bookcases, stained glass windows, rugs, cabinets, dishes, pedestals, musical instruments, and other items that had become part of the religious community’s life since St. Katharine founded the order in 1891.
"We have mixed emotions,” said Sister Donna Breslin, the order’s president. “It’s difficult. Most of the items hold a lot of history for us, but we also realize that this is a time of transition.”
The religious order has an agreement of sale with Bucks County-based Aquinas Realty Partners, which plans to build a 605-unit residential community that includes luxury town and carriage homes and a senior living community. The nuns, who have suffered a severe decline in membership, decided to sell the property several years ago because they were unable to maintain it.
The parcel’s 10 buildings include a chapel, the former shrine, classroom buildings for the religious training, two convents, and a barn where the sisters raised animals.
Friday’s auction is the third featuring items belonging to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, but the first to be held on the community’s grounds. The order earlier donated many liturgical items to other religious communities.
In 2017, Freeman’s auction house in Center City sold a collection of Native America pottery, beadwork, weavings, and basketry largely by Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo artisans. Last year, Material Culture in East Falls sold wall hangings, sculpture and pottery. Each auction sold about 50 items.
The Freeman’s auction items sold for a total hammer price of $68,800, including $4,000 for a Navajo belt made of silver and leather, according to Freeman’s website. Material Culture’s items sold for $8,200, according to Invaluable.com. The totals do not include the auction houses’ buyer’s premium.
Proceeds from the sales will be used to continue the community’s ministry, fund charitable initiatives, and care for the order’s aging nuns. The community has about 80 sisters, ranging in age from the early 50s to nearly 100. Most live at Paul’s Run, a continuing care community in Northeast Philadelphia.
St. Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament after giving up a $7 million fortune to dedicate her life to the Catholic faith and to serve minority communities. She entered a Pittsburgh convent in 1889 and founded the order two years later, and then established its headquarters in Bucks County.
On the walls of a first-floor hallway are three framed charts listing the nuns who have lived and died in the community, beginning with Sister Mary Patrick Flaherty, who died in 1891, and ending with Sister Rita Gillen, who died in April.
St. Katharine’s name is prominently displayed on the first chart. She died in 1955 and her remains were entombed at the Bucks County headquarters, which became a national shrine, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. St. Katharine was canonized in 2000.
>> READ MORE: St. Katharine Drexel’s tomb unveiled at Cathedral
Last year, her body was moved to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Center City, which was later declared a shrine of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament plan to keep their headquarters in the area once the property’s sale is finalized. They remain optimistic about what lies ahead.
“We are now moving into the future,” Breslin said. “We have still have great hope and trust that our congregation will continue.”