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Saint Elizabeth Convent



Saint Elizabeth Convent is located at 1663 Bristol Pike.) The following was selected and adapted from a copy of the original nomination document submitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.


Charles Burns designed the Spanish-French missionary architectural complex. In 1892, he had completed 5 buildings of gray stone with smooth brown columns and red Spanish tile roofs. These buildings were the St Elizabeth Convent, the Chapel, the Holy Providence, Boarding School, the Laundry Building and Utility Building. The architectural style of these buildings was based on that of the early Spanish-Indian Mission of New Mexico and California. Charles Burns spent many months in Southern Europe, the prototype of mission architecture, visiting schools, churches and monasteries. He got a true feeling for the style and he expressed it in the convent building of blended Spanish-French missionary style. The 2 1/2 story St. Elizabeth Convent is the main building of the complex and faces south. Extending from the building are two wings -- one from the southeast end and one from the southwest end -- both continue north as an ell. On the northern side of the convent is a courtyard enclosed by the two wings and a 10 foot high wall. An arcade also surrounds the courtyard. A wide arch with a hipped roof is the entranceway to the courtyard.

The chapel is the southwest ell of the convent. There is a half round window in the center of the north gable and Flemish gable on the southern end. In the center of the Flemish gable is a large semicircular 18 paned window. From the eastern end of the front facade is a bell tower.

The utility building is located on the low ground between the area where the school was located and the chapel. It was made of the same material as the rest of the original structures (greystone) and is three stories high. The ground floor is the boiler room; the first floor is the trade school for boys, and the second floor is the living quarters for male employees.

The 2 1/2 story laundry building is located opposite the southeast wing of the convent. It is constructed of greystone material and is a cruciform plan structure. The Holy Providence Boarding School, which was a two story structure connected to the north of the chapel, burned in 1967 and was torn down by 1973.

The integrity of the exterior of the buildings has been kept intact. Expansions have been achieved by adding extensions. The new buildings have been erected in the same style and of the same material as the original buildings. These new buildings are St. Mary's Hall, an extension to the Chapel, an extension to the southwest ell, Mercedes Hall Elementary School, The Crypt, and St. Michael's Hall,

Architecturally the convent complex offers evidence of the work of local architects -- Charles Burns, Cope and Stewardson, Perrot, Dagil, Cove — working in a set historical style. Additions to the original complex had maintained to this day a sympathetic relationship of material and style, while allowing these architectural groups their individuality.

Significance

Katherine Drexel, aware of the destitute and seemingly hopeless condition of the Native American Indians, and the pitiful post Civil War situation of Black People still living in semi-slavery without means of self-help and education, devoted her fortune toward providing schools for both races. Realizing that the education of the mind must be accompanied by the education of the spirit, she heeded the advice of Pope Leo XIII to dedicate her life to this work under God. She gathered a small group of women and founded a congregation in the Catholic Church called the "Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indian and Colored People," and established the National Headquarters at the Motherhouse, Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania. She had recognized the injustice done America's two most deprived races, and she had sought to meet their needs with all the resources at her command; the dedication of her own personal life, together with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, her congregation, and her family fortune as well.

Though noteworthy for the unique architecture of its original buildings and its many succeeding structures, the primary interest in this historic site is centered around its tremendous, far-reaching purpose to provide thorough education and religious training and a new hope for countless numbers of forgotten children and adults among the Indian and Black people. From the beginning, the educational program of the Congregation has had tremendous success. Ever growing numbers of Sisters with superior training as elementary teachers, and later, as high school and college teachers, went to establish and staff schools for Black and Indian children. Twenty-two states were covered, from Massachusetts to Texas, and from Virginia to California. In 1955 there were in operation forty-nine elementary schools, twelve high schools, three centers of social service, a house of studies, and in New Orleans, Xavier University. Katherine Drexel's interest in the Black and Indian races extended to many missions outside her own, especially in Africa and other foreign lands. Her work lives on now through the lives of four generations of children and youth who by the thousands have attended the schools she established from elementary to university.

School District: Bensalem Township

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Street Names: Bristol Pike, Route 13

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