My Philadelphia Checklist

Trip Start Oct 08, 2000
Trip End Oct 15, 2000

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Friday, October 13, 2000

I awoke to a rather warm morning. After my first day in Pennsylvania, which was punctuated by chilly fall temperatures, the days had been getting warmer.  Now, the weekend forecast was for near record heat.  I felt like I had brought the infamous San Joaquin Valley heat to Southeast Pennsylvania.

It was another day of sightseeing on my own, as Tom had to be back in the office.  But, we still had time to go over to Borders and nurse a cup of coffee for an hour.  Then, I was on the road to Philadelphia.  I had a few specific places in mind to visit, which I knew that Tom would not be interested in seeing.  So, with my map in hand, I set off for those places.

My first stop was the St. Katherine Mary Drexel Shrine.  Before I left, I had noticed the news that Katherine Mary Drexel had been canonized. The story noted that she was from Philadelphia. Given that I was going to be in Philadelphia, I decided to make a stop at her shrine. It turned out that my visit there occurred the day after my stop at the Seton Shrine, thus giving me a wonderful opportunity to contrast the shrines of these two saints. The Drexel Shrine wasn't too hard to find. I just headed north out of Philadelphia on Highway 95. About 20 minutes after I left downtown Philadelphia, I reached the suburb of Bensalem. The shrine was easy to find once I left the freeway. I immediately noticed the difference in the atmosphere between this shrine and the Seton Shrine. There was a life and vitality here that I hadn’t found at any other shrine I had visited. Those feelings seemed to be the product of children playing soccer in one part of the shrine complex. It turned out that there is an elementary school on the shrine’s grounds. I was amazed at how refreshing it was to see such life at a shrine, as opposed to the somber faced pilgrims that usually populate these holy places.

I made my way from the parking lot to the Shrine’s church. There were signs and arrows painted into the blacktop pointing to the saint’s grave in the crypt. I walked over to the crypt and stopped in amazement. There in front of me was a plain screen door. The fancy glass and metal doors of other shrines were nowhere to be found. It was just a screen door that one would find on the porch of anyone’s house. While it might have seemed inadequate, I thought it was a wonderfully unpretentious touch to add to the shrine. But, the surprises didn’t end at the door. A shrine volunteer opened the screen door for me. I walked into the crypt. About 15 feet from the door was the tomb of the saint. There was no museum to walk through or gift shop to endure. There was just the tomb and some kneelers for anyone wishing to pray. I immediately felt a sense of gratitude. I had arrived at this shrine before it would become another trap for pilgrims.

There were other shrine volunteers near the tomb. They handed out small card with a picture of the saint on them. The volunteer who handed me one of the cards said that I should focus on an intercession and then place the card in one of two baskets on either side of the saint’s tomb. These baskets were made by the same Southwestern American Indian tribes that were served by the missions which St. Drexel established. The fact that they were nearly full spoke volumes about the faith that pilgrims had in the saint’s ability to intercede on their behalf.

I moved away from the tomb and into other areas of the crypt. It was in these other areas that I found a couple of rooms that contained some relics of the saint. There was nothing in them that was morbidly interesting, like the heart or skull relics that exist in other shrines. Instead, there were items like a chair in which she sat and a desk that she used. The relics that were displayed conveyed the feeling that she was a real person and not some demigod.

I walked up a staircase from the crypt to the church itself. There were three nuns in there praying the rosary aloud. With their monotonous repetition in the background, I wandered around the church. It didn’t take long for me to feel at home in the church. The chapel was built in a style that was very reminiscent of the California missions. The same type of Southwestern American Indian decorations that were around the tomb were very evident in the church. It seemed a little out of place when one considered that the building was in Southeast Pennsylvania. But, it did serve to reinforce the impression that St. Drexel’s interest was with the Indians of the Southwest.

I went out to the gift shop, which was across a driveway from the church. The same sense of "being there before it became popular" was prevalent in the gift shop. The shop didn’t accept credit cards and had a very limited selection. It was a pleasant discovery after having spent too much time in shrine gift shops that could rival a department store in terms of product availability. The most interesting part of the gift shop visit occurred when I went to the cash register. There was a sign next to the register listing all the sites where the order’s nuns had a convent or mission. One of those turned out to be a few miles from my home in California. What was even more remarkable was that my family had donated the house for that convent. Yet I didn’t know that nuns from that order had occupied it. Discovering that fact provided a connection to the saint that I hadn’t expected to find.

I left the shrine with a great sense of gratitude.  I thought to myself, "Someday, the crypt will have a fancy door and the gift shop will take credit cards. But, I got to see it before the crowds arrived to make it a tourist destination."  That gift alone made the trip to the shrine worthwhile.

With my visit to the Shrine over, I drove back down I-95 into Philadelphia.  After a short drive across town on I-676, I pulled over at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It’s tough to imagine a more physically imposing museum than the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its honey colored walls make a powerful impression when it is first seen from the highways. While the interior is slightly less inspiring than the exterior, it is a museum worth visiting.

Like any movie buff, I wanted to begin my trip by reenacting the scene from Rocky where Sylvester Stallone runs up the stairs from the street to the museum’s front door. However, I had to find parking first before I could pretend I was Rocky. Believe me, that was easier said than done. There no parking in front of the museum and only limited parking at the rear. Most visitors take a shuttle bus from other parts of town. I ended up driving around for a while before I was able to find a parking spot at the rear of the museum. I walked around to the front of the building. The view from the top of the steps down Ben Franklin Parkway is simply spectacular. I stayed long enough to take a picture, then descended to the street. Once I got there, I took a deep breath and began running back up the stairs. It actually turned out to be rather anti-climactic. I’m in pretty bad shape, but I made the run and wasn’t even breathing hard by the time it was over. Overall, I’d have to say that it was much more dramatic when Stallone did it. Still, it was nice to repeat movie history on my own.

I went into the museum through its impressive front doors. After paying the admission fee, I stood and admired the impressive central gallery. It really looks like a temple on the interior. There’s even a large statue of the goddess Diana at the top of the gallery’s staircase. I found it interesting that such a complete replica of a Greek temple would be constructed to house Philadelphia’s collection of art. The symbolism of the museum as a shrine to art is definitely prevalent.

Yet, while the symbolism was strong, the collection was not as grand as the building. There were the obligatory works from El Greco, Poussin, and a few other Renaissance artists. However, the works would not be considered among their masterpieces. The collection of Impressionist work was a little better, with some stunning pieces from Renoir and Manet. However, the museum’s painting collection was something of a letdown given the grandeur of the building.

Where the museum redeems itself is in its collection of decorative arts. There are several reconstructed rooms that have been removed intact from houses in Europe. Reconstructions of the courtyard of a monastery, a Japanese tea-house, and the interior of a Buddhist temple also exist within the museum’s walls. Observing the artistry that is evident in the architecture and room decorations reminds one that art is not something that is always remote. Instead, the rooms make one realize that art surrounds us everyday.

Another way the museum reinforces the idea of art’s functionality is through its display of quilts from the Amish country. It is no surprise that the most famous art form from the area would be prominently displayed in Pennsylvania’s preeminent museum. However, it is still surprisingly impressive to see the creativity, sensitivity, and emotion that comes out in each of these quilts.

I ended up spending about three hours in the museum. While I was disappointed that the painting collection wasn’t up to the level found at other major museums, I did not feel that my time was wasted. I would have to say that the Philadelphia Museum of Art does the best job of any museum I’ve seen at instilling the idea that art throughout history has maintained a functional role in addition to its aesthetic role. For that reason, it is a must visit for anyone in Philadelphia. Plus, running up the steps is fun!

From the museum, it was time to visit the last place on my list:  the University of Pennsylvania.  I admit...I've always been enthralled by the prestigue of an Ivy League school.  While I was a bit too poor to attend such a institution of higher learning, I'd always wanted to at least visit one of these schools just to soak up the atmosphere.  With Penn so close to where I was staying, I knew my aspiration would finally come true.

To get there, though, I'd have to drive from the museum to the university.  The route I took appeared to be the shortest way to get there.  However, it took me through some incredibly dangerous looking neighborhoods.  Graffitti covered walls, people loitering on street corners and in front of buildings, bars on the door and windows of every building, and trash covering all the fronts of some buildings were hallmarks of these neighborhoods.  I was very glad to exit these neighborhoods just north of the university and make it to the much safer looking Penn campus.

I parked the car and headed to the bookstore.  One of my hobbies when travelling is picking up a t-shirt or a sweatshirt at a university's bookstore.  But, other than my usual motive, I wanted to see what a Ivy League bookstore looked like.  My expectations were not disappointed.  From the wood paneling on the walls, to the sheer size of the structure (55,000 sq. ft.), the Penn bookstore was easily the finest I'd ever seen.  I stood in awe for a couple of minutes, and then realized I didn't have much time to linger because I still had to drive back to Reading.  So, I started my hunt for college apparel.  It didn't take long before I found what I was looking for.  I purchased my items, and headed back to the car. 

I had visited all three places I had set out to visit.  I pulled out of Penn and made the hour-long drive back to Reading.  As was the case from the evening before, Tom was already off of work, and anxious for some food.  We drove over to the neighborhood Applebee's, and filled up on some of their non-descript food.  With our stomachs filled, we headed back to the hotel room and headed off to sleep.
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