Ship of Faith

ship of religionLook around St. Francis de Sales Church and notice your fellow passengers. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the word nave — describing “the main space occupied by the congregation in a church.” — comes from the Latin word navis, for ship, “partly because the nave is not unlike an upside-down ship, but also because it is the ARK of salvation.”

Richard Stemp makes it even more clear in his book on “The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals:” The word nave comes from the Latin navis, meaning ‘ship,’  reminding us that the congregation is on a journey through life, during which the church will protect and guide them in the same way that a ship protects its passengers on the stormy seas. Maritime associations run deep in Christianity. Jesus carried out much of his teaching around the Sea of Galilee, and several apostles were fishermen.”

_MG_2416 (3)Our nave looks like a seaworthy, right-side-up ark, rather than an upside-down hull. That should be a good thing. Imagine the windows around the dome as the portholes around the cabin. We even have a window showing the “ascending dove” – with its wings outstretched and feet pressing against the glass, like the dove that returned to Noah during the great flood (and over the years, the dome has survived its share of watery leaks!).

dome-star-e1541614560625.jpgAbove those windows are the stars in the heavenly dome. The eight-pointed star of David – of Jesus’ earthly lineage — has a cross at its center, with four rays added to turn it into the Star of Jesus’ Birth – the star used by the Wise Visitors to navigate to Bethlehem – and the star of faith which guides us still today.

We look to the stars, but we are also moored to the earth. The “Adoration Chapel” in the back of the church, on the left, was once the “Baptistery,” where people received the sacrament of baptism – a sacrament of water. Embedded in the floor of the baptistery is a mosaic design of an anchor and dolphin. The anchor, used to keep a ship from drifting, can be “the hope set before us…a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:18-19).

Our church also has a hidden nautical reference. The original back-facing altar – elevated on steps like the bridge of a ship — was donated by a man named John Cooney. Cooney was an oyster fisherman on the Delaware Bay – a fisherman and a “fisher of men,” since he occasionally had to fish drunken sailors out of the water with a boathook. Very biblical!

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Mr. Smith Runs for President, 1928

al smithWhen Al Smith ran for President of the United States in 1928, and lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover, it was said he was defeated by “The Three Ps: Prohibition (which he was against), Prejudice (he was Catholic), and Prosperity (less of an issue when the Great Depression began in October 1929).

Smith, grandson of poor Irish and Italian immigrants, faced fierce opposition from the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Ku Klux Klan (St. Francis de Sales third Pastor, Reverend Gatens, also resisted the Klan at his previous assignment in Pottsville, PA in 1927 – defiantly constructing a Catholic school with cross-shaped windows on their favorite cross-burning hill). In addition, Smith faced the “Anti-Saloon League” – reportedly often the same individuals – who wanted the government to continue restricting all access to alcoholic beverages.

The November 1929 St. Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin published an excerpt from Smith’s book, in which he described some of the tactics used against him:

It is amazing in this day and age that such countless thousands of people are so stupid as to believe the absolutely false and senseless propaganda that was whispered around during the last campaign. It has its humorous side…A  prominent citizen of Georgia… told me that in certain churches in that state they had pictures of me attending the ceremonies incident to the opening of the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, and…opponents of mine were able to convince large numbers of people that the tunnel was actually to be constructed not to New Jersey but into the basement of the Vatican in Rome in the event of my election.

The Holland Tunnel is approximately two miles long and cost forty-eight million dollars, or nearly twenty-five million dollars a mile…and here we have voting citizens of a sovereign state actually believing that…it would be possible for people to travel (3500 miles) under the Atlantic Ocean between Rome and New York. One man made the deliberate statement over the radio that a convent in New Jersey was purchased by the Catholic Church as the American residence of the Pope in the event of my election.”

Do times change?

Since 1945, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation in New York has celebrated Al Smith’s memory with an annual October white-tie benefit for Catholic Charities. The fancy dinner is attended by both Democrat and Republican politicians, who traditionally offer humorous speeches, gently making fun of themselves, right before elections. In presidential election years, this is generally the last time opposing candidates appear in public together before voting day. This year’s 2018 keynote speaker was Nikki Haley, the soon-to-be-former U.N. Ambassador.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 954 hate groups active in the United States in 2017.

 

Legion of Decency

legion of decencyLegion of Decency” may conjure an image of a small band of pickle-faced people fussily objecting to the modern world, but that would be a mistake. As a subset of the Holy Name Society, the Legion was an army of Catholic men from parishes across the country, working earnestly to “promote, by word and deed, what is morally and artistically good in entertainment,” while protecting their families from harmful examples.

Concern about negative influence was justified, when the organization was founded in 1933. Government Prohibition of alcohol had paradoxically promoted and glamourized crime. With poverty in the Great Depression, came suspicion and persecution of immigrants, nonwhites, and non-protestants, particularly Catholics (who were largely immigrants). At the same time, the growing entertainment industry realized that “sex sells” and sold a lot of it. Issues of sex, violence, and intolerance in films became serious enough that Cardinal Dougherty forbade Philadelphia Catholics from attending any movies for several years starting in 1934 — a successful protest which drew attention to the surprising size of the Catholic population. Magazines and books had similar issues.

The Legion of Decency developed age-appropriateness ratings for movies, condemned movies that refused to meet standards, and pressured producers to clean up plot points in films that are now considered classics (Marilyn Monroe’s famous fly-up skirt was accepted in The Seven-Year Itch, which “deals humorously with a man’s temptations,” but an adulterous affair was removed)

Locally, the Legion picketed condemned movies and discouraged obscene literature. A 1942 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “…an intensive campaign has been carried on in this parish to remove from stores and newsstands, all magazines that are offensive to the Code of the National Organization for Decent Literature. Our Committee, composed of men from various sections of the Parish, have done splendid work and their efforts have met with great success…

Why was this a men’s project? Part of the pledge, published in the 1942 parish bulletin, was: “I promise to guide those under my care and influence them in their choice of pictures that are morally and culturally inspiring.” Consider that in those early days, men generally chose the movies for dates and family viewing. At the same time, objectionable magazines and books were largely targeted for a male audience – which often controlled the family finances.

The Legion of Decency merged into the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1965, but may have paved the way for today’s many consumer-organized boycotts of goods and services based on political or philosophical ideas.

 

Heavenly Keys

DSCN3325 (3)I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19)

Two sets of keys in our church decorations encapsulate history.

The first is the emblem of Saint Peter the Apostle, on the 47th Street side of the church. This pair of crossed keys features handles with three lobes, symbolizing the Trinity. Saint Peter’s keys – representing his leadership role in the church — are commonly called the “keys of heaven” and Peter is often imagined as the guardian at the “pearly gates,” as well as the first Catholic Pope.

The other keys are up in the dome, exactly opposite the window showing the papal tiara. These match the keys of the Papal insignia, official “since the XIV Century,” as described by the Vatican Press Office: “The symbolism is drawn from the Gospel and is represented by the keys given to the Apostle Peter by Christ.” The correct insignia shows “two keys crossed as the Cross of St. Andrew…” (a symbol of humility). The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth… The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers…”

Wait a minute! In our window, the keys are reversed —  gold on the left; silver on the right. They’re also upside-down: traditional Vatican key “mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips (handles) turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ” — that is, symbolically, toward the Pope. But in our church, the handles point up to heaven and the unlocking parts of our keys point down at the congregation. And although our keys are very similar to the emblem of Pope Pius X, who was Pope at the time the church was built, one of the crosses in our handles is mysteriously blackened.

So what does it all mean? Our emblem of papal allegiance could have been crafted wrong-way-up by mistake or by design. The black and white crosses could emphasize eternal versus worldly concerns or add layered meanings of power and knowledge; order and chaos; or beginnings and endings.  Whatever the intent, their heaven-turned handles today remind us of the limits of all earthly power, since God alone unlocks the secrets of souls.

 

A Bell Named Gervase

p1911-061Saint Gervase was an obscure early Roman martyr. Gervase of Canterbury was a 12th century British monk. So why does St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia have a tower bell named after St. Gervase?

Perhaps the answer lies a little closer to the heart of Second Pastor Bishop Crane, whose sister Bridget became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM.

The third of four children, Bridget was born to Irish immigrant parents Michael and Anne Crane in Ashland, PA coal country on September 8, 1861. Her little brother Michael – our future Bishop — was born two years later in 1863 and their father died soon after. Their mother eventually went to work in a “Dry Goods and Grocer” shop, according to census data, and the two older girls became seamstresses. Bridget started public school at age 8 and finished at age 18, in ninth grade: the late start and incomplete schooling were not unusual for the times.

In 1890, when she was 29, Bridget entered the IHM convent and received the name Sister Mary Gervase. She taught grades 1-4 in several schools from 1894 to 1906. (in those days secondary education was not required for elementary teaching).  Meanwhile, she attended classes and finished high school at Villa Maria in 1906. Later, she became Superior and Principal at St. Francis Xavier, St. Monica, then St. Rose of Lima in Philadelphia, while working towards her teaching certificate, which she obtained at Immaculata in 1926. In 1928, she was “missioned” to St. Aloysius Academy, in a wing of the Motherhouse. She died in 1944.

Referring to 12th century Gervase of Canterbury, the British Dictionary of National Biography notes “Gervase is not one of the great historians of his age, but he illustrates with fidelity the tone and temper of his monastic world.” That, perhaps, is also a fitting memorial for Mother Mary Gervase Crane, whose simple story of convent life has in it only one remembered drama, relating to a mysteriously disappearing and reappearing bedspread.

We do know that Mother Gervase was devoted to her little brother. One of the IHM sisters recalled that “each night, she made a pilgrimage to the picture of the bishop, her brother, Bishop Crane. Daily she bid him ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that she and her married sister were at his bedside when he died in our Rectory in 1928.  It seems fitting that our church bells named Michael and Gervase continue to peal together, in lasting memory of their family’s contribution to the religious life.

 

Tuberculosis

canney
Rev. William Canney

Reverend William Canney graduated from Saint Francis de Sales School; his mother and sisters lived at 4722 Upland Street; and ten of his fourteen years as a priest — from 1924 to 1934 — were spent assisting at de Sales. His dedication to our parish was whole-hearted – and may have cost his life.

William Canney’s nickname was “Will E? Can E!” because of his joyous energy. One of five priests at the de Sales rectory, he was Spiritual Director of the Sodality (a parish women’s organization) and author of the Parish News column in the monthly bulletin. He was also Chaplain for the College of Osteopathy at 48th and Spruce, and, reportedly, unofficial chaplain for the firehouse at 50th and Baltimore – chasing the fire engines whenever the alarm sounded. In his spare time, he wrote lyrics for songs and dramatic sketches for parish events, and organized outings for parish school children.

Above all, Canney’s 1933 parish profile reported his real strength at the sickbed: “Many a soul tortured by sickness and infirmity has been comforted by his faithful and sympathetic ministrations.” This could have been his downfall: in 1935, a year after transfer to St. Leo’s in Tacony, Canney went on Sick Leave at the “Philadelphia Jewish Sanatorium for Consumptives” in Eagleville — a Tuberculosis hospital for poor people. He died there a year later, at age 41, and his obituary in the Catholic Standard quoted portions of a lengthy sad brave poem he wrote during that final year: “Weave every little cross I bear/ Into the garland of a prayer…” He was buried from our church.

“Consumption,” or Tuberculosis, was a serious lung disease and leading cause of death in the United States up into the 1940s. Philadelphia Catholic physician Lawrence Flick was tuberculosisone of a group (later renamed the American Lung Association) which began, in the 1890s, to raise public awareness that the disease was contagious. Health campaigns against spitting, and unshielded coughing and sneezing, formed part of the effort to stop transmission. Germs were also found in unpasteurized milk, so pasteurization gradually became standard. Those who attended at sickbeds were especially vulnerable to infection, so the archdiocese established a Tuberculosis sanatorium for priests in 1947 – just as Streptomycin antibiotic came to market as an effective cure. Danger over, the building was repurposed as a mental health institute.

Today, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, like many formerly-controllable diseases, is on the uptick: it is estimated that a third of the world’s population may be infected or carriers.

Reverend Canney lives on at our parish in his rediscovered writings.

De Sales Photos 010 canney funeral feb 1937

Holy Year 1934

In the crisis of the Great Depression, and in a time of growing global unrest, the February, 1933 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin announced that Pope Pius XI had proclaimed a Holy Year for 1934. The writing is more formal than modern texts, and with the unconscious gender bias of its age, but the world described is strangely familiar:

vatican stampNineteen centuries after the death of Our Lord, in an age when a world gone awry is tortured by spiritual perplexities, the Sovereign Pontiff calls the world to reconsider its golden Christian heritage. No man denies that the times are out of joint. It is unquestioned that something must be done…

Taught humility by our failures, we can well afford to indulge in a little heart-searching. Men prate about the ‘failure of Christianity.’ Analyze the statement. Where has Christianity ever failed when its commitments were fully accepted and faithfully observed?… The failure of Christianity is the failure of unregenerate human selfishness and wickedness, nothing more.  The inability of the Christian Church to reform this world is part with the failure of Christ to convert his own generation. Humanity has failed often; Our Lord, never.

We need a year of extraordinary grace, a year of meditations and prayer. Its spiritual opportunities accepted, it can change the face of the earth.”

Looking back down the tunnel of history, we know that collective thoughts and prayers were tainted by the hypocrisy of individuals whose hearts were secretly self-interested and insincere. We’ve seen how global power struggles of World War I, followed by the 1918 influenza health crisis, inequalities of industrialization, the rise of crime during Prohibition, and poverty in the Great Depression, progressed into the horrors of genocide and World War II – and into the cynical modern age.

Today, as we face extraordinary challenges to our ideas of authority and order in church and government, we need to learn from the past. Jesus, long ago, laid out a single timeless route to follow – based on love of God and caring for those around us. Humans, gifted with free choice, make bad decisions, and may confuse, mislead, or be misled along the way, but the route itself never changes. Each one of us is called to seek out the Star of Bethlehem as our beacon, leading us back to Christ. As our patron Saint Francis de Sales observed:

We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear; let us take breath, and go on afresh.”

A Trip to the Movies

belmont theatre
Belmont Theatre, Philadelphia PA in 1920 (Creative Commons)

The 1928 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin offers a description of a long-ago outing, supposedly written by one “Bad Boy Brady… in the Third Grade at SFDS School:”

Our sister told us this morning in school to write…about something we did during the Easter holidays…I thought of the treat that… Joe Forte gave us on Easter Monday…Joe…lives in our parish (4839 Larchwood) and has charge of a lot of movies in West Philadelphia. He has a big green car and wears a soft hat….So one day (Father Canney) met Joe Forte in Mr. Rody’s barber shop (1213 S. 50th Street) where they get their haircut, and asked him to give the school a treat…”

We all met at the school…and marched over to the Belmont Theatre on Fifty-second and Market Street. There were over eight hundred of us…Me and Joe Rody and Cornelius McLaughlin walked over together, and talked about marbles and baseball players. Joe said he wants to be an outfielder like Al Simmons, but Cornelius said he wants to help his father on the Ice Cream truck. I thought I would like to be a cop… A couple of cops who knew Father Canney kept the green lights on so that we could all pass across Chestnut and Walnut Streets without any break in the line. A…man named Frank Yates was in charge of the Belmont Theatre and he certainly gave us a great treat…”

Imagine friendly local police, in dark uniforms with shiny buttons, officiously stopping horse carts, delivery trucks, and Model T Fords for the neighbourhood children. The long parade filed past James Beers’ Drugstore at 47th and Baltimore, and Nace Hopple’s Radio Repair shop at 47th and Cedar; then up Cedar and along Fiftieth Street, “the head of their line of march turning into Market Street as the end approached to Pine Street” (that’s ten blocks!). The Belmont Theatre, which opened in 1914, seated 1,000 people. A trendy Philadelphia-born fast-food eatery – the Horn & Hardart Automat — was next door, and doubtless, some little faces covetously eyed its interesting prepared foods behind little clear coin-operated windows.

Movie treats for parish children ended in 1934 when Cardinal Dougherty issued a pastoral letter, prohibiting Catholics from attending the movies due to cinematic violence and bad language. Boycotts worked: within a few years, the industry cleaned up its offerings and the Catholic audience trickled back – but by then, Father Canney was gone.

dougherty movie boycott
Philadelphia Inquirer June 9, 1934

The Statue in the Corner

de nesti sculptingStanding in the darkness, behind a noisy blowing fan in a corner of St. Francis de Sales  church, on the parking lot side, is a tall quiet statue of Jesus with broken fingers.

For the first few decades of our history, the statue took pride of place beside the altar, at the front of the church, clearly visible to the priest and congregation. Then, in the 1960s, the reforms of Vatican II called for the sanctuary to be “de-cluttered” to better focus on the modernized Communion ritual with its new forward-facing altar. The statue was moved, and moved again, until it found its current out-of-the-way resting place.

So what does the statue mean? Its upraised right hand, with two fingers and thumb outstretched, is a gesture of blessing – supposedly based on the ancient Roman orators’ gesture for “speaking.” Its wounded heart reveals “Jesus Christ′s physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity” — the crown of thorns showing that “the meaning of love in the life of Jesus was especially evident in His sufferings” and the flames representing “the transformative power of divine love.” Devotion to a representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – based on a vision experienced by a Visitation Sister in the 1670s — is a longstanding form of Catholic worship.

As to its place in our history: our statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was described as “a specimen of his best work” in an article about Adolfo de Nesti in 1915 – the last information we have about the Italian immigrant sculptor who created so many of our church decorations, before his “American dream” ended and he abruptly disappeared.

What is a metaphor? An online dictionary defines it as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” So our statue depicting the “divine love” of Jesus was moved away from a central location to a dusty corner. We took its existence for granted, as part of the church furnishings, and it received little attention – especially after the candle stand illuminating that corner was removed a few years ago. The statue has changed with age, since the fingers making its gesture of blessing – and “speaking” – have been broken and roughly mended. But it has always been a part of our church.

Now, in shadowed times, as we rediscover our history, our attention is pulled back to the statue and we are called to find inspiration once again in the light and power of  “divine love” that it represents.

Praying By the Rules

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In 1947, parishioners at Saint Francis de Sales Church were invited to submit questions to the rectory, to be answered in the Parish Bulletin. Some of those questions and answers — from a time when all Fridays were meatless and Catholics were required to fast from midnight, the night before taking Communion — offer insight into the mindset and small details of life before Vatican II:

            “Does cleaning the teeth before receiving Holy Communion break the fast? Brushing one’s teeth before Communion is even recommended….The fact that the flavor of the toothpaste or powder (not all toothpaste was paste!) and the moisture remains after rinsing the mouth does not break the fast. It is permitted to swallow one’s saliva, and the few drops of water that remain become part of the saliva…”

Do nose drops break the Communion fast? (Addictive nasal medication led to chronic stuffy noses). No, even though one is certain that a quantity of the fluid passed into the stomach…the substance must pass through the mouth. For the same reason food injections taken through the arm would not break the fast.”

“Does smoking before Communion break the fast? No, it does not. One, however, may well forego this pleasure, making the sacrifice part of the preparation for Communion” (This in a time when most adults smoked, and indoor air was generally thick with haze).

“A person arises during the night and takes a drink of water. The next morning, he cannot remember whether or not it was taken after midnight. May he receive Holy Communion? Yes. Where there is a doubt as to time the doubt may be resolved in favor of the person…”

“Does Daylight Savings Time make any difference in the observance of Friday abstinence from meat? In other words, is a Catholic permitted to eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday? Yes, a Catholic may eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday, even though that same time is an hour before standard time…Canon 33 says…in the observance of fast and abstinence one may deviate from the common custom of the place and follow the local true time, or the mean time, or the legal time, or any of the several ways of computing time.”

Trained by Depression scarcity, wartime experience, and an educational system that still included spanking and other physical punishment, Catholics were used to life framed by rules. The obsession with details seems rigid today, but it also reveals a people actively engaged in their faith – and looking for a straightforward path to navigate an increasingly complicated world.