The Last Supper Altar

the_last_supper_-_leonardo_da_vinci_-_high_resolution_32x16Have you ever really studied the freestanding altar at St. Francis de Sales?

The frieze carved on the front is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 15th century painting of the Last Supper, which seems appropriate, though, curiously, the scene, as Leonardo painted it, was intended to represent the moment when Jesus told his apostles that one of them would betray him! It’s not an exact copy: our anonymous altar sculptor made some significant design choices where details were unclear, but it’s pretty close.

Leonardo’s ancient planning notes identify the first three people on the left in the scene as Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus (James the Less), and Andrew, all looking astonished at the betrayal. In Leonardo’s original plan, which he later changed, one of those apostles is so surprised, that he “blows his mouthful” — a very human, but possibly too distracting image!

Next comes Judas, the villain in the piece. A 19th century analysis of Leonardo’s artwork notes that Judas “is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone” in the scene. He is shown “clutching a small bag…He is also tipping over the salt cellar” – said to be a symbol of betrayal. Intriguingly, in Jewish religion, salt also signified God’s (Old-Testament) covenant.

A bread knife in a hand behind Judas has caused much speculation through the ages. Leonardo’s original notes describe a character later identified as Peter who “speaks into his neighbour’s (John’s) ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and in the other the loaf half cut through by the knife.” Carefully read, this convoluted sentence suggests that Leonardo originally intended John to hold the knife, although Peter is more usually credited, and our altar sculptor has chosen Peter.

Why is John a more interesting possibility? Here’s a thought: in Renaissance art, a “loaf with a knife in it” symbolized the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice. It seems like John, the beloved disciple, on hearing the news of betrayal, might instinctively try to yank the knife from the loaf and cast it away, to symbolically stop Jesus’ suffering. Peter, future head of the church, might grab his arm to stop him, knowing that Jesus must die as foretold. And Judas spills the salt.

Jesus, in the center, studiously ignores the drama, since he knows what must happen.

On his other side, Thomas points heavenward, while James the Greater gestures to Jesus and Philip points to himself, questioning. Matthew, Thaddeus (Jude) and Simon confer together at the far end of the table.

Our altar, by the way, has a story of its own. The ultramodern streamlined acrylic freestanding altar installed at SFDS to celebrate the new ideas of Vatican II and the 1960s proved to be too brittle, and it cracked. It was replaced several times by sturdier, less austere wooden substitutes (much like the adjustments to the New Mass). In 2007, the MBS altar was moved and installed here to commemorate the merging of the two parishes, symbolically gathering everyone around the same table. Its marble  was a perfect match — restoring the traditional look of the sanctuary and fitting in as though it has always been here!

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D’Ascenzo Stained Glass

d'ascenzo adA long-ago Pennsylvania guidebook highlighted the locally-crafted windows in our 1911 church, where “the leaded glass is particularly beautiful; windows are of the antique school and extremely rich in color. Have you ever wondered how they were made?

Nicola D’Acenzo, whose firm crafted the four round windows and six long windows, believed that “the architect is the maker of opportunities.”  Architect, Henry Dagit, would have planned the size, shape, and locations; and, after consulting with the Pastor, the general subjects for his windows. D’Ascenzo’s role was to assist the architect “in giving final expression to his buildings.”

The stained-glass workers brought their own expertise. A reporter visiting the D’Ascenzo studios downtown wrote: “Chat with a D’Ascenzo artist…and he will dwell on the importance of the window’s ultimate location.” Figures had to be scaled so that they would look good to the viewer, seeing them from below. “The supreme problem is color. The artist must know light. Glass made for the gray skies of France or England is apt to be an unintelligible blaze of color under the brilliant American sun.”

Walking through the workshop, the reporter described the process as he saw it: first, a small water-color sketch was painted. When that was “finished and approved, the cartoon must be made…That is simply a full-size, charcoal drawing of the window design. The place for each piece of glass is numbered, then the entire cartoon is cut up, jig-saw fashion, and affixed to a sheet of plain glass. The work-man, one eye on the little water-color sketch, selects the right-tinted glass, cuts it, then attaches it with beeswax to the plain glass in the spot vacated by his paper pattern. Soon the whole window is laid out on the glass easel. Decorative details and flesh tones are painted on with mineral pigments, which, when heated to a cherry-red – 1,1250 to 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit – fuse with the glass. Hydrofluoric acid is used to etch the surface for special effects. The bits of colored glass are now ready to be stuck together with the soldered lead strips. ‘Muck,” a waterproof cement, is ‘scrubbed’ into the crevices, and iron rods are worked into the decorative pattern to reinforce the whole.”

An earlier writer had noted that in reading a description  “one misses, of course, the cordial welcome of Mr. D’Ascenzo, the making of the full-size cartoons by his assistant designers, the snip of the scissors in the pattern room, the screech of the wheel as the glass is cut, the painting of the glass on the easels, the burning of the glass in the kilns and the hiss of the soldering iron.

What makes our church special?  Shut your eyes and imagine the distant echoes of earnest voices and clanging tools, carefully hand working each decorative detail.

The Lenten Dome

There’s a carefully arranged catechism with an interesting Lenten theme included in the twenty-four stained-glass windows of the Guastavino Dome at St. Francis de Sales Church, but since the windows are so high above the nave, few people are aware of it!

Imagine a cross made by connecting four compass points through the middle of the dome. The dome window to the North, showing three nails and the crown of thorns, would be at the “head” of the cross, its symbols representing the physical “sufferings of Christ.” At its “foot,” to the South, is a window showing the “hammer and tongs” that inflicted the wounds.

Now find the imaginary “crossbar.” To the West, is a window showing the “Scourges,” or whips, used in Christ’s humiliation. Exactly opposite, the Eastern window shows a “Lantern.” This was described in the 1911 and 1940 lists of dome window symbolism, as “the Light of Christian Doctrine which illuminates our pilgrim journey on earth.” An alternate reading, is as an emblem of Christ’s lonely nighttime agony and prayer vigil while his followers slept. Biblical symbolism sources note that “A lantern calls to mind nighttime activity, and it is used particularly as a symbol of Christ’s Passion, which began in the evening at the Garden of Gethsemane and continued under the cover of night” and “Lanterns were carried by the mob which arrested Jesus in Gethsemane.” The lantern completes the story of Christ’s suffering.

A previous column described another invisible cross in the dome – its axis running from the altar towards the back of the church, connecting the ascending and descending dove windows; and its crossbar stretching side-to-side linking the Papal Tiara window to St. Peter’s Keys.

The two groups of symbols encapsulate religious teaching: one set, defined by the building’s interior architecture, describes the structure of the Catholic church, showing the relationship between priest and pews; St. Peter and the Pope. The second cross, aligned to the strange forces represented by the compass and the sunrise, is about the central mystery of faith: Christ’s death and resurrection. Why is the lantern placed in the Eastern window? Think of the “Star of the East,” the beacon star, guiding wise travelers to Bethlehem. Also consider the direction of sunrise, when Jesus rose from the dead. Which leads us back to the original description of that holy lantern “which illuminates our pilgrim journey on earth.”

Our church decorations are quietly filled with layers of symbolism, which even its original parishioners likely did not fully appreciate (And we are still trying to find out more about the mysterious designer!).



“In Support of Television” (1959)

1953 nicholson's tv and radio serviceWhen did technology start to take over our lives? A long-ago SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin offers a clue. Step into the time machine, travel back to 1959, and read how a fuzzy black-and white screen in a chunky box, topped with a V-shaped “rabbit ears” antenna, was changing the world. Many of the concerns seem familiar, but with period details!

“Television is the soul of our civilization. In a few years…man will…be able to discard that drying-up apparatus – the human mind –…, and, equipped with portable ‘rabbit ears’ (future headphones?!) that keep him attuned to some master brain, he will walk serenely and secure, knowing exactly which paste is best for his teeth…what tobacco best for his taste, what deodorant best for his odor, and what songs best for his ears…

(Television) brings much light into our lives…on such subjects as: ‘Which is the best automobile on the market?’ (and) ‘Which foods have the most proteins?’ ….’ Nor should anyone make light of these matters. All human people will agree that your dog deserves the finest dog food; your children deserve the most healthful vitamins…; and your girth, the snuggest girdle…

With the educational value of television no one dare argue. Children have been made to realize that just the knowledge of which is the longest river in the world, or the highest mountain, or the oldest city, may be enough to win anywhere from $100 to $20,000, while ignorance of these things may only get them a washing machine or a Cadillac (quiz shows were very popular!)

Or take Westerns (a favorite TV theme at the time)… Westerns have given us a greater and deeper understanding of the Pioneer Spirit that made America great. And now that the savage Indians are no longer a menace to peace and real estate, magnanimously may we recognize the sterling qualities of the first, true, genuine American.

Furthermore, what television has done for music is incalculable…No longer do great composers need stars, moonlight, flowers and love… Given a bit of guano (bird poo used in fertilizer), a dry cereal and/or a gallon of wine, music makers for commercials have enough melodious material to cause Chopin to rock and roll in his grave.

Quite obviously it is easy to criticize TV…Monstrously does TV monopolize our time. Yet it is grossly unfair to misplace the blame. For actually we control the controls.

Although a television set may occasionally be called an Idiot Box, it is in reality a Magic Box that can bring the whole world into our living-room…Television was never meant to supply for the Beatific Vision” (that is, it was never meant to guide us to heaven. Its purpose is to sell product, not save souls).

Look how far we’ve come?

Dolphin and Anchor

DSCN4637 (2)The anchor-and-dolphin design shown on the side of the baptismal font and embedded in the mosaic floor of the old baptistery (today’s Adoration Chapel), is a surprisingly complicated symbol.

The two parts of the design are often read as two separate pictures, then combined. The 1960 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin offered a typical explanation of the anchor, connecting it with water and hope: “Hope was represented…by the anchor which the sailor drops into the water, so that it may go down deep into the bottom of the sea and fix itself firmly in order to steady the ship and hold it secure against the winds and waves of any storm. But our hope is an anchor which we throw upward, into the skies of heaven…” Philip Kosloski, at Aleteia, more recently discussed the dolphin symbol, observing that in the ancient world, dolphins “were known as the ‘sailor’s friend’ and there are many legends of dolphins leading mariners to safer shores…” He suggested that over time, “dolphins became a symbol of Jesus Christ, a friend and deliverer to the ‘safer shores’ of heaven.” He then addressed the combined symbol of “dolphins… twisted around an anchor or trident…” which symbolize” the hope of eternal life…”

Rather than a picture symbol, the original meaning could actually have been language-based.  Charles Kennedy puzzled long ago in Biblical Archeology Review, that anchor designs were common on graves in Christian catacombs until the third century, but then they disappeared. Around the same time, the main language of Christians switched from Greek to Latin. Kennedy suggested that “Ankura,” (Greek for “anchor”), could have been a pun on the Greek phrase “en kurio” (“in the Lord”) — so that with the symbol of an anchor, “the dead are sealed with the name of the Lord.” When the language changed, the pun didn’t work anymore and the symbol was abandoned for a time.

As to dolphins – Aristotle called them “fishes,” and his basic classification scheme remained in use in Europe until the 1800s. ICTHYS, Greek for fish, was used in catacombs as an acronym for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” So, a fish on an anchor in the catacombs could have been a simple linguistic symbol meaning that someone was protected “In the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

 Whatever its origin, the combined symbol of the dolphin and anchor was not much used until the Renaissance, when printer Aldus Manutius, who printed books for the influential Medici popes, adopted a dolphin-and-anchor representation of Neptune as his printer’s emblem – but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another day!


The Bellringers

bells 1965It takes one to ring one! Donald McDermott was “keeper of the keys” back in the 1950s and 1960s, in charge of Bellringers, CYO, and various other organizations at SFDS, and he writes about the experience:

From about 1958 to 1967, I selected (high school and older) boys to ‘ring the bells’ with strict guidelines. Before 6:45 PM, they used the Rectory side door, went into the back office to the key cabinet, took the sacristy and the choir- loft gate keys. They opened the sacristy door and went through the church to the vestibule stairs, unlocked the gate, went up to the bell console, and reconnected the rod on #1 bell ‘Adolph.’ At exactly 6:45 PM they played the ‘De Profundis’ actually the ‘Out of the Depths’ a musical Psalm 130 by Scott Soper. It is the last of the seven canonical hours – the last of the day, just after Vespers – often called Evening or Night Prayers.

Usually the choir loft room was crowded with the Bellringers and friends. Cards had the hymns on them written using numbers in place of notes. The ringer had to know the melody, otherwise whatever he played would just be discordant notes. Jim Slavin (one of the students) could transpose any music into numbers, so the boys played ‘Happy Birthday,’ ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the Mickey Mouse theme, etc. They were usually disguised by additional notes, adjusting the tempo, etc. Often, Bishop McShea, the priests, and the Sisters would laughingly ask ‘Was that the Mickey Mouse song that I heard?’ My response was ‘If that’s what you thought you heard…’

The Bellringers did a tremendous amount of work/jobs around the parish. Mother Boniface and Mother Rose Anita often requested their services – to whitewash the walls in the convent basement, clean-up the garden at the convent, decorate the Community Room for a party, etc.

One of the strangest things was when Jack Niehenke, Bill McLaughlin, Jim Slavin, etc. wanted to carry a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the May Procession. I asked Mother Rose Anita, and looking at me over her glasses, she laughingly asked ‘Are we now an Italian Parish?’ I took a table from my bedroom, disassembled it, using the four spindles as handles, to make a platform for the statue to be carried. Jim Slavin painted the platform powder blue. The boys, wearing suits and ties, carried the statue after the May Queen’s Court in front of the Bishop and priests. Nothing but compliments that Mother Anita and I always laughed about.”

Fran Byers notes that Jim Slavin sang in our choir for many years until his death in the late 1990s!

More Coloring Pages

From  February 4 to 10, 2019, libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world are sharing free coloring sheets and books online based on materials in their collections. This year, our parish history archives is included among them. Check out all the offerings – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond — at

You’ll also find a whole new coloring book of 1920s advertising from long-gone local businesses in the Coloring Pages section of our parish archives, at this link:

SFDS 1920s Ads Coloring Pages

1926 service with courtesy

The Story Between the Lines

mccarron kitchen (2)An apparently routine notation in the parish Baptismal register hides a sad neighborhood tale of long ago.

It began with a classic parenting dilemma of breastfeeding versus bottle. In the early 1900s, the advertisement of new easy-to-clean glass bottles with soft rubber nipples, coupled with ready access to dairy milk, made bottle feeding seem like the “modern” way. However, public health campaigns advised that fresh cow milk – unregulated, unprocessed, and potentially infected with tuberculosis  — could be unsafe: “a few bacteria in milk as it leaves the farm can become millions by the time it reaches the consumer in the city…“ so mothers were warned that milk must always be heated in order to “pasteurize it at home to kill the germs it contains.

On Monday, May 13, 1907, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “Mrs. William McCarron, 25 years old, was awakened by the cries of her baby early in the morning. The mother went herself to the kitchen of her home at 1424 Hanson Street (near 49th and Woodland), and made preparations to heat a bottle of milk. The fire on the stove was low, so she decided to expedite matters by using coal oil (kerosene!). Clinging to her skirts, her two-year-old son William heard a loud shriek and… he was pushed out of the way of the blaze. Mrs. McCarron…attempted to run to the front door, but she tripped over her skirt and fell in the kitchen doorway. Just at that moment, her husband who is a motorman (trolley driver), entered the house…He ran to a bedroom and filled his arms with quilts and blankets. These he threw over his wife, extinguishing the flames. She was hurried in a patrol of the Sixty-fifth Street and Woodland avenue station to the University Hospital, where she is in critical condition.

 During a temporary return of consciousness, she murmured to her husband, sitting anxiously at her bedside, ‘Have the baby christened today, for fear something should happen to him.’ This wish was accordingly carried out yesterday afternoon, (May 12), when the child received the name of David in the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church…” Before the age of antibiotics, there was little that doctors could do for the mother’s wounds. She died on May 21, 1907, and was buried from our parish a few months before the cornerstone was laid for the present church building.

The family appears to have moved elsewhere in the city after that, but a cross-reference, neatly penned below baby  David’s baptismal record, notes that he was back, living at 5140 Catherine Street, when he married Amelia Nigro of 1140 South Wilton Street at SFDS in 1938. Today, the house where the long-ago fire occurred, is an empty lot, and a family’s tragedy and resilience lie buried in a bland two-line Latin record in a dusty parish ledger. How many other stories does it contain?

The Cross at Annemasse

annemasse tek editWhy did stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo choose the image of St. Francis de Sales preaching at Annemasse for one of our long windows (nearest the Vatican flag)? Perhaps it spoke to him, because it is a story about how visual symbols — like the artwork he was creating – could inspire people.

In the 1500s — the time of our patron Saint Francis de Sales — the town of Annemasse, Duchy of Savoy (today part of France), was separated from the Republic of Geneva, (Swiss Confederacy) by a narrow river, and the wide gulf of the Protestant Reformation. On the Savoy side of the divide, the Forty Hours Devotion in 1597 aimed to reconnect people through words of gentle encouragement, preached in outdoor sermons by our patron Saint, and in celebrations through town and countryside, centered around visible emblems of faith.

Why is the crucifix shown in D’Ascenzo’s window? A stone cross in Annemasse — which was both a town landmark and a shrine — had been destroyed in religious conflicts. During that Forty Hours Devotion, Francis de Sales led a procession bringing a wooden replacement – invoking the past, restoring the landscape, and providing a symbol to inspire all who would pass along the road. It was a joyous homecoming. Andre Ravier, SJ, noted that “For two days this was the ‘festival’ at Annemasse, a festival above all religious, but the ceremonies, processions, sermons, and so forth were mixed with popular songs and music – even the detonations of arquebuses” (large guns).  And Jill Fehleison observes that “The cross was placed “so that it could be seen from the city of Geneva, fashioning both a symbol of triumph and a challenge” to the Protestant followers of John Calvin, who declared that every word in the Bible was a literal truth that came directly from God, and any other object or image was a distraction.

Centuries later and across an ocean, Christians still have their differences, but immersion in a modern consumer culture filled with secular landmarks, images, and advertising, provides fewer opportunities to connect with faith. Our historic 1911 church dome, Like the monument at the crossroads in Annemasse, is one prominent feature of the local skyline that offers a quiet reminder of God’s enduring presence to anyone who sees it. And if an old adage is true that each “picture is worth a thousand words,” our church is a walk-in encyclopedia of spiritual life and local history.


A 1908 Parable

bulletin 1908





The earliest (lonely) issue of a St. Francis de Sales Church bulletin in the Philadelphia archdiocesan archives is a single copy dated February, 1908 – four months after the cornerstone was laid for the present church (see the original chapel — the building housing today’s school auditorium — on the cover!). Regular publication didn’t begin until mid-1924. Now step into the time machine, and enjoy an excerpt from that first bulletin: a little moral tale filled with tiny details of life in 1908:



He Gave to the Lord”:

“Yesterday he wore a rose on the lapel of his coat, and when the plate was passed he gave a nickel to the Lord. He had several bills in his pocket and sundry change, perhaps a dollar’s worth; but he hunted about, and finding this poor nickel he laid it on the plate to aid the church militant in its fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. His silk hat was beneath the seat, and his gloves and cane were beside it, and the nickel was on the plate – a whole nickel. On Saturday afternoon he had a gin rickey at the “Queen’s,” and his friend had a fancy drink, while the cash register stamped thirty-five cents on the slip the boy presented to him. Peeling off a bill, he handed it to the lad, and gave him a nickel tip when he brought back the change. A nickel for the Lord and a nickel for the waiter! And the man had his shoes polished on Saturday afternoon and handed out a dime without a murmur. He had a shave and paid fifteen cents with equal alacrity. He took a box of candies home to his wife and paid forty cents for them, and the box was tied with a dainty bit of ribbon. Yes, but he also gave a nickel to the Lord. Who is the Lord? Who is He? Why the man worships Him as Creator of the universe, the One who puts the stars in order, and by whose immutable decree the heavens stand. Yes, he does, and he dropped a nickel in to support the Church militant. And the man knew that he was but an atom in space, and he knew that the Almighty was without limitations, and knowing this, he put his hand in his pocket and picked out a nickel and gave it to the Lord. And the Lord being gracious and slow to anger, and knowing our frame, did not slay the man for the meanness of his offering, but gives him this his daily bread. But the nickel was ashamed, if the man wasn’t. The nickel hid beneath a quarter that was given by a poor woman who washes for a living.”