Why 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.