Saint Francis de Sales: Saintly Geography

St. Francis de Sales

Our patron Saint Francis de Sales was born in Savoy (France) in 1567. Appointed Bishop of Geneva (Switzerland) in 1602, he worked with gentle firmness to preserve the Catholic faith through the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. He was an inspirational preacher; a powerful writer; a friend of the poor; and a saint who, like his model, Saint Francis of Assisi, promoted a simple and devout life. Today he is known as the patron saint of journalists and the deaf, and his worldwide footprint is surprisingly broad!

An informal survey has so far identified 120 churches and cathedrals named for St. Francis de Sales in India, Africa, South and Central America, Canada, Britain, Europe, and the South Pacific; and in 32 U.S. states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico! Many educational institutions have also been named for the saint, who is one of the Doctors of the church. His worldwide religious orders include the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary (Visitation Sisters), cofounded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances Chantal; as well as several 19th century orders including The Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, the Salesians of Don Bosco (officially known as the Society of St. Francis de Sales), The Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

A few of the cities and towns named to honor him include:

The city of St. Francis, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, formed around Saint Francis de Sales Seminary when it was established in 1845.

San Francisco de Sales, Guatemala, is perched on the edge of the active Pacaya volcano.

Saint-François-de-Sales, Quebec in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, Canada, with its blueberry field and municipal campsite, is considered an “oasis of tranquility.

São Francisco de Sales, Minas Gerais, Brasil, was the site of a purported alien abduction in 1957

St. François Atoll in the Seychelles archipelago (Indian Ocean off East Africa) is an island nature refuge known for shipwrecks and a small, short-lived unsuccessful coconut harvesting business.

Described as a “charming little mountain village,” the town of Saint-François-de-Sales in the department of Savoie of the French region Rhône-Alpes (the region where St. Francis de Sales was born) was once known for farming; today it is focused on tourism and mountain sports such as cross-country skiing and hiking.

Our patron saint’s fame has spread well beyond geography and religion. Some of his odder associations include the St. Francis de Sales Cricket Club in Victoria, Australia; St. Francis de Sales Broadcast Center radio station in Batangas City, Philippines; and Historic St Francis de Sales Church Inn & Event Venue in Hatch, NM, home of an annual chili festival. He even has a dental office, Dental San Francisco de Sales, near Lima, Peru!

Dental San Francisco de Sales

Over the centuries, many people have been named after the saint, including several children in our historic parish record books. A Mexican-Italian Visitation Sister, Sister Saint Francis de Sales Bortoni, emigrated to the United States in 1926. A Philadelphia-born Hollywood actor named Francis de Sales appeared in a surprising number of old 1950s-1970s movies and TV shows. And parishioner Mary Brewster wrote a few months ago that “an Inquirer article about a posthumous pardon in Virginia caught my eye because it highlighted capital punishment and racial injustice. When I read the story, I noticed Francis de Sales Grayson was one of the men referred to as the Martinsville Seven. I wondered about Mr. Grayson’s connection to the Black Catholic community in Richmond and thought about how the de Sales name connects us all.” Around the world and back, and through history.

Francis de Sales Grayson

SFDS Boys Choir

SFDS Boys Choir in 1965

In 1967, Choir Director Peter LaManna penned a report on the renowned SFDS “Schola Cantorum,” which offers a curious window into the last days of a more stately age!

LaManna recalled the long history of the SFDS Boys Choir, founded when the church was built in 1911, and reaching “prominence and recognition” under choirmaster and organist Mr. Albert Dooner. In 1956, when Father Angelo Della Picca took over as choirmaster, under Bishop McShea, “the choir took on the nature of a choirschool…The repertory was developed until it was recognized as one of the largest in the United States.” Peter LaManna came on board in 1961, and was proud that “The choir is unique to the archdiocese of Philadelphia, and there are only a few others with the same program and training in the Catholic churches in the United States…” The music was, of course, in Latin, classical, and ornate – and decisively pre-Vatican II. Among its many outside engagements, the choir also recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra and sang with the Lyric Opera.

Running the choir was a major undertaking. LaManna reported that “The official size of the choir is twenty men and thirty boys…There is also a junior boychoir which has twenty-five boys, and which acts as a preparatory group for the senior boychoir. Two Sisters are appointed each year as ‘choir Sisters’ by Mother Superior. They have charge of vesting the boys before services, and accompany the boys on assignments away from the parish, i.e., Christmas programs, etc.” All the boys were chosen by audition from the Parish school (the boys who weren’t chosen became altar servers).

Each section of the group had its own rigorous schedule: “The men of the choir rehearse alone of Wednesday evening…The men rehearse on Friday evening with the senior boychoir, and again on Sunday morning forty-five minutes before Mass….The Senior Boychoir (Middle School boys at SFDS School)…rehearses every day from 3 to 4 PM…They also rehearse on most Saturday mornings, and with the men on Friday evening and Sunday morning before Solemn Mass. During the month of December they rehearse from 8 to 8:30 AM also. The Junior Boychoir…is chosen each year from the third grade boys, and acts as a preparatory choir for the senior boychoir. Most boys remain in this group for two years. They are in the processional and recessional at Solemn Mass, but they attend Mass in the pews rather than the choirloft. This group rehearses every day at 11 AM…They also attend a short rehearsal to go over the hymns for the processional and recessional on Sunday morning.

The Solemn Mass every Sunday was a carefully-orchestrated production: “10:00 AM — Senior Boys report to be vested; 10:15 – Senior Boys and Men rehearse. 10:30 — Junior Boys report for vesting; 10:45 – Junior Boys, Senior Boys, and Men rehearse the hymns for the Processional and Recessional – organist leaves for choirloft; 10:50 – Line-up for procession; 10:55 – Procession – Junior and Senior Boys (Men on Major Feasts and Holy Days); 11:00 AM Solemn Mass – Senior Boys and Men upstairs, Junior Boys downstairs.” The elaborate musical program was always highlighted in the Parish Monthly Bulletin.

Was all the effort appreciated? LaManna admitted that “the attendance at Solemn Mass is very poor…” but “most of the parishioners brag about the choir to others even though they don’t come to hear it weekly…” What a shock to the system it must have been when the ultramodern plexiglass Venturi sanctuary was inaugurated to the squeal of electric guitars just a few years later!

Peter LaManna

MBS Nativity

The Nativity scene that has graced the Rectory lawn in the Christmas season these past few years is a Most Blessed Sacrament Parish artifact with important St. Francis de Sales connections

The two-dimensional relief-carved Holy Family sculptures were commissioned by longtime MBS pastor, Father John Newns, in 1991. Aileen McGovern, wife of artist Bob McGovern, recalls that Father Newns “was renovating, and had old pews,” and that wood was used for the carvings. An accounting sheet lists these as MBS Upper Church pews, but the Lower Church was deconsecrated in 1987, and its furnishings put in storage, so that is also possible. In any case, Aileen recalls that “we chipped a lot of chewing gum off them” so the DNA of MBS – and generations of its young parishioners — is deeply embedded in that old oak.

The DNA of St. Francis de Sales Parish was in the blood of the artist, Bob McGovern, who was born into our parish in 1933, and whose family lived at 1239 Hansen St.  Bob attended the parish school, and was one of “Dooner’s Crooners” (Boys Choir under Choirmaster Albert Dooner). De Sales was central to his early development. Interviewing him in 2001, Robert Wuthnow wrote that “McGovern was still young when he recognized what he now calls ‘the double-edged scary and comforting business of spirituality’…the comforting part appeared in the daily and weekly religious rituals” that appealed to his poetic side – and SFDS had many of those. The scary side came in moments such as when “he remembers the nuns making him write ’I won’t talk in line’ in his notebook a thousand times, then going out in the rain, dropping his notebook, and seeing the words, written in soluble ink, disappear…” McGovern admitted to being a poor student at De Sales, more interested in art than academics. Monsignor Francis Carbine observes that McGovern’s artistic poetic sensibilities showed early at home: “As a young boy in the 1940’s, he drew a giant ear in chalk on Hansen Street in West Philadelphia. Next came a Christmas crèche made from wood of orange crates and grape boxes…

In 1947, at age 16, McGovern was struck with Polio and life instantly changed. Then attending West Philadelphia Public High School, he had to drop out and be tutored at home, “but through a state disability program was soon able to attend art school. ‘It was magical.’” Sally Downey reported that “He was encouraged to pursue his art and, while wearing full braces on both legs and using crutches, he commuted from his home to the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. Later he learned to drive a car with hand controls. After graduating from what is now the University of Arts, he was invited to join the faculty. For the next 43 years, he taught freshmen drawing and design as well as printmaking and other courses until retiring in 1999”

Bob continued to live in the neighborhood as an adult. Parishioner John Deady recalls visiting him at his parents’ house, at 4807 Kingsessing, where “he must have had a studio upstairs. I remember staying in the living room with his parents” while he printed an artwork. “Felt badly as I believe he was wearing braces and had to go up and down the stairs.” After Bob married Beverly at SFDS in 1963, the young McGoverns moved into the apartment house then owned by the Parish, on 47th Street between the convent and the Little School. Later, they moved to a more accessible place with a studio in Narberth – where Bob stayed after Beverly died and he married Aileen (also at SFDS!) in 1971. Bob and Aileen ultimately became members of both St Malachy and St, Margaret of Antioch in Narberth, so they had many church connections.

When Bob McGovern passed away in 2011, Lou Baldwin wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “So vast a number of McGovern’s woodcarvings, sculptures, wood and linoleum cuts, paintings and watercolors adorn churches, institutions and major museums in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and across the country (and Father Eric’s office) that his epitaph could well imitate that of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London: ‘If you seek his monument look around you.’’” We are privileged to be a part of his story.

Bob McGovern

Miracle at MBS

You may know Saint John Neumann (whose statue is in the former confessional by the door to the sacristy), as a hometown saint, but were you aware that a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish had a direct role in his canonization?

The story began in 1962, when a five-year-old boy named Michael Flanigan reportedly “bumped his shin against the doorstep of his parents’ home in West Philadelphia.” The MBS 1976 Diamond Jubilee Book notes that the family were “members of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish who resided at 5612 Beaumont Avenue” and explained that when the boy’s injuries didn’t heal, and he was admitted to Misericordia Hospital, “Doctors discovered that the injury had resulted in a form of bone infection. The boy underwent two operations. During the second operation a cancerous growth was discovered in the injured leg and it eventually spread into the child’s both lungs and lower jawbone. The boy was treated with radiation and drug therapy but these proved too toxic and the treatments were discontinued, at which time his condition worsened.”

The boy’s parents took their son to the Blessed John Neumann Shrine at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in July, 1963, and relic of the saintly fourth Bishop of Philadelphia were applied to the afflicted parts of his body. The symptoms disappeared in December of that year. The family and close friends considered the cure miraculous. Twelve years later, in December, 1975, the medical board of the Sacred Congregation of the Saints in Rome ruled that the cure had no ‘natural medical or scientific’ explanation, and the validation of the cure was submitted along with a petition to the Congregation to consider the canonization of Blessed John Neumann. The family now resides at Villas, near Wildwood, N.J.

A decade later, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “When Pope Paul VI convened canonization ceremonies for St. John Neumann in 1977, Michael Flanigan was one of the first invited to make the trip to Rome. When the young man and the Pope met, the pontiff embraced him and asked, ‘Please pray for me.’

Sadly, in October, 1986, Michael Flanigan – age 29 and married with two children – died suddenly one morning after complaining of sharp back pains.  “Family members said he had been well and had had no medical problems since his bout with cancer” but his hour had come.

So who is the saint he helped to canonize?

St. John Neumann (confusingly, a different saint from British John Henry Newman with a w, after whom College Newman Centers are named) was an immigrant from Bohemia (Czech Republic), who became the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States, and died in 1860.

Saint John Neumann’s road to sainthood was not straightforward: known as a “quiet, simple man who…devoted more time to tending the sick and teaching children than he did to diocesan affairs,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that his “91-year journey to sainthood was interrupted” in 1912, when it was decided that Bishop Neumann’s quiet steadfastness was not “heroic” enough to merit sainthood. Eventually, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV changed the definition of “heroism,” proclaiming that “Works, even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant of God,” and declared John Neumann “venerable.” He was beatified by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council on October 13, 1963, and canonized on June 19, 1977.

Today, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, with his remains visible below the altar stone, can be visited at 1019 North 5th Street.  Invoked as the patron of sick children and immigrants, his feast day is January 5 (Curiously, our statue, which is typical, looks very different from his actual photos – take a look!).

Saint Joseph’s Lily Staff

When our church was built, back around 1911, every detail inside was carefully designed – right down to the lily staffs surrounding the cross on the door of the Saint Joseph altar tabernacle.

What is a lily staff and why is it important?

We don’t know much about St. Joseph from the Bible. Stories of Mary’s betrothal come from the apocrypha (ancient books not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible). There, the Protoevangelium of James claims that when young Mary wanted to dedicate herself as a perpetual virgin at the Temple, the high priest prayed for direction. An angel then told him to gather all of the unmarried men of the area, and have each one bring his rod (generally thought to be a walking stick or staff) to the temple “and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be…and Joseph took his rod last; and behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord.’” The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew tells a similar story, stating that “the man from the point of whose rod a dove shall come forth, and fly towards heaven, and in whose hand the rod, when given back, shall exhibit this sign, to him let Mary be delivered to be kept.”

A new detail appeared centuries later, when the stories were gathered into the Medieval Wikipedia-like Golden Legend compilation of all knowledge: “And then Joseph by the commandment of the bishop brought forth his rod, and anon it flowered, and a dove descended from heaven thereupon, so that it was clearly the advice of every man that he should have the virgin.” Use of the word “flowered” is unclear – it can mean “come out into full development,” and the earlier stories seem to suggest that the dove “flowered” from the rod, rather than that the rod burst into bloom. In any case, artists were inspired by the botanical idea, and over time, the concept of a flowering rod seems to have further developed into a specific flower. The University of Dayton Archives observes “The lily is associated with St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, through an ancient legend that he was so chosen from among other men by the blossoming of his staff like a lily. Likewise, the biblical passage, ‘The just man shall blossom like the lily’ is applied to St. Joseph in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for his feastday, March 19.” The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that the lily is “The best known symbolic flower. It is the principal symbol of purity and thus associated with the Virgin Mary, especially in scenes of the Annunciation…Saint Joseph also frequently carries a lily…”

It’s actually more curious and complicated: the particular kind of lily on our tabernacle – often shown with St. Joseph in religious art — is a Calla Lily, native to Africa – an arum genus rather than a lilium – technically not a lily at all. Arums were associated with fertility in ancient cultures. At the same time, the rod of Joseph is not just a walking stick: the word was used in the Old Testament to mean genealogy — part of a family tree – such as the passage in Isaiah, thought to foretell the birth of Jesus: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (ISA 11:1). Mary has also sometimes been described as a rod, with Christ as the flower.

So, the lily staffs shown on our St. Joseph tabernacle, surrounding the symbol of a cross (which also is part of a tree) combine ancient natural symbols for integrity, belonging, and heritage, on a container for the sacred Eucharist. And one tiny artistic detail “blossoms” to connect and ground us through space, time, and history. The essence of our Catholic culture.

Seasonal Anniversaries

The end of the year seems to be hard on priests! Ten of our seventeen pastors have died since our founding in 1890; and of those, seven have their anniversaries within the next few weeks. This year, oddly, many of the dates happen to fall on Sundays or holy days, which feels like a sign that we should take a few moments to reflect on their special contributions to our story.

Monsignor John T. Mitchell, our seventh pastor (1967-1976), died on November 25, 1981, so his anniversary falls on Thanksgiving Day this year. He came to de Sales from St. Saint Ignatius Parish, where he founded St. Ignatius Nursing Home and was known for his civil rights activism and efforts for the black community. At de Sales, focused on social ministry, he worked to hold the neighborhood together in a time of great societal changes. The controversial Venturi neon lights renovation happened during his tenure.

Sunday, November 28 commemorates Bishop Joseph Mark McShea, our fifth pastor (1952-1961; died 1991). Bishop McShea was the last of the three bishops to serve at SFDS. He grew up in the shadow of our dome: in his youth, he was altar server to Bishop Crane and his family home on Farragut Terrace was one of those knocked down to build the addition to the school. The lower church was refurbished by the Dagit firm during his tenure, and the dome was re-tiled in an unsuccessful attempt to stop leaks. He also established St. Lucy’s School for the Blind in the building that today houses the IHM Literacy Center. Bishop McShea went on to become the first Bishop of Allentown.

Reverend Monsignor Joseph J. Anderlonis S.T.D., our sixteenth pastor (2016-2019), saw the need for stability in the parish. He promised that he would never abandon us; he’d have to be “carried out feet first.” And so he was, on December 6, 2019 – the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Monsignor Joe was our Lithuanian connection, having spent much of his career at Saint George Parish. Learned and sociable, he encouraged book clubs and educational and social gatherings to help bring our diverse community together.

Bishop Hugh Lamb, our fourth pastor (1936-1951; died 1959) has his anniversary on Wednesday, December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the official closing day for this Year of Saint Joseph. The middle of the three SFDS bishops, he is remembered for radio broadcasts, expanding parish activities, paying off the parish debt, and overseeing the 1940 Parish Jubilee. He became first Bishop of Greensburg, in Western PA.

Reverend Edward L. Gatens, our third pastor (1929-1936; died 1955), is commemorated Sunday, December 19. Rev. Gatens came to us from Pottsville, where he was known for defiantly building a Catholic high school, with a bold cross-shaped window, on the hill where the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan liked to burn its crosses. He arrived at SFDS just in time for the Great Depression and struggled to minister to the many in need among his flock. Due to a debilitating chronic health issue, he resigned his post in 1936.

Sunday, December 26 belongs to Bishop Michael J. Crane, our second pastor (1903-1928), who built our church and opened the school. Consecrated in 1921, he was the first of the three bishops to serve at SFDS. In addition to the church, he also built the convent and the addition to the school. Bishop Crane is buried on the Rectory lawn.

January 5 celebrates Monsignor Francis J. Fitzmaurice, our eighth pastor (1976-1977; died 2004), who was also Parish Administrator 1973-1976, when Reverend Mitchell’s health began to fail. When Father Fitzmaurice wrote his memoir for the parish 100th Anniversary, he recalled two exciting events: the glorious Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia and a scary break-in at the rectory – both emblematic of that interesting era. He went on to become pastor of St. Laurence, Highland Park/Upper Darby.                

Through good times and bad, our intricate parish tapestry is woven from the unique threads contributed by our succession of pastors. We are who we are today, in part, because of them.

Bishop Crane Visits the Penitentiary

December 19, 1924. “The Eastern Penitentiary witnessed one of its strangest, most moving ceremonies Saturday. In the prison chapel, candles burned against the background of a tall crucifix, and flowers decked the altar. Before the altar there ranged, in the garb of the prison and with heads bowed, thirty-two men. Beside each stood one of Philadelphia’s substantial citizens. Pacing the line, in his ecclesiastical robes, stood the Rt. Rev. Michael J. Crane, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia.” (and Second Pastor of SFDS).

“Then, as the ancient hymns of repentance, charity and forgiveness the Church were sung by yet other prisoners in the choir, the Bishop passed along the line and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to the thirty-two men who are expiating crimes against the State. An organ and a violin, also played by prisoners, softened still more the Latin chants.”

“If here behind prison walls you have found faith, then your imprisonment has been a blessing in disguise,” said the Bishop simply, when the ceremony was ended. Later, the prisoners presented Bishop Crane with a table and smoking set they had made themselves in the prison shops. Ho told them he would put them in his room as one of his chief treasures.”

“The thirty-two citizens of Philadelphia are representatives of Catholic lay organizations here. They were recruited by Father Francis Hoey, chaplain at the penitentiary, and they have promised to visit their individual charges for whom they stood sponsor, as long as they remain in the prison, and to find Jobs for them when they are released.”

“Organizations which the thirty-two laymen represent are: The American Society for Visiting Catholic Prisoners, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Temperance Society, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Holy Name Society.”

***

This evocative story turned up in the archives of the Catholic News Service. A separate Catholic Standard and Times article filled in a few more details: seventeen of the thirty-two confirmands were converts to the Catholic faith, due mostly to the missionary efforts of the “young chaplain there, the Rev. Francis P.K. Hoey.” About two hundred prisoners attended the service.

The Confirmation, though not the first there, was still significant. Eastern State Penitentiary records note that when the prison opened in 1829, it “was the world’s first true ‘penitentiary,’ a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners.” Early prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, but that proved too strict. The state ruled in 1913 that inmates should be grouped “for the several purposes of worship, labor, learning, and recreation.” In 1914 a “storage room of Industrial building fitted up, in service as chapel” and on 5 Apr 1914: “the prisoners were for the first time in the history of the Institution allowed outside their cells for the purpose of religious worship.” The first Catholic Mass was held Easter Sunday, April 12, 1914, and by 1918, the “chapel and assembly room abundantly justifies itself for church.”

By the time Bishop Crane visited the facility, in 1924, living conditions were much improved. A January report that year, noted “Inmates eat for first time in group dining halls. Tablecloths were provided on Sundays and holidays, and the holiday decorations were described as a ‘morale building factor;’” and by April, “clergymen of all denoms have unlimited privileges of visitation…” and the various chaplains had their own offices.

We have no record of whether Bishop Crane ever returned, but other bishops did, through the decades, bringing confirmation to inmates up until the prison closed in 1971. Abandoned for twenty years afterwards, it then reopened as a museum and historic (and Halloween) attraction in 1991. Today, one of its treasured features is an impressive series of murals, created in the Catholic chaplain’s office in the 1950s by a devout, self-taught artist inmate, and recently restored.

A Bell Named Edmond

St. Edmund of Abington shown in the Nuremberg Chronicle,

Who was Saint Edmund of Abington and why is one of our bells named after him, but with a different spelling?

Edmund was a 13th century British teacher of Mathematics and Dialectics (similar to Debate), who studied Theology, was ordained, and became celebrated for his integrity. Pope Gregory IX appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury, but he came into conflict with King and Pope over politics. He died while traveling in Poitingy, France, was buried there, and canonized in 1246 after miracles were reported at his grave. St. Edmund’s Hall Oxford, and St. Edmund’s College Cambridge in England were both named for him. Closer to home, the Society of St. Edmund, a religious order established in his name in France in 1843, moved to the U.S.in 1889, and became active in Alabama in the 1930s, supporting African Americans through the Civil Rights era. Today, the saint’s right arm relic is in a shrine near Mystic, CT – at St. Edmund’s Retreat, a house for all, including “those whose life experiences have alienated them from God and the Church.”

Philadelphia Archbishop
Edmond Francis Prendergast

Philadelphia’s Edmond name connection dates back to Archbishop Edmond Prendergast (Auxiliary Bishop 1897-1911; Archbishop 1911-1918), whose patron saint and inspiration was “St. Edmond of Abington” (which he spelled with an o) and who named a number of local institutions in the saint’s honor. Our Faith-Filled Heritage states that “in 1912 the archbishop founded Saint Edmond Parish in South Philadelphia and in 1914, a new residence building for students at Saint Charles Seminary was named Saint Edmond’s Hall. He also saw to the founding of Saint Edmond’s Home for Children, at 44th Street and Haverford Avenue. This home…was the first Catholic school in the United States to provide educational opportunities for severely handicapped youth.”

Bishop Prendergast was a fairly busy guy. According to Encyclopedia.com, in addition to his various Saint Edmond projects, “During his episcopate he increased the number of parishes from 297 to 327, provided parochial schools for 23,000 more children, erected the free West Catholic High School for boys, and opened the free Hallahan High School for girls… He opened the Archbishop Ryan Memorial for the Training of Deaf Mutes, the Madonna House for Italian immigrants, a similar home for the Spanish-speaking immigrants, St. Francis Country Home for Convalescents… a boarding home for working girls, and three new orphanages… He established the Catholic Home Bureau, sponsored the erection of the Misericordia Hospital, and provided a Catholic hospital for Allentown.. Under his direction the forerunner of the Newman Club was established at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Reverend Michael Crane – our Second Pastor – knew the Archbishop well, having been his Assistant at St. Malachy’s Church from 1889 to 1903 – through the period when Reverend Prendergast was appointed the first Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia in 1897. When Reverend Crane, himself, became an Auxiliary Bishop at SFDS in 1921, the Catholic Standard reported that he paid homage: Bishop Crane’s chosen motto “‘Ut Sim Fidelis’ – ‘That I may be faithful’ – is the same as that of the Most Rev. Edmond F. Prendergast, D.D., the late, lamented Archbishop who departed this life on February 26, 1918.

Our church tower bells, installed in 1916, were called Adolph, Michael, Elizabeth, Anthony, Cecilia, Theresa, Edmond, John, Thomas, Maurice and Gervase. They were ostensibly named after saints, but the names also had other associations. Adolph probably referenced sculptor Adolfo de Nesti, who went missing that year; Michael would have been the pastor, Rev. Michael Crane; Elizabeth likely honored Elizabeth Lippe, donor of the bells; Gervase probably honored the pastor’s sibling, Mother Mary Gervase, IHM; and the bell named Edmond almost certainly honored the Archbishop.

Today, there’s another Edmond of note, perched in the choir loft by the bell tower: look up and wave to Edmond Collins after Mass, who manages our parish livestream video and Youtube channel along with Susanna Collins!

Find it here and please help by subscribing:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkJF5ohnZQGikuhxV6OJV5w

A Tale of Two Altars

The brass donation plaque on the front of our altar hints at a tale of how two parishes once moved in opposite directions in order to come together.

The story began in 1969, a year of transformational world events, during which local churches were directed to install forward-facing altars for the New Mass of Vatican II.

At Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Monsignor Daly, who had been Pastor since 1940 and would retire in 1970, selected a monumental piece of marble to become a permanent part of his church – emblazoned with symbols of wheat and grapes, and carved with an image of the apostles at the Last Supper. The traditional design reflected both the purpose of the altar – as a table for the congregation to symbolically gather around, like the apostles – and the identity of the parish, focused on the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Reassuringly, in time-honored fashion, parishioners old and new were asked to help fund the addition. The MBS February 1969 Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “Miss Margaret Brooks, our organist for many years, has donated the new altar for the upper church. She wishes this, in memory of her beloved parents, Joseph and Margaret (sic. Joseph and Sarah Brooks, who had lived at 1812 South 56th St.). The cost of the new altar is $3,000. The installation and additional marble will cost an extra $4,500. Miss Ada Schraeder, our housekeeper for many years, has donated $100 towards the alterations in our sanctuary...” The following month, contributions were reported of “$22 for top altar cloth and $50 for help in installing new altar, in memory of P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from Mother and Dad – Mr. & Mrs. Austin H. Gaughan, 5318 Grays Avenue” and  “$22 altar cloth for new altar in memory of nephew P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from his Aunt & Uncle – Mr. & Mrs. Michael Hogan, 5348 Grays Avenue.“ (Austin Gaughan had died the year before, at age 19, in Vietnam). More contributions came, in months that followed, to cover the rest of the costs. Each one was individually acknowledged, since it represented a member of the parish, gathered for “supper” around the table. Those offerings and names became part of the MBS, and now our, parish heritage.

St. Francis de Sales, a few blocks away, took a different approach. There, under Monsignor Mitchell, a pastor focused on large social issues, idealistic young priests, recently assigned to the parish and filled with a sense of mission, embraced the new simplified English-language Mass, because it seemed accessible to all. With an evangelizing spirit, they invited world-renowned architect, Robert Venturi, to celebrate with a bold modern statement piece in the sanctuary – a plain, sleek plexiglass altar on a brightly-lit modern platform — symbolically highlighting the new order and thrusting the ornate high altar, and the “old-fashioned” ideas it represented, deep into the shadows. The renovation received a fair amount of press coverage, but parishioners, who did not understand the concept, and who were not involved in the planning or decision making, felt blindsided by the changes to their beloved church, which had been their haven in an age of upheaval. Hurt feelings were long lasting.

Jump ahead to 2007, when two small, diverse city parishes, weathered by time and circumstance, had to come together to survive. Like the neighborhood and the New Mass, the sanctuary of St. Francis de Sales had changed over time. The ultramodern Venturi altar eventually cracked and was quietly replaced by several temporary wooden altars under a succession of short-term pastors. When Saint Francis de Sales Parish became Saint Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, the sturdy marble altar from MBS, installed as a symbol of unity for the two churches, became a perfect fit for the space, looking as though it had always been there. Since its placement was a committee decision – agreed by the pastor and lay representatives of both parishes – it also offered a chance to come full circle at SFDS, heal an old wound, and open a way to a possible future of better communication between rectory and parishioners. It’s up to us, today, to move that forward!

The Society of Architectural Historians brought Fr. McNamee and Denise Scott Brown back to our church in 2015 to talk about the long-ago Venturi project.

The Eye of the Crane

A few years ago, an elegant, throne-like chair, moved from a sacristy side room, replaced the plainer presider’s chair in the sanctuary of our church. Much has been made of the fact that the replacement chair once belonged to a bishop, but today, the symbolism in its decorations offers a more important message.

The chair belonged to Reverend Michael J. Crane, our second pastor, who built our church. One hundred years ago, on September 19, 1921, when he was consecrated as a bishop, his new crest was carved into its back. The insignia was very personal at the time, with a bird, a sword, stars, and a motto chosen to represent his family name, his own first name, his mother’s ancestry, and his career. The elements also had another layer of meaning, though, and even when the chair was tucked away in the shadows for decades after he died, the totem remained a presence in our church.

The bird on the Bishop’s shield — a “crane ‘vigilant,’ that is, with a stone in one claw.” — represented his family name (ancestry websites suggest that the name Crane may actually have come from a tall, gawky bird-like long-ago Irish relative!). Worldbirds.org notes the bird’s religious significance: “In Christianity – especially in Christian Art, the crane is a symbol of vigilance, loyalty, good life and works, and good order in the monastic life.”  Signs and Symbols in Western Art, attributes this symbolism to a fable: “Legend recounts that cranes form a circle around their king at night, holding a stone in one foot while standing on the other. Should a crane fall asleep, the stone would fall and arouse him to renew his watch.” Worldbirds.org also finds that the bird has a special Irish symbolism: “Celts believed that birds like cranes were present in the Other World as well as this one. That is why they were viewed as Divine Messengers.”

Flanking the crane were two stars, taken from the Monaghan family shield of Bishop Crane’s mother. (Interestingly, the name Monaghan is supposed to have been derived from “monk,” suggesting a family spiritual tendency!) The Bishop’s 1928 Jubilee Book states that Two “Monaghan stars have been used – one symbolic of Our Lady Star of the Sea and the other of the Bishop’s mother in her own family symbol.” Respect for earthly heritage and spiritual guidance of the Blessed Mother are twin beacons.

Above the bird, Bishop Michael Crane’s first name was represented in “the angelic sword of St. Michael. An erect sword signifies a martial purpose, but in the horizontal position in which it appears in the new coat-of-arms, it indicates Protection and Guidance.

The shield was topped with the Catholic hierarchical “emblems common to all bishops – crozier, mitre, and hat with twelve tassles.”  At the bottom, Bishop Crane chose a little local historic continuity: “The Motto – Ut Sim Fidelus’ (That I may be Faithful) – is the same as that of the Most Rev. Edmond F. Prendergast, D.D., the late lamented Archbishop, who departed this life on February 26, 1918, and with whom Bishop Crane was associated for fourteen years at St. Malachy’s Church (1889-1903).”

Why is the chair important today? In recent years, we have been rediscovering our Parish story, charting where we’ve been to help guide our way forward. As we install our Seventeenth Pastor, the crane emblem on our chair peeks out above his head like an avatar, or “Divine Messenger” – ever vigilant, ever faithful; protecting and guiding, connecting our past and our future.