Seeing and Believing

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Saint Thomas the Apostle was labeled “The Doubter” because he needed to see proof of the resurrection in order to believe. But his focus on visual  confirmation might have been a natural result of his professional training, with some modern implications.

The Builder’s Square (near the 47th street door) is an especially appropriate symbol for Thomas, because square encompasses multiple meanings: it can be a geometric shape, or a tool used  to measure and lay out right angles. As a figure of speech, it relates to certainty, as in a sample sentence from Thesaurus.com: “do those announcements really square with the facts?”

Ironically, we have few dependable facts about Thomas, who is thought to have been a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan (and who may have been Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany).  Encyclopaedia Iranica reports an ancient tale that “The apostle was entrusted with funds for building a palace, but spent them on relief of the poor. When called to account, he declared he had built the king a palace in heaven…”  (this is a slightly different version from our 1940 Anniversary Book, which claims Thomas built the palace then donated his own construction profits to the poor). Tradition says Thomas went afterwards to India, where he is  “commemorated as a founder of the South Indian Christian community, and a church is named in his honor.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually built a palace for the glory of King Gondophares: his story is from an early manuscript in the Apocrypha not considered reliable enough to become part of the Bible. But its lesson – that a heavenly palace built of good deeds is superior to an ostentatious display of personal wealth – is very apostolic. The location of Thomas’ emblem next to the donor plaque in our church is also interesting: is it there because he is the Patron Saint of Architects and Builders or is it a  subtle reminder to early wealthy parishioners that they should also work on their spiritual palaces?

Thomas, emphasizing visual symbols, is an important saint for those who build and maintain religious structures. Large buildings commemorate what is valued in a society and modern landmarks tend to be commercial.  But each church in the landscape provides a needed visual reminder of God’s presence to all who pass by — a reason to keep ours in good order!

 

Acanthus

DSCN4297 (2)Looking at all the leaves carved on columns and tucked into the arches in our church, you might wonder “why the kale obsession?”

What you see is not, however, an historic tribute to a now-trendy vegetable. Instead, the leaves are acanthus – a frilly, thorny Mediterranean plant with a long architectural and symbolic history.

When did acanthus first appear in architecture? Some suggest that the form evolved from palm designs used in ancient Egypt in the time of the pyramids. A charming legend tells a different story of an ancient Greek sculptor who, fascinated by the sight of acanthus weeds growing through a basket on a gravesite, was inspired to recreate their shapes on Corinthian columns.

Whatever the origin, the leafy border was a common feature of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. From there, it traveled to the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to be used in Byzantine design from the 600s AD. At that point, the leaves became artistic forms, combined in complicated scrolls and garlands. These patterns were further adapted in Medieval Romanesque architecture, then became popular again in Late Victorian decoration. So the acanthus leaves in our 1911 Byzantine-Romanesque church have long design roots!

Symbolically, acanthus represents eternal life. Because of its thorny leaves, it also references the loss of Eden in Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field…”

When our church was built in the early 1900s, the Garden of Eden reference was accidentally relevant: new houses in the neighbourhood were being built over surrounding country fields, while flowers and leaves were remembered for us in sculptured clay and stone. (Many of those new houses, incidentally, were decorated with stylish acanthus “gingerbread”!)

At that time, and up until Vatican II simplified the church calendar, the church was more connected with the natural world, decorating with seasonal flowers and celebrating Ember Days of fasting and prayer four times a year to mark the changing seasons. Their purpose, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia,  was to “ thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.” In an increasingly technologized age, perhaps stopping to notice our acanthus “kale” can help us to reconnect!

Fireworks

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Here’s a long-ago neighbourhood tale for the holiday weekend.

Did you know that our church had an important connection with the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel before our annual  De Sales Night event existed?

Jean Baptiste Revelli, from France, was an early “pew holder” (parishioner who rented a specific seat) in our parish. Known simply as “Baptiste,” he was also the Assistant Manager and Maitre d’Hotel at the Bellevue from its earliest days.

When the Bellevue Hotel became the Bellevue-Stratford in 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a fulsome article, reassuring everyone that: “Baptiste Revelli will still be manager of all the large dinners and look after the menu. ‘Baptiste’ is a personal friend of every society man, woman, and child in the city…In addition to knowing the men and women of prominence here, Baptiste is a walking social register of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities and he is familiar with most of the titled persons of Europe who visit America or have social connections here. He has the reputation of knowing more of what is needed to make a private dinner or public banquet pass off successfully than any man in America, and his ideas as regards table decorations have won him worldwide fame.

Baptiste was married in our parish in August, 1910 – around the time that he donated one of the tall stained glass windows to the ongoing church construction. His bride, Miss Catherine Hayes, was his second wife; his first wife had died thirteen years previously. They lived at 4609 Cedar Avenue.

Sadly, being a star did not protect against flying stars. On July 8, 1926, the Reading Times reported that “Jean Baptiste Revelli came to Philadelphia in the Centennial year of American Independence and met death at an event commemorating the Sesquicentennial Anniversary…when an aerial bomb (rocket) struck him in the chest at the close of a fireworks display in Clark Park.”

Aged 75, the “genial white-haired” Baptiste  had retired from the Bellevue just a year before. In his time, he had “waited on kings and presidents… from President Arthur to President Wilson, General Pershing, King Albert and Queen Elizabeth, of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, Lloyd George and Clemenceau.” He was buried from our church.

A Woodlands Connection

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Two monuments at The Woodlands cemetery and two long-ago love stories offer family insights about the architect of our church.

In 1838, a rustic young Frenchwoman named Esther Poquet set sail for America as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Esther was not, perhaps, a model employee: upon reaching New York, she fell in love with a young French adventurer and cook named (Pierre) dandurand refectory4Alexandre Dandurand, left service, and the two were soon married. They moved to Baltimore, and, eventually, to Philadelphia. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street called Cafe Tortoni, described by one newspaper reporter as “The best eating-house in Philadelphia…much frequented by editors, authors and the better class of men about town”  and known for its excellent wine  cellar. When Alexandre died in 1849, his wife Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise.

What does any of this have to do with our church?

Another romance.

The Dandurands’ daughter Josephine fell in love with the family’s German tenant, Charles (Karl) Dagit, who lived above the  restaurant in the 1850s. Josephine’s very French mother did not approve of this French-German alliance, but the couple refused to be discouraged. They courted for several years, until they were finally allowed to marry in 1858. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit.

DSCN4409In the 1840s, when The Woodlands (former estate of William Hamilton, from a different Hamilton family) opened as a cemetery at 40th and Woodland Ave., it was promoted as “the most beautiful rural cemetery in the United States.” Henry Dagit’s grandmother Esther  must have been impressed, since she chose the location for her husband’s 1849 burial (Section G 332-334). When her daughter — Henry’s mother Josephine —  had to bury her three-year-old baby in 1882, she chose a spot at Woodlands not far from her own parents (Section I 555-557), and where she and her husband would both later be buried.

DSCN4406Perhaps visits to Woodlands through the years alerted Henry Dagit to the growing neighbourhoods on this side of the river, so that in 1904 he built a house at 4527 Pine Street for his own young family — and, a few years later, he embarked on the construction of our church. And perhaps his European family background gave Henry Dagit a particular affinity for the French and Swiss heritage of our patron saint – and inspired the many French and German artistic references in our church.

“That’s My Spot…” Pew Rents

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Cherish your right to choose a favorite seat!

When our church was first constructed, wealthy parishioners reserved their particular spots, renting them by the half year, with the pew rental fees contributing to the maintenance of the building. Non-renters had to squeeze into the remaining back rows or stand.

Some familiar names on the original Pew Rental List included important donors such as Mrs. William Lippe (who donated St. Anthony and the tower bells) in a prime spot on the odd side of the middle aisle in row 1, Jean Baptiste Revelli (Maitre’d at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel) in 15, church architect Henry D. Dagit and family in 19, General St. Clair Mulholland (Philadelphia Police Chief) and wife in 25; and on the even side, the Schwoerers (who donated the pulpit) in row 14 and  John Cooney (who donated the main altar) in row 16.

Pew rental was a controversial home-grown fundraising method in early American Protestant and Catholic churches. Why was it an issue? An 1840s tract criticizing the practice for Catholics suggested that emphasizing social stratification was “anticatholic,” and renting out the best seats to the wealthy was “calculated to pamper pride and a feeling of self- importance.”  Typically only about a quarter of Catholic parishioners paid rents and those who could not afford seats might feel less compelled to attend Mass. It could also enable discrimination.

In our church, pew rents seem to have gradually stopped after the church construction  debt was paid and the Parish basement was turned into an overflow chapel. Probably, as the parish grew and more services were added to the Sunday schedule, it became impractical to limit access to pews through all services. The Pew Rent Book was not regularly maintained after 1921. In 1924, The new Parish Monthly Bulletin began listing monthly contributions of all registered parishioners.

A few decades later, in 1964, as Vatican II came into effect, our church interior was “updated” for its 75th anniversary, and the original quarter-sawn oak pews, with their extendable brass “reserved pew” bars, were replaced with plain sleek modern pews crafted by New Holland Church Furniture in Lancaster County. All seats had equal status around the altar table, and parishioners at each Mass were free to choose their own number one spots — with their preferred perspective, with their desired cross breeze, and surrounded by a diversity of neighbours and friends in their own chosen places!

 

 

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Three Bishops

The Catholic Encyclopedia re-states Church law that “there shall be but one bishop of each diocese…” and “there is only one cathedral.”

Philadelphia’s cathedral is downtown on the Parkway, but our church has, in its history, been home to three bishops. How can this be?

All three of our bishops were titular bishops, which means that at consecration, each was assigned the title of an early Christian diocese that, by modern times, had “neither clergy nor people.” One reason was to preserve the memory of those “once venerable and important but now, desolate, sees.” Another, was the practical reason that, since there were no pastoral duties in an ancient inactive diocese, its bishop would be free to help out in a large modern district, such as the Philadelphia Archdiocese, that had grown too big to be managed by one bishop. A titular bishop could live locally and help with bishop’s tasks, but was not, by technicality, a local bishop with a competing cathedral.

Who were our bishops and what were their connections?

Our second Pastor, Reverend Michael J. Crane, became Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia under Cardinal Dougherty and Titular Bishop of Curium, Cyprus (aka Kourion – site of an important University of Pennsylvania archaeological excavation!)  while serving at our church in 1921. The Titular Bishop of the ancient see of Helos (or Elos, near ancient Sparta), was fourth Pastor Auxiliary Bishop Hugh Lamb, stationed at our parish from 1935 to 1951.  Reverend Joseph Mark McShea became Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia and Titular Bishop of Mina (aka Mauretania Caesariensis in Algeria), while serving as our fifth Pastor, in 1952.

What is the role of a titular bishop? It’s complicated. As Auxiliary Bishop, he reports to the local diocesan Bishop, who delegates a variety of pastoral tasks and “functions that require the sacramental power of a bishop.” In his own diocese-in-title, his power is entirely “potential:” the Pope is in charge, and the titular bishop waits forever in reserve “just in case.”

What happened to our SFDS bishops?  Bishop Crane, who built our church, died in 1928 and is buried on the rectory lawn. Bishop Lamb became diocesan Bishop of Greensburg in Western PA in 1951. Bishop McShea was appointed first Bishop of the newly created Allentown Diocese in 1961. His departure opened a new era in the Philadelphia Archdiocese when his replacement, Bishop Gerald McDevitt, opted to follow the 1960s population shift to live in the suburbs.

The Assumption of Mary Vietnamese Community

In 2016, the Vietnamese Community celebrated their fortieth anniversary at St. Francis de Sales.

Their history (translated) recalls that: “On April 30, 1975, with the collapse of South Vietnam, more than 130,000 Vietnamese left their homeland to seek freedom. Vietnamese refugees came to Philadelphia from refugee camps in Florida, Arkansas, California and Pennsylvania. Most came to Philadelphia from Indiantown Gap Camp, PA” (near Hershey).

The Philadelphia Archdiocese sponsored seven Vietnamese priests, who “were invited to St. Charles Seminary to learn American customs and English language, so that after three months of study, they could be appointed to the parishes they would serve.”

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Rev. Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh

In December 1975, Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh was appointed Assistant Priest at St. Francis de Sales Parish and Director of the Vietnamese Apostolate for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. His Vietnamese ministry started first at de Sales. Then, “in 1976, as the number of refugees grew, he began establishing communities in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties. Once his diocese was stabilized, he then helped small communities in neighboring locations, such as Wilmington, Reading, Allentown, Atlantic City and Camden.”

It was not an easy time: “in the early days, when everyone was a new refugee, the language was foreign, transportation was not available, many had to depend on American sponsors, there was a shortage of  Vietnamese food, Vietnamese markets were not available, and the communication between Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese was difficult.” A reunion Mass at St. Charles Seminary that first Christmas was bittersweet, with happy faces and sad memories to share.

Our parish helped with resettlement efforts. Monsignor Hilferty, who became Pastor in 1977, had served as Military Chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years from 1957 to 1977, so he understood the needs of immigrants and the challenges of starting over in a new place. Parishioner Betty Allen worked tirelessly to find housing for Vietnamese families – as well as newly-arriving Laotians, Cambodians, Koreans, and H’mong – many of whom were not Catholic. The Parish School began an ESL (English as a Second Language) program for children, who were soon able to participate in regular classes.

Until he passed away suddenly in 1990, Father Anthony worked diligently to insure that Vietnamese heritage survived in a new land, and children continued to learn their culture, religion, language, and customs. Today’s flourishing community of over 300 faithful from the tri-state area is a tribute to the success of his early efforts, as is the ordination of eight Vietnamese  priests and a deacon.

The Poisoned Chalice

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Snake on cup — unhygienic?

Perhaps not!

The 1940 parish anniversary book reported that the snake-and-cup emblem of Saint John the Apostle (by the 47th Street door) came from an ancient legend: “according to the tradition handed down by Saint Isidore, the idolatrous enemies of the Saint having poisoned the wine which he used for the holy sacrifice of the Mass, hoped thus to kill him. But the Saint frustrated their design, for on his blessing the wine a serpent came forth to warn him.”

The story first appeared in the Apocrypha — a collection of manuscripts not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible. In the Sixth century, St. Isidore included the texts in an ambitious encyclopedia of all world knowledge. His information was then folded into the 13th century Golden Legend collection of saints lore, and spread from there.

Versions of the story differ: the wine was sometimes Communion wine; more usually, it was a beverage given to John at the Temple of Artemis or in the Marketplace. But the truth might actually be related to the roots of modern medical science.

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In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and his daughter, Hygieia, was the goddess of health and hygiene. Hygieia tended to the snakes at her father’s temple, which were made immortal by his magical potions. Her snake-on-a-cup emblem, known as the “Bowl of Hygieia,” has become an international symbol of pharmacy.

Snake magic was a distraction that obscured real medical knowledge. Ephesus (in Turkey), where St. John visited, was not far from Pergamum – site of an important temple to Asclepius  and early medical center (where celebrated physician Galen would establish the foundations of modern medicine half a century later). So John’s snake chalice could have been a “Bowl of Hygieia” containing medicine. Was he healed of an illness? In any case, legend suggests that acceptance of science strengthened, rather than damaging his religious faith. An important idea.

The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests a (snake-free) chalice is a logical emblem for Saint John for an entirely different reason: “Perhaps the most natural explanation is to be found in the words of Christ to John and James: ‘My chalice indeed you shall drink…’” This brings us to the central image above the altar in our church, with Saint John on the left, gazing up at the crucified Jesus, and, abstractly, the “Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation.”

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BONUS: The Tale of St. John’s bedbugs from the Apocrypha:

bedbug…And having so said, and bidden farewell to them, and left much money with the brethren for distribution, he went forth unto Ephesus…

Now on the first day we arrived at a deserted inn, and when we were at a loss for a bed for John, we saw a droll matter.

There was one bedstead lying somewhere there without coverings, on which we spread the cloaks which we were wearing, and we told him to lie down upon it and rest, while the rest of us all slept upon the floor.

But John, when he lay down, was troubled by the bugs, and as they continued to become yet more troublesome to him, when it was about midnight, in the hearing of us all, he said to them: I say unto you, O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God.

And as we laughed, and went on talking for some time, John went to sleep; and we, talking low, gave him no disturbance (or, thanks to him we were not disturbed).

But when the day was now dawning I arose first, and with me Verus and Andronicus, and we saw, in the doorway of the house which we had taken, a great number of bugs standing, and while we wondered at the great sight of them, and all the brethren were roused up because of them, John continued sleeping.

And when he awoke we told him what we had seen. And he sat up on the bed and looked at the bugs and said: Since ye have behaved yourselves in heeding my rebuke, come unto your place.

And when he had said this, and had risen from the bed, the bugs ran from the door, hastened to the bed, climbed its legs, and disappeared into the joints.

And John said again: This creature listened to the voice of a man, and stayed by itself and was quiet and did not trespass; but we who hear the voice and commandments of God disobey and are light-minded: and for how long?

After these things we came to Ephesus…

Adapted from  “The Apocryphal New Testament”
M.R. James-Translation and Notes
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924

 

Snake in the Glass

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_MG_2611The third long window on the St. Mary side of our church is an Easter theme with a Christmas puzzle.

At the top, Jeremiah prophesies “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord...” The sections below show Jesus comforted by an angel during the Agony in the Garden, and the Death of St. Francis de Sales – two stories about the end of life. So how does the Star of David at the bottom – a symbol of Jesus’ family lineage and of his birth at Bethlehem — fit this theme?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t.

Long ago, someone restored several panels and put them back incorrectly. A photo at the Athenaeum shows the windows just after they were installed in 1910. At that time, the bottom part of the Agony in the Garden window featured the wreath-with-a-passion-flower-and-snakes currently under the middle window.

That makes more sense! The passion flower is said to represent “faith and suffering.” The laurel wreath surrounding it is a traditional symbol of victory, creating  an Easter message of triumph over death. According to Heilmeyer’s Language of Flowers, the passion flower can also represent “a hankering for a long-lost paradise.” Two snakes nibbling at crosses represent original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the reason we need a Savior.

Worries about lost paradise form a subtle undercurrent in the Agony in the Garden window. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth notes that “D’Ascenzo’s composition …appears to have been derived from an etching of the Agony in the Garden by Rembrandt. But D’Ascenzo has changed Rembrandt’s composition with the introduction of an olive tree, which forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” William Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, medieval, hand-crafted, nature-inspired worldview. His ideas were popular when our church was built and D’Ascenzo admired him. The world in 1910 was experiencing rapid change – our church had modern electricity, a state-of-the-art Guastavino dome, and fireproof tiles made for skyscrapers  — new “fruit from the tree of knowledge” that was both exciting and unnerving. D’Ascenzo, like Morris, looked backwards to a simpler, more natural age.

Curiously, the accident of the mixed-up windows has changed their mood from melancholy reflection on change, to a reassuring meditation on continuity: moving clockwise around the church, the Star of David — the symbol of Jesus’ family lineage — below the Agony in the Garden heralds the next window in the eternal cycle — the Annunciation across the aisle, followed by Jesus’ Birth.

A Saint for Healthcare

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Who is the saint who stands so patiently with his broom, near the Mary altar in our church?

No one seems to remember when his humble resin  statue arrived at our parish, or who was the donor. For many years, he stood on the St. Joseph side of the church, near the sacristy doorway, until he was moved to his present position by Father Hand.

Martin de Porres is an interesting saint! Born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, he lived during the same period as our patron Saint Francis de Sales – though in a very different location and circumstances. Francis de Sales was born to rich parents in France, and rejected the noble lifestyle. Martin de Porres’ father was a Spanish nobleman, but his mother was a freed Black slave from Panama – possibly with some Native American heritage – so his parents could not legally marry. His father abandoned the family and Martin grew up in poverty,  stigmatized as illegitimate and biracial.

At an early age, after two years of school, Martin apprenticed to a barber/surgeon to learn the practical trade of haircutting and medical bloodletting. He wanted to join a religious order, but discriminatory laws prohibited it. Eventually, he was allowed to volunteer as a servant to the Dominicans, where he worked tirelessly in the kitchen and laundry, as well as cutting hair and tending the sick in the infirmary.

Martin was a mystic contemplative vegetarian, who did menial tasks willingly and spent long hours in prayer. He became known for almsgiving and for his gentle and effective medical ministry, helping anyone in need, regardless of who they were. His medical skills were renowned and it was said he was able to mysteriously pass through walls to perform healing miracles in locked rooms. He also is known, like Francis of Assisi, as a friend of animals. A story is told that when the monastery was troubled with mice (or rats), Saint Martin refused to poison them; instead, he politely asked them to leave, which they did.

Because of his growing holy reputation, exceptions were made for his birth circumstances, and Martin was eventually allowed to become a Dominican lay brother and to spend the rest of his life working as a healer in the monastery.

Martin de Porres died in 1639. He was beatified in 1837, canonized on May 6, 1962, and his feast day is November 3. He is known today as the patron saint for people of mixed race, as well as for barbers, innkeepers, and healthcare workers.