Praying By the Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Place For Hope

 

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Reverend Thomas J. Hilferty      (9th Pastor 1977-1989)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city churches faced tough times as population shifted to the suburbs. At St. Francis de Sales, registration dropped steadily from 4,233 families in 1963, to just 831 families by 1983, raising serious concerns about our finances and our future.

But a church is not a container for ancient rituals; it’s a meeting place for people striving to live their faith. So our small parish ignored its own worries for a larger sense of purpose, when wave after wave of desperately fleeing refugees swept into Philadelphia after the Vietnam War.

Our Lower Church became the archdiocesan “Mother Church” for incoming Vietnamese Catholics, with Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh, himself a refugee, as chaplain. Our then Pastor, Father Hilferty, who had been a travelling Navy chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years, understood the needs of the new arrivals. He also had a military-trained practical outlook, so that in 1980, Philadelphia Magazine reported that “Over the last five years this parish has become one of the most successful centers for Indo-Chinese refugee resettlement in the area.”

Philadelphia Magazine singled out longtime parishioner Betty Allen as “a one-woman resettlement agency” with a goal to “get the immigrants employed and off welfare and out of Stoneleigh Court (an underheated, barely livable shelter at 46th and Walnut) as fast as they can.” In 2012, Liz Campion recalled that Betty Allen’s “spiritual life was connected to the refugees of every major war or famine over the past forty years. She also volunteered services to the mentally ill, people recovering from addiction and to folks who needed job training after prison. She helped open a school to teach English as a second (or third, or fourth) language to her beloved refugees. She made sure the curriculum included classes to help parents better help their school-age children with homework.” And she invited people to use their various talents to get involved.

Lloyd Romero was point-person for Catholic Social Services. Liz recalls the work of local realtor Arthur Kane, who “moved people into affordable housing and through to home and business ownership and a stake in the American Dream.” Philadelphia Magazine mentions the efforts of “Woodland Presbyterian Church…and the West Philly Refugee Center of the Living Word Community on Chester Avenue,” as well as a “Jewish businessman who recently put up $1,000 for a Christmas party and blankets…” Joint efforts to help immigrants of all faiths, brought the neighborhood together.

Today, our parish is still relatively small, and the budget is tight, but as the world changes yet again, new needs are out there. Do we still have heart?

The Age of Aluminum

lower church doors dagit brochureAluminum today is the material of sticky storm windows,  suburban garage doors, baked potato wraps, cheap cookware, and recyclable beverage cans. But in the 1950s, it was a bright lightweight space-age metal used in airplanes for a new age of travel and in satellites for the emerging “space race.”

When our lower church was renovated for Bishop McShea by Henry D. Dagit and Sons during the postwar baby boom in 1953, a prominent feature of the renovation was the new aluminum-and-glass doors that replaced narrow, dark, inconvenient stairwells known for accumulating slush and puddles. The new arrangement provided a celebrated “three sets of double-entrance doors” on two sides of the church with indoor vestibules for the added convenience of the rapidly-expanding parish.

But why choose aluminum for the doors rather than a more traditional material? Thomas Jester, writing on postwar aluminum in architecture, notes that in that period, “metals were selected not only because they met specific performance criteria and characteristics but also because they conveyed newness, celebrated industrialization, and even highlighted their specific qualities for poetic effect.” The “curb appeal” of shiny aluminum-and-glass doors along 47th street was a sign to the world that our parish was active, modern, and up-to-date.

lower church dedication prog border (2)Use of metal also comfortably bridged old and new: The National Organization of Ornamental Metal Manufacturers proclaimed in 1947 that metal construction offered “strength, utility and permanence, dignity and beauty…” These were important qualities for our church, where the ancient chi-rho symbols (XP representing the first two letters of Christ in Greek) incorporated in the sleek aluminum grillwork provided a thematic link between the time-honored upstairs and the new downstairs; and also between the work of architect Henry D. Dagit — who built the original church — and that of his sons, the next generation, who designed the renovation.

Aluminum began to lose its mystique around the time the easy-opening soda can pull-tab was invented in 1959. At the same time, the rush to the suburbs and the upheaval of Vatican II began the gradual shrinking of our parish population. Over time, the aluminum doors were used less often with fewer masses, and in recent years, we’ve favoured the traditional historical upstairs over the brighter, more streamlined downstairs – which became, for forty-two years, the home of our Vietnamese congregation. Today, the distinctive sound of the lower doors creaking open is a call from the past, drawing us in to an awakening appreciation of our whole parish story.

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Where the Heart Is

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Bishop Joseph Mark McShea (SFDS Pastor 1952-1961)

Our Fifth Pastor, Bishop Joseph Mark McShea (who became first Bishop of Allentown in 1961), was uniquely connected to Saint Francis de Sales parish in Philadelphia.

SFDS made a familiar first pastoral assignment for the Bishop, after working for the Vatican in Rome and Washington DC through World War II. The Parish Monthly Bulletin reported in 1952 that “Bishop McShea’s appointment to St. Francis de Sales is truly a ‘homecoming” for he completed his elementary schooling in our parish school, served Mass at our altar, was a member of the Boys’ Battalion, and left the parish to continue the studies which would enable him one day to return to St. Francis as pastor and bishop.”

In his first remarks as a newly-consecrated Bishop, McShea recalled “the countless times when I too sat and knelt in these pews; when I walked up these aisles to the altar rail to receive Our Blessed Lord in Holy Communion. These Stations of the Cross bring back memories of Lenten Devotions. At the shrines I kneel in spirit again to pray with you to The Blessed Mother, to Saint Joseph, and the gentle Bishop, Saint Francis de Sales, the heavenly patron of this parish. So too the rectory, the school, the auditorium and school yard abound in remembrances of boyhood experiences…”

 (Why is SFDS School not listed on McShea’s “permanent record”? Early Freshman classes at the new West Catholic High School for Boys appear to have been held at Transfiguration Parish, which must then have been mistakenly recorded as his grade school. “Joe McShea’s” attendance here – and minor boyish mischief — was remembered and confirmed by his SFDS School classmates).

McShea’s roots were deep in our parish. He especially remembered “those days in the Twenties when at the same altar I knelt to serve the daily Mass of Bishop Crane. On entering the pulpit, I recall other times when I stood here with the good Bishop in the days of his failing eyesight to read to him in a low tone the Sunday announcements, that he might repeat them aloud to the people…”.

In addition to serving at the altar for our church-building Second Pastor, Bishop McShea had two other historic links with our parish. He noted: “my family home stood on Farragut Terrace (number 928) and was sold to the parish in 1925 to help provide space for the enlargement of the school;” and his will, when he died in 1991, specified a Latin quotation for his tombstone, which translates “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house…” Do those words sound familiar? Look up at the inscription in the mosaic on our sanctuary walls!

Another Mother Theresa

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“Mother Theresa Maxis
The Holder of the Fire”
© 1995 SSIHM Monroe, Nancy Lee Smith, IHM Iconographer

From 1999 to 2014, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), who run SFDS School and the IHM Center For Literacy, also operated a site called the Theresa Maxis Outreach Center at MBS, offering food, clothing, and life management skills training to those in need.

Who was Theresa Maxis?

That’s a complicated, inspirational, and deeply American tale.

Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, co-founder of the IHM order, was the daughter of Marie Anne Maxis, a Haitian refugee, brought to Baltimore in the 1790s by a French family named Duchemin. Her father was a British officer, briefly visiting American relatives. Marie Alma was born in 1810, and, like her mother, took the Duchemin name. According to documents in the Scranton IHM Archives, “The Duchemins were childless. Providing the little Marie Alma, or as she was usually called, Almaide. (a San Dominican nickname) …the same advantages of education and training which they would have given a child of their own, they saw her develop into a beautiful cultured woman of extraordinary intelligence…” bilingual in French and English and racially-mixed.

While attending a non-Caucasian Sunday School, Almaide met two young women hoping to establish the first religious order for women of color (long before the Civil War), and a boarding school to educate Haitian refugees. Almaide enrolled as their pupil, which functioned as her novitiate, and became one of the founding Sisters of the Oblates of Providence in 1829, taking the professed name of Theresa Maxis.

When the Baltimore Archdiocese tried to disband the Oblates, Mother Theresa was invited to the newly created state of Michigan. There, with Father Louis Gillet CSsR, she co-founded the IHM Sisters in 1845 with a mission to educate French-speaking immigrant girls. In 1855, Bishop (today Saint) John Neumann invited her to expand the teaching efforts of her sisters to Susquehanna County in the Philadelphia diocese. Then, a “jurisdictional dispute” between the bishops of Detroit and the newly-formed Scranton diocese in 1859 moved Mother Theresa “to the Pennsylvania foundation, which later became a separate branch of the congregation.”

An Immaculata University history recalls her fortitude: “Because of many difficulties and misunderstandings, Mother Theresa was forced to leave…” and spent 17 years exiled with the Grey Nuns of Ottawa in Canada. Bishop Wood invited her to return to West Chester in 1885, where she died in 1892. “Mother Theresa’s legacy of courage, peace and service to the poor continues now in three IHM congregations of Monroe, Michigan; Immaculata; and Scranton, Pennsylvania.”

Perhaps our IHM-strong parish needs a new memorial in her name!

Jacob’s Ladder

_MG_2559 (2)Have you ever noticed the odd ladder-like borders around some of our stained-glass windows?

The designs could be a nod to the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:10-15).

The story is a surprisingly important one around the world and across cultures. Exhausted Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, laid down by the roadside, pillowing his head on a stone. Falling asleep, “he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…”

The dream has been interpreted as foretelling Jewish exile, and as describing a bridge between heaven and earth. It is also thought to represent the Muslim “straight path” of a virtuous life. Some suggest that a three-rung ladder could represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity; while a seven-rung ladder could evoke seven moral virtues. An old legend claimed that the Stone of Scone, used in the ritual to crown British monarchs, was the very same stone on which Jacob rested his head!

Our patron, Saint Francis de Sales, offered his own perspective, directing readers of his Introduction to the Devout Life to “contemplate Jacob’s ladder, for it is the true emblem of the devout life. The two sides, between which we ascend, and in which the rounds (rungs) are fastened, represent prayer…and the sacraments…” The rungs of the ladder offer a route down to action, performing good deeds “to the help and support of our neighbour,” and up for meditation and “blessed union with God.” Both directions of action and thought are important to spiritual development.

Why do we think the ladder designs might be significant in our church?

The clue is right there in plain sight: the inscription on the back wall of the sanctuary — “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” (Genesis 28:16) — is what Jacob said upon awakening from that dream!

 

Dedication

DSCN4869 (2)What are those oddly-shaped dark stains to the left and right on the back wall of the sanctuary behind the old altar?

They mark the places where two “dedication” or “consecration crosses” used to be mounted. You’ll find six cross-shaped candle brackets still arranged at eye-level around the inside walls of our church, and four more empty spaces.

What do they mean?

The crosses, originally twelve in number, represent a very old tradition of blessing the walls of a church – usually after its construction debt is paid.

Our church was officially consecrated by on November 12, 1920. The Catholic Standard and Times reported Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Dougherty’s speech, describing the ceremony, at the official celebratory Mass the next day: “three times the consecrator encircled the outer walls with holy water and invoking the Most Blessed Trinity. The inner walls were also blessed with the triple blessing of holy water. Then, the floor of the church, from the main entrance to the chancel rail, was sanctified with holy water and prayer. The inside walls were anointed with sacred chrism at the twelve places where brackets have been set up to hold lighted candles. By this consecration, the church has been lifted up into a higher order. It has been set apart in perpetuity for the worship of God…”

What was the symbolism? Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the “triple sprinkling and circuit of the walls…symbolizes the triple immersion at holy baptism…” According to Father Edward McNamara of Regina Apostolorum University, “in keeping with liturgical tradition, there are twelve anointings…as a symbol that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem…The twelve candles stem from the symbolic use of this number in biblical tradition. The 12 stones used by Moses to build the altar of the covenant represented the 12 tribes of Israel. There are 12 gates of the New Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Revelation…Likewise, there are the 12 apostles…” The lighting of the church “reminds us that Christ is a ‘light to enlighten the nations’” and “the anointing of the church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship…”

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The symbolism would be meaningless in an empty church. At the 1920 Consecration, Archbishop Dougherty highlighted the role of parishioners: “that your church was ready for consecration within thirty years after the establishment of your parish, is a subject for wonder…and a sign that parishioners were fully-involved in parish life. Today, the ghosts of those missing candle brackets call out for our greater engagement and spiritual re-dedication.

 

Literary Women of de Sales

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God’s Alphabet (Angelus Press)

Our parish has been home to a surprising number of distinguished authors over the years!

First among them, was Eleanor Donnelly, who donated our Blessed Mother Altar and wrote a poem for the Parish Dedication in 1911. She published almost fifty books in her lifetime – including Lyrics and Legends of Ancient Youth in 1906, dedicated to our parish; and The Life of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace, a fascinating biography of the head nurse at the Satterlee Civil War Hospital (once located at the edge of Clark Park).

Another early author was Wilhelmina (Minnie) Ruane, Joe Ruane’s Grandmother, who penned a religious alphabet book for children in 1938, with charming period illustrations by artist Janet Robson. The book, which sold in the Parish Bookstore for many years, is now back in print as God’s Alphabet, from Angelus Press.

The IHM Sisters at St. Francis de Sales School wrote the early versions of several still-standard school textbooks. The first volumes of the Voyages in English series for Loyola Press were written at SFDS School in 1941. Sister Rose Anita and Sister Francis Borgia were its coordinators in the 1950s. Mother Paulita Campbell, who was principal of the Parish School in the 1950s, authored the Progress in Arithmetic series for Sadlier. Examples and study questions in both series included names and situations straight from our parish!  

 Philadelphia playwright and author Constance O’Hara was associated for many years with the Hedgerow Theatre, which produced several of her plays, including  “The Years of the Locust,” (1932) about “an  enclosed convent caught in war.” It was later staged in New York and England. O’Hara’s 1955 memoir, Heaven Was Not Enough, addressed her struggles with faith in and out of our parish (which she describes in a particularly low point as “a great, ugly, gray pile”), and her ultimate return.

Today, longtime parishioner Ann de Forest looks outward and “recently completed an 18-month project…documenting the lives of 12 immigrant and refugee families for Al Bustan: Seeds of Culture. Ann is a contributing writer for Hidden City Philadelphia, editor of Extant, the magazine of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and author of Healing on the Homefront, a book of photo essays about the bonds forged between home health care providers and their patients.” She also publishes short stories, teaches poetry to the elderly at L.I.F.E. senior daycare, and wonders if our association with the patron saint of journalists might be our parish inspiration!

Lost Sheep

dscn3170-2-e1520018971281.jpgHave you ever wondered why there is a lamb-themed window in the stairwell to the St. Francis de Sales Church choir loft?

Nothing in our church design is there by chance, but sometimes the symbolism is confused by history – as when, in 1965, a doorway between the foyer, or vestibule, and the Baptistery was blocked off to create space for a shrine honouring our patron Saint Francis de Sales.

What does that have to do with the lamb window?

The Baptistery (today’s Adoration Chapel – open 24/7 to anyone with a key from the rectory), in the east tower of the church, was originally designed for administering the sacrament of baptism. It contained the John-the-Baptist-themed baptismal font by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti (located in the rear of the church today) and a stained glass window, probably by Niccola D’Ascenzo.

john 001 (3)The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art describes how John the Baptist “retired to the desert, living on wild honey and locusts and wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather girdle...” In Western art, “he usually holds a reed cross, which sometimes has a scroll attached reading Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God) which is what he said to John and Andrew (John 1:35-36)…” when he baptized Jesus. Such depictions generally also include the symbol of the lamb.

Our Saint John the Baptist window – inspired by works such as Francisco Ribalta’s  17th century Spanish painting — shows him in a heroic pose, wearing a hairy garment over a cloth tunic. Pointing towards the heavens with his right hand, he carries the Ecce Agnus Dei staff-and-scroll in his left, and, just as in that painting,  there is a baptizing pool behind him. The one thing missing from our window is the lamb itself.

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San Juan Bautista by Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628)

Before the 1965 renovation, Saint John, with his “Behold the Lamb of God” banner, would have looked straight out through the Baptistery doorway, across the vestibule, to the Lamb of God window on the other side of the church.

How do we know that the two are intentionally related? The round tops and borders of both windows share the same cross-and-scallop-shell design. The scallop shell is generally recognized as  a symbol of pilgrimage, but it is also used as a symbol of baptism, since shells were sometimes used to pour the water and baptism marks the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage.

That which was lost has been found – and today, our Adoration Chapel and heavenly choir music both provide avenues to connect with faith and experience spiritual “rebirth.”

A Well-Connected Family

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John and Wilhelmina Ruane (center) celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1956, with their children and their spouses and the 20 grandchildren at that time. Joe is fourth from the right, at the edge of the door in the back row.

Longtime parishioners Joe and Nancy Ruane are “well-connected” at Saint Francis de Sales parish. Joe’s grandparents were early parishioners, and Joe’s electrician father and grandfather worked on our electrical connections – including installing the two long chandeliers at the front of the church and the first sound system.

1943 ruane baltimore aveJohn F. Ruane and Wilhelmina Halberstadt Ruane married in 1906 and appear to have moved to the parish sometime before 1920. Joe writes that by the 1930s, “the couple lived at 720 S. 49th Street, and had an electrical shop at 4830 Baltimore Avenue…” He notes that his father became a partner in the business after the Second World War, and “took over the business when my grandfather retired in the late 50’s. They did a lot of the electrical work for De Sales when Bishop Lamb was pastor” from 1936 to 1951.

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The SFDS Parish Bookstore was located at 4726 Baltimore Avenue

Joe says “My grandmother worked one day in their store keeping the books, and worked other days at a religious goods store in 4700 block of Baltimore Ave, next to the then Byrd theater (this could have been the SFDS Parish Bookstore and Lending Library at 4726 Baltimore – today’s Vientiane Restaurant).  She was the author of a book sold there, “A is for Angels” which went through the alphabet with a religious word for each letter.”

Joe further recalls “My parents lived in Delaware County after they got married and raised our family in Collingdale, but as an infant, after being baptized in the hospital, the sacrament of baptism was supplied, or completed, at St. Francis de Sales a few weeks later. As children my parents used to bring us into the city to watch the De Sales May Procession during the time of Bishop Lamb.”

Joe’s guardian angel moment came when he helped in the family electrical store in 1947/1948: “One day I dropped a screw from a toaster on the floor” and  “noticed through a crack in the floor a fire in the basement. Luckily the fire was taken care of quickly by the fire station at 50th and Baltimore (today’s Dock Street Brewing Co.) since three stores on the corner of 49th and Baltimore all shared the same basement, divided by thin wooden partitions.

Joe notes that as an adult, “ I moved to the parish in late 1968, married and moved to Roxborough in 1971, and returned here in 1973, where Nancy and I raised our daughter who was married in St. Francis De Sales in 2000” — connecting our parish through multiple generations!

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Joe’s grandfather, John F Ruane and grandmother, Wilhelmina Halberstadt Ruane at their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 1956. The priest on the left is Rev. Philip Bruckner, C.M., of the Miraculous Medal Association in Germantown, Joe’s cousin and nephew of his grandmother; the priest on the right is Msgr. Charles B. McGinley, pastor of Holy Child parish, north Broad Street, now Our Lady of Hope where Sr. Gertrude Borres R.A, is Director of Evangelization. Ruane Electric had done the electrical work, including lighting, for the Holy Child Shrine of the Nativity.