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!

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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.

Garden of Penitence

The wooden doors of the old confessionals at the back of our church were carved with a window box of botanical symbolism to inspire those waiting for the sacrament.

flowers 1In the center panel of the center door, the distinctive long tubular flowers of hyssop surround an IHS (first three letters of IHSOUS, or Jesus in Greek) monogram. Historically, the bitter herb was used in ancient Jewish purification rituals and at Passover. A woody shrub, it is the symbol of penitence.

The other flowers in that IHS panel — with four chubby, rounded, slightly notched  petals — appear to be dogwood. Four petals symbolize the cross and the crucifixion. Dogwood can also mean regret for sins (and, perhaps, in the modern era, one might find an added dimension of reflection on diversity and change, since dogwood growers have developed hybrids, combining characteristics from multiple varieties,  in an effort to preserve American trees against devastating fungus blight).

flowers 3In the bottom panel of the middle door,  gentian is a characteristically-shaped four- or five-petal  flower, often bright blue in color. It is said to have been named for King Gentius of ancient Illyria on the Balkan Peninsula, who is thought to have discovered its laxative medicinal properties. It is a symbol of penance and mortification.

The cutouts, or empty spaces in the same panel are in the shape of thistles. Thistles symbolize cause of sin so their absence suggests that the cleansing quality of the gentian is effective!

flowers 4The wreaths in the bottom panels of the two side doors are a little ambiguous. They could be acanthus, which would symbolize expulsion from Eden and a  fall from grace. They could also be laurel wreaths, symbolizing victory over temptation. The berry at the center of each panel is more characteristic of laurel, but perhaps how you interpret them depends on your state of mind!

The “Language of Flowers” was a popular notion in Victorian times, when friends and lovers were supposed to have sent secret coded love messages to each other using little bouquets of carefully-chosen symbolic flowers (not so secret, actually, since the symbols were pretty well understood by everyone at that time). In fact, floral symbolism has long roots, going back through history across cultures. The Bible is full of plant symbolism (faith like a mustard seed).  Also our patron Saint Francis de Sales once referred to Christians as “living plants of the church”!

Bishop’s Chair

DSCN4849 (2)What’s the difference between a bishop’s chair and a throne, and which one is in our Saint Francis de Sales Church sanctuary?

Theologically, every active Catholic diocese or archdiocese has only one Diocesan Bishop, one cathedral, and one cathedra or throne. According to Denis McNamara, Associate Director at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary – and expert on ecclesiastical furniture — “the cathedra is really a theological concept (seat of authority for a diocese) that gets externalized (cathedra).” Like the throne of a monarch, it’s a physical object that represents an idea. The cathedral is the church that houses the cathedra.

Our chair is not the Philadelphia archdiocesan cathedra. So what is it?

At consecration, each new bishop is appointed to his own unique diocese. All three of our long-ago bishops (Bishop Crane, Bishop Lamb, Bishop McShea) were titular bishops, which means each received the title to an inactive ancient diocese without associated duties, territory, cathedral, or throne. He could then assist in the Philadelphia Archdiocese but was not, by technicality, a local bishop.

But all bishops — even those holding title to obsolete districts — still need to sit down from time to time! McNamara remarks that “you often see chairs with a bishop’s coats of arms on them…in his office or home… (they were very fond of doing this in the 1920s). But that did not replace the one cathedra in the diocese.” He further notes that “Cardinal Mundelein’s dining room chair here on campus has his coat of arms on it. And it’s just where he ate dinner!”

Our mystery chair bears the insignia of Bishop Crane, our second pastor, who became Titular Bishop of Curium (ancient Cyprus) in 1921. Its crosses and scrollwork  match the ornamentation of our church, and a scallop-shell design on the front, just below the seat cushion, resembles decorations in the original parish Baptistry (today’s Adoration Chapel). This decoration suggests  a possible purpose, recalling that ancient European baptistries were sometimes furnished with a special chair to be used by a bishop administering the sacrament of Confirmation.

Our church is just one of several bishop-associated churches in Philadelphia. Before coming to Saint Francis de Sales in 1903, our Reverend Crane was assistant priest to Bishop Prendergast at St. Malachy. Bishop McCormick became Bishop while at St. Stephen’s in 1947 – our then pastor Bishop Lamb attended the consecration. Bishop Gerald McDevitt served at St. Alice in Upper Darby from 1962, and subsequent bishops have found their homes at various suburban churches.

Historical context: it makes a difference!

St. John the Omnipresent

harpies (2)Have you ever noticed how many times St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is represented in our church?

Saint John is the left-hand figure in Nicola D’Ascenzo’s Saint Cecilia window in the choir loft based on an altarpiece by Raphael. He is also the right-hand figure in the round stained glass window on the Mary side of the church, inspired by Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.” He kneels beside Jesus in the middle long window on that side of the church, as Jesus names Peter; and he hides in the bushes in the Agony in the Garden window. He is next to Jesus at the Last Supper on the freestanding altar from MBS and he kneels with Mary at the foot of the crucifixion mosaic.

johnEmblematically, Saint John’s apostolic symbol is near the 47th Street door; his Gospel is quoted above a former confessional; and he appears as one of the four Gospel-writing Evangelists, on the pillars supporting our dome. His sculptured eagle symbol also appears below the lectern on the old high pulpit, where the Bible would rest, since his gospel begins “In the beginning was the word…”

Why is St. John all over our church?

t007Beardless John is said to have been the youngest apostle and brother of James. As one of the original twelve, he was present at all the big moments in the adult life of Jesus. He also thought to have written one of the four Gospels, describing those events. According to his own account, he was the first to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. He is said to have written several Epistles, later,  from Ephesus (Turkey today). And his contributions have been studied and commemorated by scholars and artists through history.

Based on his identity as gospel-writer, various groups have adopted St. John as their patron over the centuries: he is invoked by writers, theologians, and those in the book trade. But all the attributions are based on traditions about him: we know very little about the real man. Scholars are not even  entirely sure that the Apostle and the Evangelist are the same person!  And debate continues over whether he also wrote the book of Revelations.

This mysterious “facelessness” allows John, known traditionally as the “Beloved Disciple,”  to be our symbolic representative.  When he participates in the Last Supper or kneels before the cross, we put ourselves in his place and share his experience. It’s a useful spiritual exercise, although  too much of a backward focus can also lead us away from the message that we need to act in the spirit of Christ today!

Our Man in Washington

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Adolfo de Nesti

If you’re ever in Washington DC,  stroll over to the Wilson Building (home to the offices of the DC Mayor and Council at  1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW), look up at the facade, and say “Hi” to the artist who decorated our church!

Huh?

Before crafting statues and friezes inside and outside our 1911 church, sculptor Adolfo de Nesti was commissioned to design classical figures to adorn what was then called the Municipal Services Building in Washington. The Washington Post, July 3  1908, reported that his 26 white marble statues, each over nine feet tall, represented “the arts, sciences, commerce, statesmanship, and other conceptions.”  One of the statues, depicting “a graceful-appearing young man with bared arms and a loose-fitting robe draped about his shoulders is Art…and De Nesti, it is said, has used his own head and figure as the model…”

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Art by Adolfo de Nesti (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

De Nesti’s works were a small part of a much larger idea. In 1901, the MacMillan commission approved a development plan to re-make the nation’s capital as an idealized “City Beautiful” that would inspire “civic virtue…through important monumental architecture.” James Wasserman, author of a guide to Masonic Washington,  suggests that the many symbols incorporated in decorations throughout the city “silently communicate a curriculum designed to inspire, elevate, and teach eternal truth.

De Nesti, who came from Florence, Italy,  dreamed American in his Washington years. His business partner, Ernest Bairstow, would later be known  for his work on the Lincoln Memorial. De Nesti was on the Street Decoration Committee for the 1905 Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. And in 1906, he married Agnes Campbell Gordon Armistead – the Great Granddaughter of Colonel George Armistead, whose 1812 defense of Fort McHenry inspired our National Anthem.

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Statue of Our Lady by Adolfo de Nesti (Immaculata University)

In 1907, having finished his work on emblems of  “patriotic religion”  in Washington, de Nesti and his young wife began a new chapter of their lives in Philadelphia. Their son was born here in March 1908 and de Nesti began crafting inspirational symbols of Catholic faith in our church. In 1914, he sculpted a statue of the Blessed Virgin to top the dome at Immaculata University.

As far as we know, de Nesti  never became an American citizen, and likely returned to Italy in World War I. His wife remarried after a “tragedy” and divorce in 1921, at which point their son, Adolfo Napoleone Francesco de Nesti Junior changed his name to the all-American Armistead Greene.  Adolfo de Nesti’s American dream ended early but his sculptured likeness in Washington still wistfully overlooks every presidential inaugural parade. And Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, the city of our nation’s Founding Fathers, is his memorial.

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The Wilson Building, Washington DC (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

 

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