The Cross at Annemasse

annemasse tek editWhy did stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo choose the image of St. Francis de Sales preaching at Annemasse for one of our long windows (nearest the Vatican flag)? Perhaps it spoke to him, because it is a story about how visual symbols — like the artwork he was creating – could inspire people.

In the 1500s — the time of our patron Saint Francis de Sales — the town of Annemasse, Duchy of Savoy (today part of France), was separated from the Republic of Geneva, (Swiss Confederacy) by a narrow river, and the wide gulf of the Protestant Reformation. On the Savoy side of the divide, the Forty Hours Devotion in 1597 aimed to reconnect people through words of gentle encouragement, preached in outdoor sermons by our patron Saint, and in celebrations through town and countryside, centered around visible emblems of faith.

Why is the crucifix shown in D’Ascenzo’s window? A stone cross in Annemasse — which was both a town landmark and a shrine — had been destroyed in religious conflicts. During that Forty Hours Devotion, Francis de Sales led a procession bringing a wooden replacement – invoking the past, restoring the landscape, and providing a symbol to inspire all who would pass along the road. It was a joyous homecoming. Andre Ravier, SJ, noted that “For two days this was the ‘festival’ at Annemasse, a festival above all religious, but the ceremonies, processions, sermons, and so forth were mixed with popular songs and music – even the detonations of arquebuses” (large guns).  And Jill Fehleison observes that “The cross was placed “so that it could be seen from the city of Geneva, fashioning both a symbol of triumph and a challenge” to the Protestant followers of John Calvin, who declared that every word in the Bible was a literal truth that came directly from God, and any other object or image was a distraction.

Centuries later and across an ocean, Christians still have their differences, but immersion in a modern consumer culture filled with secular landmarks, images, and advertising, provides fewer opportunities to connect with faith. Our historic 1911 church dome, Like the monument at the crossroads in Annemasse, is one prominent feature of the local skyline that offers a quiet reminder of God’s enduring presence to anyone who sees it. And if an old adage is true that each “picture is worth a thousand words,” our church is a walk-in encyclopedia of spiritual life and local history.

 

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A 1908 Parable

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The earliest (lonely) issue of a St. Francis de Sales Church bulletin in the Philadelphia archdiocesan archives is a single copy dated February, 1908 – four months after the cornerstone was laid for the present church (see the original chapel — the building housing today’s school auditorium — on the cover!). Regular publication didn’t begin until mid-1924. Now step into the time machine, and enjoy an excerpt from that first bulletin: a little moral tale filled with tiny details of life in 1908:

 

 

He Gave to the Lord”:

“Yesterday he wore a rose on the lapel of his coat, and when the plate was passed he gave a nickel to the Lord. He had several bills in his pocket and sundry change, perhaps a dollar’s worth; but he hunted about, and finding this poor nickel he laid it on the plate to aid the church militant in its fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. His silk hat was beneath the seat, and his gloves and cane were beside it, and the nickel was on the plate – a whole nickel. On Saturday afternoon he had a gin rickey at the “Queen’s,” and his friend had a fancy drink, while the cash register stamped thirty-five cents on the slip the boy presented to him. Peeling off a bill, he handed it to the lad, and gave him a nickel tip when he brought back the change. A nickel for the Lord and a nickel for the waiter! And the man had his shoes polished on Saturday afternoon and handed out a dime without a murmur. He had a shave and paid fifteen cents with equal alacrity. He took a box of candies home to his wife and paid forty cents for them, and the box was tied with a dainty bit of ribbon. Yes, but he also gave a nickel to the Lord. Who is the Lord? Who is He? Why the man worships Him as Creator of the universe, the One who puts the stars in order, and by whose immutable decree the heavens stand. Yes, he does, and he dropped a nickel in to support the Church militant. And the man knew that he was but an atom in space, and he knew that the Almighty was without limitations, and knowing this, he put his hand in his pocket and picked out a nickel and gave it to the Lord. And the Lord being gracious and slow to anger, and knowing our frame, did not slay the man for the meanness of his offering, but gives him this his daily bread. But the nickel was ashamed, if the man wasn’t. The nickel hid beneath a quarter that was given by a poor woman who washes for a living.”

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Secret Santa Window

swallowThe builders of St. Francis de Sales Church left many messages for the faithful to decipher, but the symbols in the bottom part of the Nativity window (middle long window, St. Joseph side of church), are especially hard to puzzle out, since they were imperfectly formed in the glass.

Historic photos from the D’Ascenzo Archives at the Athenaeum are only a little sharper, but those seem to show the two lily-like decorations as anchors with crossbars, or anchor crosses. The blob between the crosses is a bird with long pointed wings and a forked tail — a swallow – a traditional complement to the Nativity scene above, and part of a unifying theme for the three bottom windows.

Swallows were mysterious birds because they disappeared in winter: until the early 1800s, it was believed that they hibernated, or slept, in mud at the bottom of ponds, and “returned to life” in the spring. Because of this annual  “resurrection,”  the swallow was used in art to represent the incarnation – the dual status of Christ as both divine and human.

(Incidentally, it was Edward Jenner, an English country doctor and naturalist, who marked individual birds, observed their behavior, and determined that they actually flew south in the winter and returned in the spring. Jenner is an interesting character, more famously credited with the invention of vaccination against smallpox).

The anchor crosses on either side of the swallow also fit nicely with the Nativity theme, since they are supposed to signify “hope” – and what could be more hopeful than the birth of the Savior! Why are they paired? All three bottom windows on that side of the church show variations of a double-cross (two crosses together, not a weasely form of cheating) – more emblems of Christ’s combined human and divine nature.

What’s the Santa secret? The anchor cross is an interesting cross choice for the Christmas window, since the anchor can also be a symbol for Saint Nicholas – the saint who inspired Santa Claus! His most famous legend relates to tossing bags of gold through a window to provide a dowry for young ladies. But he is also the patron saint of sailors and ships, since his prayers were thought to have calmed a fierce storm at sea as he returned by ship from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

So we are illuminated by our windows. We realize that like Saint Nicholas, we are on a pilgrimage through life, inspired by a divine mystery. The muddiness of the hand-crafted symbols in our glass offers an extra layer of meaning: reminding us of human imperfection, and our tendency to obscure the message of Hope that the season should represent.

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Weekly Parish Dances

tuesday dances 1946 (2)The 1940’s and 50’s were part of a big dance hall era,” Joe Ruane recalls, and dancing was the popular pastime: “our crowd would go to St Joe’s (his home parish in Collingdale) on Sunday night; de Sales Tuesday and Friday night. On Wednesday night I would go to the Carousel Hall in Clifton Heights which my father owned which had a big band…and then I would…go to the Arcade Hall on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue where my friends hung out. Saturday would be Holy Cross, Springfield.” 

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Saint Francis de Sales offered regular Tuesday night dances in the parish auditorium for all the “young people of the parish and their friends.”  A typical 1950 Monthly Bulletin notice advertised: Music for the occasion is played by the well known and very popular orchestra of George Sommer. Admission is seventy-five cents. Good music and a very beautiful auditorium provide the atmosphere for a very enjoyable evening. All the young folks of the parish (no High School students) are cordially invited to attend these Tuesday evening Socials. We would like to see many of our young married couples attending and can assure them of a very enjoyable evening.”

George Sommer, with his “Big Band” sound, was known as “one of the best dance bands in the city and one of the most popular.” Information about the band appeared in Billboard Magazine, and they played at ballrooms across the city.

What about the High School students? They had their own dance night at de Sales auditorium every Friday. John Deady recalls that “I attended the Friday night dances. Admission $.50. On the stair case going up to the stage (rectory side) is a closet. There was a turntable in the closet where 45 rpm records were stacked. Cokes were sold at the kitchen on the other side of the stage. Did not go to the Tuesday night dances. Understand it was a wide age group that attended them.”

The Tuesday and Friday groups likely catered to slightly different musical tastes. A 1959 Parish Bulletin opined: “Older people often express disapproval of rock and roll because it is so noisy and so violent, and the music accompanying it seems so unbearably monotonous. But for oldsters to be unsympathetic toward rock and roll for these reasons does not make it morally wrong.”

Joe Ruane’s father, incidentally, was a disk jockey for the dances in Collingdale, and Joe recalls a big event there: “a pre-publication test run of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1953.” However, Catholic high school students were discouraged from joining the dance floor at American Bandstand, Dick Clark’s famous TV dance program, broadcast from its 4548 Market Street TV Studio (Today’s Enterprise Center for minority entrepreneurs). That was still considered too “fast!”

 

 

Ship of Faith

ship of religionLook around St. Francis de Sales Church and notice your fellow passengers. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the word nave — describing “the main space occupied by the congregation in a church.” — comes from the Latin word navis, for ship, “partly because the nave is not unlike an upside-down ship, but also because it is the ARK of salvation.”

Richard Stemp makes it even more clear in his book on “The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals:” The word nave comes from the Latin navis, meaning ‘ship,’  reminding us that the congregation is on a journey through life, during which the church will protect and guide them in the same way that a ship protects its passengers on the stormy seas. Maritime associations run deep in Christianity. Jesus carried out much of his teaching around the Sea of Galilee, and several apostles were fishermen.”

_MG_2416 (3)Our nave looks like a seaworthy, right-side-up ark, rather than an upside-down hull. That should be a good thing. Imagine the windows around the dome as the portholes around the cabin. We even have a window showing the “ascending dove” – with its wings outstretched and feet pressing against the glass, like the dove that returned to Noah during the great flood (and over the years, the dome has survived its share of watery leaks!).

dome-star-e1541614560625.jpgAbove those windows are the stars in the heavenly dome. The eight-pointed star of David – of Jesus’ earthly lineage — has a cross at its center, with four rays added to turn it into the Star of Jesus’ Birth – the star used by the Wise Visitors to navigate to Bethlehem – and the star of faith which guides us still today.

We look to the stars, but we are also moored to the earth. The “Adoration Chapel” in the back of the church, on the left, was once the “Baptistery,” where people received the sacrament of baptism – a sacrament of water. Embedded in the floor of the baptistery is a mosaic design of an anchor and dolphin. The anchor, used to keep a ship from drifting, can be “the hope set before us…a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:18-19).

Our church also has a hidden nautical reference. The original back-facing altar – elevated on steps like the bridge of a ship — was donated by a man named John Cooney. Cooney was an oyster fisherman on the Delaware Bay – a fisherman and a “fisher of men,” since he occasionally had to fish drunken sailors out of the water with a boathook. Very biblical!

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Mr. Smith Runs for President, 1928

al smithWhen Al Smith ran for President of the United States in 1928, and lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover, it was said he was defeated by “The Three Ps: Prohibition (which he was against), Prejudice (he was Catholic), and Prosperity (less of an issue when the Great Depression began in October 1929).

Smith, grandson of poor Irish and Italian immigrants, faced fierce opposition from the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Ku Klux Klan (St. Francis de Sales third Pastor, Reverend Gatens, also resisted the Klan at his previous assignment in Pottsville, PA in 1927 – defiantly constructing a Catholic school with cross-shaped windows on their favorite cross-burning hill). In addition, Smith faced the “Anti-Saloon League” – reportedly often the same individuals – who wanted the government to continue restricting all access to alcoholic beverages.

The November 1929 St. Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin published an excerpt from Smith’s book, in which he described some of the tactics used against him:

It is amazing in this day and age that such countless thousands of people are so stupid as to believe the absolutely false and senseless propaganda that was whispered around during the last campaign. It has its humorous side…A  prominent citizen of Georgia… told me that in certain churches in that state they had pictures of me attending the ceremonies incident to the opening of the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, and…opponents of mine were able to convince large numbers of people that the tunnel was actually to be constructed not to New Jersey but into the basement of the Vatican in Rome in the event of my election.

The Holland Tunnel is approximately two miles long and cost forty-eight million dollars, or nearly twenty-five million dollars a mile…and here we have voting citizens of a sovereign state actually believing that…it would be possible for people to travel (3500 miles) under the Atlantic Ocean between Rome and New York. One man made the deliberate statement over the radio that a convent in New Jersey was purchased by the Catholic Church as the American residence of the Pope in the event of my election.”

Do times change?

Since 1945, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation in New York has celebrated Al Smith’s memory with an annual October white-tie benefit for Catholic Charities. The fancy dinner is attended by both Democrat and Republican politicians, who traditionally offer humorous speeches, gently making fun of themselves, right before elections. In presidential election years, this is generally the last time opposing candidates appear in public together before voting day. This year’s 2018 keynote speaker was Nikki Haley, the soon-to-be-former U.N. Ambassador.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 954 hate groups active in the United States in 2017.

 

Legion of Decency

legion of decencyLegion of Decency” may conjure an image of a small band of pickle-faced people fussily objecting to the modern world, but that would be a mistake. As a subset of the Holy Name Society, the Legion was an army of Catholic men from parishes across the country, working earnestly to “promote, by word and deed, what is morally and artistically good in entertainment,” while protecting their families from harmful examples.

Concern about negative influence was justified, when the organization was founded in 1933. Government Prohibition of alcohol had paradoxically promoted and glamourized crime. With poverty in the Great Depression, came suspicion and persecution of immigrants, nonwhites, and non-protestants, particularly Catholics (who were largely immigrants). At the same time, the growing entertainment industry realized that “sex sells” and sold a lot of it. Issues of sex, violence, and intolerance in films became serious enough that Cardinal Dougherty forbade Philadelphia Catholics from attending any movies for several years starting in 1934 — a successful protest which drew attention to the surprising size of the Catholic population. Magazines and books had similar issues.

The Legion of Decency developed age-appropriateness ratings for movies, condemned movies that refused to meet standards, and pressured producers to clean up plot points in films that are now considered classics (Marilyn Monroe’s famous fly-up skirt was accepted in The Seven-Year Itch, which “deals humorously with a man’s temptations,” but an adulterous affair was removed)

Locally, the Legion picketed condemned movies and discouraged obscene literature. A 1942 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “…an intensive campaign has been carried on in this parish to remove from stores and newsstands, all magazines that are offensive to the Code of the National Organization for Decent Literature. Our Committee, composed of men from various sections of the Parish, have done splendid work and their efforts have met with great success…

Why was this a men’s project? Part of the pledge, published in the 1942 parish bulletin, was: “I promise to guide those under my care and influence them in their choice of pictures that are morally and culturally inspiring.” Consider that in those early days, men generally chose the movies for dates and family viewing. At the same time, objectionable magazines and books were largely targeted for a male audience – which often controlled the family finances.

The Legion of Decency merged into the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1965, but may have paved the way for today’s many consumer-organized boycotts of goods and services based on political or philosophical ideas.

 

Heavenly Keys

DSCN3325 (3)I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19)

Two sets of keys in our church decorations encapsulate history.

The first is the emblem of Saint Peter the Apostle, on the 47th Street side of the church. This pair of crossed keys features handles with three lobes, symbolizing the Trinity. Saint Peter’s keys – representing his leadership role in the church — are commonly called the “keys of heaven” and Peter is often imagined as the guardian at the “pearly gates,” as well as the first Catholic Pope.

The other keys are up in the dome, exactly opposite the window showing the papal tiara. These match the keys of the Papal insignia, official “since the XIV Century,” as described by the Vatican Press Office: “The symbolism is drawn from the Gospel and is represented by the keys given to the Apostle Peter by Christ.” The correct insignia shows “two keys crossed as the Cross of St. Andrew…” (a symbol of humility). The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth… The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers…”

Wait a minute! In our window, the keys are reversed —  gold on the left; silver on the right. They’re also upside-down: traditional Vatican key “mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips (handles) turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ” — that is, symbolically, toward the Pope. But in our church, the handles point up to heaven and the unlocking parts of our keys point down at the congregation. And although our keys are very similar to the emblem of Pope Pius X, who was Pope at the time the church was built, one of the crosses in our handles is mysteriously blackened.

So what does it all mean? Our emblem of papal allegiance could have been crafted wrong-way-up by mistake or by design. The black and white crosses could emphasize eternal versus worldly concerns or add layered meanings of power and knowledge; order and chaos; or beginnings and endings.  Whatever the intent, their heaven-turned handles today remind us of the limits of all earthly power, since God alone unlocks the secrets of souls.

 

A Bell Named Gervase

p1911-061Saint Gervase was an obscure early Roman martyr. Gervase of Canterbury was a 12th century British monk. So why does St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia have a tower bell named after St. Gervase?

Perhaps the answer lies a little closer to the heart of Second Pastor Bishop Crane, whose sister Bridget became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM.

The third of four children, Bridget was born to Irish immigrant parents Michael and Anne Crane in Ashland, PA coal country on September 8, 1861. Her little brother Michael – our future Bishop — was born two years later in 1863 and their father died soon after. Their mother eventually went to work in a “Dry Goods and Grocer” shop, according to census data, and the two older girls became seamstresses. Bridget started public school at age 8 and finished at age 18, in ninth grade: the late start and incomplete schooling were not unusual for the times.

In 1890, when she was 29, Bridget entered the IHM convent and received the name Sister Mary Gervase. She taught grades 1-4 in several schools from 1894 to 1906. (in those days secondary education was not required for elementary teaching).  Meanwhile, she attended classes and finished high school at Villa Maria in 1906. Later, she became Superior and Principal at St. Francis Xavier, St. Monica, then St. Rose of Lima in Philadelphia, while working towards her teaching certificate, which she obtained at Immaculata in 1926. In 1928, she was “missioned” to St. Aloysius Academy, in a wing of the Motherhouse. She died in 1944.

Referring to 12th century Gervase of Canterbury, the British Dictionary of National Biography notes “Gervase is not one of the great historians of his age, but he illustrates with fidelity the tone and temper of his monastic world.” That, perhaps, is also a fitting memorial for Mother Mary Gervase Crane, whose simple story of convent life has in it only one remembered drama, relating to a mysteriously disappearing and reappearing bedspread.

We do know that Mother Gervase was devoted to her little brother. One of the IHM sisters recalled that “each night, she made a pilgrimage to the picture of the bishop, her brother, Bishop Crane. Daily she bid him ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that she and her married sister were at his bedside when he died in our Rectory in 1928.  It seems fitting that our church bells named Michael and Gervase continue to peal together, in lasting memory of their family’s contribution to the religious life.