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.

 

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Tuberculosis

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Rev. William Canney

Reverend William Canney graduated from Saint Francis de Sales School; his mother and sisters lived at 4722 Upland Street; and ten of his fourteen years as a priest — from 1924 to 1934 — were spent assisting at de Sales. His dedication to our parish was whole-hearted – and may have cost his life.

William Canney’s nickname was “Will E? Can E!” because of his joyous energy. One of five priests at the de Sales rectory, he was Spiritual Director of the Sodality (a parish women’s organization) and author of the Parish News column in the monthly bulletin. He was also Chaplain for the College of Osteopathy at 48th and Spruce, and, reportedly, unofficial chaplain for the firehouse at 50th and Baltimore – chasing the fire engines whenever the alarm sounded. In his spare time, he wrote lyrics for songs and dramatic sketches for parish events, and organized outings for parish school children.

Above all, Canney’s 1933 parish profile reported his real strength at the sickbed: “Many a soul tortured by sickness and infirmity has been comforted by his faithful and sympathetic ministrations.” This could have been his downfall: in 1935, a year after transfer to St. Leo’s in Tacony, Canney went on Sick Leave at the “Philadelphia Jewish Sanatorium for Consumptives” in Eagleville — a Tuberculosis hospital for poor people. He died there a year later, at age 41, and his obituary in the Catholic Standard quoted portions of a lengthy sad brave poem he wrote during that final year: “Weave every little cross I bear/ Into the garland of a prayer…” He was buried from our church.

“Consumption,” or Tuberculosis, was a serious lung disease and leading cause of death in the United States up into the 1940s. Philadelphia Catholic physician Lawrence Flick was tuberculosisone of a group (later renamed the American Lung Association) which began, in the 1890s, to raise public awareness that the disease was contagious. Health campaigns against spitting, and unshielded coughing and sneezing, formed part of the effort to stop transmission. Germs were also found in unpasteurized milk, so pasteurization gradually became standard. Those who attended at sickbeds were especially vulnerable to infection, so the archdiocese established a Tuberculosis sanatorium for priests in 1947 – just as Streptomycin antibiotic came to market as an effective cure. Danger over, the building was repurposed as a mental health institute.

Today, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, like many formerly-controllable diseases, is on the uptick: it is estimated that a third of the world’s population may be infected or carriers.

Reverend Canney lives on at our parish in his rediscovered writings.

De Sales Photos 010 canney funeral feb 1937

Holy Year 1934

In the crisis of the Great Depression, and in a time of growing global unrest, the February, 1933 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin announced that Pope Pius XI had proclaimed a Holy Year for 1934. The writing is more formal than modern texts, and with the unconscious gender bias of its age, but the world described is strangely familiar:

vatican stampNineteen centuries after the death of Our Lord, in an age when a world gone awry is tortured by spiritual perplexities, the Sovereign Pontiff calls the world to reconsider its golden Christian heritage. No man denies that the times are out of joint. It is unquestioned that something must be done…

Taught humility by our failures, we can well afford to indulge in a little heart-searching. Men prate about the ‘failure of Christianity.’ Analyze the statement. Where has Christianity ever failed when its commitments were fully accepted and faithfully observed?… The failure of Christianity is the failure of unregenerate human selfishness and wickedness, nothing more.  The inability of the Christian Church to reform this world is part with the failure of Christ to convert his own generation. Humanity has failed often; Our Lord, never.

We need a year of extraordinary grace, a year of meditations and prayer. Its spiritual opportunities accepted, it can change the face of the earth.”

Looking back down the tunnel of history, we know that collective thoughts and prayers were tainted by the hypocrisy of individuals whose hearts were secretly self-interested and insincere. We’ve seen how global power struggles of World War I, followed by the 1918 influenza health crisis, inequalities of industrialization, the rise of crime during Prohibition, and poverty in the Great Depression, progressed into the horrors of genocide and World War II – and into the cynical modern age.

Today, as we face extraordinary challenges to our ideas of authority and order in church and government, we need to learn from the past. Jesus, long ago, laid out a single timeless route to follow – based on love of God and caring for those around us. Humans, gifted with free choice, make bad decisions, and may confuse, mislead, or be misled along the way, but the route itself never changes. Each one of us is called to seek out the Star of Bethlehem as our beacon, leading us back to Christ. As our patron Saint Francis de Sales observed:

We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear; let us take breath, and go on afresh.”

A Trip to the Movies

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Belmont Theatre, Philadelphia PA in 1920 (Creative Commons)

The 1928 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin offers a description of a long-ago outing, supposedly written by one “Bad Boy Brady… in the Third Grade at SFDS School:”

Our sister told us this morning in school to write…about something we did during the Easter holidays…I thought of the treat that… Joe Forte gave us on Easter Monday…Joe…lives in our parish (4839 Larchwood) and has charge of a lot of movies in West Philadelphia. He has a big green car and wears a soft hat….So one day (Father Canney) met Joe Forte in Mr. Rody’s barber shop (1213 S. 50th Street) where they get their haircut, and asked him to give the school a treat…”

We all met at the school…and marched over to the Belmont Theatre on Fifty-second and Market Street. There were over eight hundred of us…Me and Joe Rody and Cornelius McLaughlin walked over together, and talked about marbles and baseball players. Joe said he wants to be an outfielder like Al Simmons, but Cornelius said he wants to help his father on the Ice Cream truck. I thought I would like to be a cop… A couple of cops who knew Father Canney kept the green lights on so that we could all pass across Chestnut and Walnut Streets without any break in the line. A…man named Frank Yates was in charge of the Belmont Theatre and he certainly gave us a great treat…”

Imagine friendly local police, in dark uniforms with shiny buttons, officiously stopping horse carts, delivery trucks, and Model T Fords for the neighbourhood children. The long parade filed past James Beers’ Drugstore at 47th and Baltimore, and Nace Hopple’s Radio Repair shop at 47th and Cedar; then up Cedar and along Fiftieth Street, “the head of their line of march turning into Market Street as the end approached to Pine Street” (that’s ten blocks!). The Belmont Theatre, which opened in 1914, seated 1,000 people. A trendy Philadelphia-born fast-food eatery – the Horn & Hardart Automat — was next door, and doubtless, some little faces covetously eyed its interesting prepared foods behind little clear coin-operated windows.

Movie treats for parish children ended in 1934 when Cardinal Dougherty issued a pastoral letter, prohibiting Catholics from attending the movies due to cinematic violence and bad language. Boycotts worked: within a few years, the industry cleaned up its offerings and the Catholic audience trickled back – but by then, Father Canney was gone.

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Philadelphia Inquirer June 9, 1934

The Statue in the Corner

de nesti sculptingStanding in the darkness, behind a noisy blowing fan in a corner of St. Francis de Sales  church, on the parking lot side, is a tall quiet statue of Jesus with broken fingers.

For the first few decades of our history, the statue took pride of place beside the altar, at the front of the church, clearly visible to the priest and congregation. Then, in the 1960s, the reforms of Vatican II called for the sanctuary to be “de-cluttered” to better focus on the modernized Communion ritual with its new forward-facing altar. The statue was moved, and moved again, until it found its current out-of-the-way resting place.

So what does the statue mean? Its upraised right hand, with two fingers and thumb outstretched, is a gesture of blessing – supposedly based on the ancient Roman orators’ gesture for “speaking.” Its wounded heart reveals “Jesus Christ′s physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity” — the crown of thorns showing that “the meaning of love in the life of Jesus was especially evident in His sufferings” and the flames representing “the transformative power of divine love.” Devotion to a representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – based on a vision experienced by a Visitation Sister in the 1670s — is a longstanding form of Catholic worship.

As to its place in our history: our statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was described as “a specimen of his best work” in an article about Adolfo de Nesti in 1915 – the last information we have about the Italian immigrant sculptor who created so many of our church decorations, before his “American dream” ended and he abruptly disappeared.

What is a metaphor? An online dictionary defines it as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” So our statue depicting the “divine love” of Jesus was moved away from a central location to a dusty corner. We took its existence for granted, as part of the church furnishings, and it received little attention – especially after the candle stand illuminating that corner was removed a few years ago. The statue has changed with age, since the fingers making its gesture of blessing – and “speaking” – have been broken and roughly mended. But it has always been a part of our church.

Now, in shadowed times, as we rediscover our history, our attention is pulled back to the statue and we are called to find inspiration once again in the light and power of  “divine love” that it represents.

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.

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!