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.

 

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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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Eyes on the Skies

DSCN4599 (2)Look up and you never know what you might find — like this artwork near the roofline on the Farragut Terrace side of Saint Francis de Sales School!

The January 1927 St. Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin explained its symbolism when the building addition (by Henry Dagit’s firm) was newly-constructed:

Image (82)“The cross…is the sign of our faith, and it is used on all Catholic Churches and Buildings…”

“The two large carved limestone panels on the front facade of the School are emblematic of the spirit of the School. The panel on the south side represents Saint Francis de Sales, the teacher, teaching the boys the arts and sciences as the foundation of learning. It also illustrates the life and virtue of the patron Saint of the Parish, Saint Francis de Sales. The panel on the north side…represents the modern nun, the symbol of virtue, the guide and foundation of our schools, teaching the girls the arts of domestic science and training. The girl holding the vase represents the perpetual truths of the faith.”

OK, perhaps that reads as a little sexist nowadays, though the basic message of sound academics and Catholic values still stands.

DSCN4585“The carved limestone symbols at the top of the buttresses are emblematic of Knowledge, Astronomy, and Science, signifying the use and purpose of the building. The shield…(with) the open book and the torch represents the symbol of Knowledge. The Torch of Learning must be used to give light in order to (access) the knowledge in the book, and also to give light to our understanding.”

DSCN4581 (3)“The lined sphere with the zodiac…resting on the books, and the instruments about it, represent the study of Astronomy, and the study of the Universe and Geography.”

school emblemThe Lamp of Science, with the sun in back of it, represents the light given…upon all subjects by the study of the sciences. The lamp, resting upon the books, signifies the attempt to equal the light of the sun by the study of the sciences.

Why so much science? People were excited about new discoveries in the 1920s. Study of the heavens especially interested the church, which described a special star at Christmas and used the equinox to calculate the date for Easter. Guy Consolmagno, Astronomer to current Pope Francis, notes that the Vatican Observatory was founded in the 1890s, in part “to show that science and religion were not opposed to one another,” and further observes that “the reigning Big Bang theory of cosmology was devised by a Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître” in 1927. So keep looking up!

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SFDS Christmas Tour

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Welcome to our blended parish of St. Francis de Sales United By The Most Blessed Sacrament. We hope you enjoy this Christmas Story, as told in the architectural decorations of our 1911 church (You can also find another more traditional tour in the Self-Guided Tour tab on this site).

De Sales Photos Binder 06 030 (2)Let’s start at the very beginning…at the high pulpit on the Mary side of the church. When the Mass was simplified after Vatican II, our pulpit survived as a part of the architecture, but it was not used for many years. Today, it is reserved for special occasions, as when the Nativity Proclamation is read just before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In the glittering light, the recitation of Jesus’ lineage connects us with all of the faithful down through the ages, while the eagle book rest – symbol of St. John’s Gospel – still reminds us that before everything, In the beginning was the word…”

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Lk 1:31)

A few yards to the right is the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Above her head, note the three entwined circles and triangle in the mosaic half-circle lunette. These represent the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The upside-down dove in the center of this lunette represents the Holy Spirit – especially significant for Mary, who was filled with the Holy Spirit when Jesus was conceived.

_MG_2621 (3)The first long window on the Saint Joseph side of the church commemorates The Annunciation, when Mary learned she would have a child. At the top of the window is Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): Behold, a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

(Crafted by D’Ascenzo Studios, the six long windows tell the story of the Life of Christ in the upper half, and that of our patron Saint Francis de Sales in the lower half. In the first window, young Francis is instructed in the catechism by his mother, Mme de Boisey in France in the 1570s, so both window sections highlight Motherhood and faith).

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Lk 2:8-11)

The middle window on the Saint Joseph side of the church shows the Adoration of the Shepherds. The quote at the top is Micah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): “From you, O Bethlehem…shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The artistic double cross designs in the bottom panel of each window on that side of the church symbolize Christ’s Divine and Human nature.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!” (Lk 2:13,14)

T006 At the back of the church, look for two angel sculptures above the holy water basins between the  doors. Henry Dagit, the architect who designed our church, had his daughters, Josephine Leonide and Anna, model for these exquisite pieces by Adolfo de Nesti back around 1910 (It is rumored that Josephine Leonide was also the model for the Blessed Mother).

lambA proper Nativity scene needs some animals. Step into the foyer, turn right, and look for the stairwell to the loft which the choir ascends to form a heavenly chorus.” The stairwell window features the image of a lamb – a perfect accompaniment to the shepherds, visiting the manger.

(Although this particular lamb, carrying a banner and perched on a book with seven seals, is a reference to the apocalypse – the end of the world — from the Book of Revelations).

Image (21)Whew! That was intense. Now go back to the middle of the church and look up at the decorations in the triangular pendentives that support the  Guastavino Dome. The four mystical creatures  ( also, incidentally, from Revelations) represent the four Evangelists – the saints who wrote the Gospels. Luke, who penned the story of Jesus’ birth, is the Ox – a traditional sacrificial animal and a very fitting addition to our Nativity story!

(Matthew, who related the story of the Three Wise Men,  is shown as an Angel, representing Christ’s human nature. Mark is the Lion who proclaims the dignity of Christ, since his Gospel begins with John the Baptist as a herald announcing the arrival of royalty.  John employs  the Eagle as the symbol of divinity because his Gospel begins in the heavens before Jesus came to earth..)

“And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9)

dome-starObserve the stars in the sky-like dome! The six-pointed star  symbolizes the six days of creation. From the 18th century, it gained new significance as the “Magen David,” or “Shield of David,” representing the House of David – the lineage of Jesus. Enclosed in an eternal circle, our star of earthly lineage has a cross at its center, representing the Easter story,  turned into an eight-pointed star — the Star of Bethlehem – of Jesus’ birth.

(Gershom Sholem, a Jewish scholar, suggests that, ironically, it was the infamous yellow badges of the Second World War – long decades after our church was built —  which turned the Star of David into a universal Jewish symbol).

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2;1,2)

DSCN4470 (2)Near the 47th Street door, find the Builder’s Compass of Saint Thomas, the Apostle. One of Jesus’ original followers, Thomas is thought to have gone on to become a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tradition says Gondophares was Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany.

harpiesAbove the Saint Thomas emblem, is a big round window showing Mary holding Baby Jesus in the middle, with Saint John the Evangelist on the right, and Saint Francis of Assisi on the left. Saint Francis of Assisi is remembered as the saint who loved animals. He is also  credited with organizing the first ever Nativity scene and pageant in the countryside of Assisi, so that everyone could experience the sense of wonder that came from interacting with the story.

(Our window is based on a long-ago painting by Andrea del Sarto commonly known as “The Madonna of the Harpies.” .  Why was the image chosen for our church? We don’t know for sure, but it is intriguing to note that the original painting was commissioned on May 14, 1515, and our parish was commissioned on May 14, 1890).

Finally, when you hear our eleven tower bells “on Christmas day, Their old  familiar carols play,” listen for the tune “I heard the Bells” based on an 1863 wartime poem of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — and join our prayers for peace on earth, goodwill to all this holiday season and always.