God’s Geese Flock to the Satterlee Hospital

Sister Gonzaga

Eleanor Donnelly, the “Poet Laureate of the American Catholic Church,” donated our Blessed Mother altar and lived in the parish at 4502 Springfield Ave. She also penned a small tome in 1900, catchily titled: The Life of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul 1812-1897 – which includes several vivid chapters detailing Sister Gonzaga’s experiences as head nurse at the Satterlee Civil War Hospital, in our neighborhood, decades before our church was founded.

 The Sisters (or Daughters) of Charity was a religious order, founded in Paris in 1633, to aid the poor and the sick. Their traditional clothing was “one of the most conspicuous of Catholic Sisters,” as it included a large, winged cap called a “cornette” — based on traditional peasant clothing when the order was founded. Because of the distinctive cap, the sisters were sometimes referred to as “God’s Geese,” and the hats were a frequent subject of wonder.

Donnelly quotes from Sister Gonzaga’ own journal, to explain how the sisters came to be at Satterlee: “In the twenty-fifth of May, 1862, a requisition was made by Surgeon-General Hammond, through Dr. I. J. Hayes, for twenty-five Sisters of Charity, to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers in the West Philadelphia Hospital — afterwards known as the Satterlee Hospital, in honor of General Satterlee…Dr. Hayes (of Arctic-exploration fame) was appointed Surgeon-in-Charge.” Today, the location of the hospital is described as a “sixteen-acre plot bounded by present-day Baltimore Avenue and Pine, Forty-third, and Forty-sixth Street” with a memorial stone in Clark Park.

Eleanor Donnelly

Sister Gonzaga records that the Sisters were directed to be ready to move in to the still-under-construction hospital by June 9, 1862:

Accordingly, twenty-two Sisters arrived at 10 a. m., on that day. The place was so large that we could not find the entrance. The workmen looked at us in amazement, thinking, perhaps, that we belonged to ‘the flying artillery’ (because of the hats!)  After stepping over bricks and mortar, pipes, etc., we were ushered into an immense ward, while a good Irishman went in search of the Surgeon-in-Charge. He and his staff welcomed us and showed us to our quarters, and desired us to order dinner to suit ourselves. He then showed us through the Hospital, of which but eight wards were finished. The full number, when completed, was thirty-three, each accommodating seventy-five patients comfortably, with his separate table and chair.  Attached to each ward, were two small rooms; one for the chief nurse, the other for the Sisters to keep medicines, little delicacies, etc., at hand. The Hospital grounds covered an area of fifteen acres, giving our sick ample space to rove about and recreate themselves.”

“At 12 pm. we repaired to the kitchen for dinner, and we could not help smiling when we saw the tea served in wash pitchers, and the meat and potatoes in basins. There was neither knife, nor fork, nor spoon. Upon asking for them, the cook answered that he had only four for the officers’ use, but as they did not dine until later, he could lend them to us. We used them in turn. By the time we had finished dinner, we found they were bringing in some sick — about one hundred and fifty. All went to workhttps://archive.org/details/lifeofsistermary00donn to prepare some nourishment for the poor fellows, who looked at us in amazement, not knowing what manner of beings we were” (because of the hats!).

“On the sixteenth of August, over fifteen hundred sick and wounded soldiers were brought to the Hospital, most of them from the battle of Bull Run….The wards being now crowded, tents were erected…” Patients tried to show their appreciation for the Sisters’ tireless patient ministrations: one convalescent, “when ‘on leave,’ — ran all over town, seeking in every millinery shop for a new white cornette such as the Sisters wore (and which he did not know were never purchased in such quarters), to replace the old, and sometimes blood-bespattered bonnet that covered his faithful nurse’s head.”  Donnelly reports that “During the three years which the sisters passed at the Military Hospital of West Philadelphia, they attended over eighty thousand sick or wounded soldiers!”

Herline & Co. Lithographers [1869-70], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Cousart, Prisoner of War

Capt. J.B. Cousart Prisoneer of Huns” blazed a headline in the Inquirer on August 12, 1918. The news was worrisome, but likely a relief to family and friends, who had previously been informed that he was missing in action.

James Burke Cousart

Captain James Burke Cousart was known in the neighborhood for helping to start the De Sales Boys’ Battalion — a military-style precursor to the Boy Scouts – at the parish in 1916. The paper reported that “The news that he has been made a prisoner of war was received almost solemnly among members of that parish. His wife, who., before her marriage four years ago, was Miss Marie Mauch, and two small children, live at 5034 Willows avenue (apparently staying with her parents while her husband was away). Captain Cousart made his home at 5030 Willows avenue.

The Inquirer later reported on the circumstances of his capture during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918: “It was four companies of the 100th who won distinguished honors at the Marne when they scientifically and coldly held up a superior German force, split it in two at terrible cost and made a way for advances which later turned the whole tide of battle in the American favor…Captain James B. Cousart of Philadelphia, was singled out in this engagement as one of the men who had fought with the greatest bravery against seemingly hopeless odds…

Research has turned up a treasure: a copy of Cousart’s WWI POW diary/letter to his wife https://captcousart.tripod.com/intro.html, posted online twenty years ago by his grandson. The description of his life in captivity at Villingen, could be oddly relatable:

August 9/18: Trying hard to forget the fact that I am a prisoner and no more use to my country as a fighting man; I joined a class of men here and arose at 7:15 to go thru body exercises of a rather strenuous type for 15 minutes then a 1/2 mile run, all this in our pajamas, and to finish a cold shower and this followed by a rubbing given by onself to bring life to the skin and perhaps harden the outside coating a bit.”

At 8:30 a breakfast of coffee-black bread and a bit of salmon cooked into crackers.”

At 9 AM roll call where the forty Americans were this day joined by a new American, Lt. Vaughn who had been wounded in neck and shoulder by a bit of shrapnel.

At 9:30 Gave our word of honor not to attempt to escape and 21 Americans went for a walk of 8 kilometers (5 miles) and then returned to our prison camp, to wait 2 days for a similar treat.

At 12 noon a dinner of soup (barley) and sauerkraut& potatoes and some detestable style of meat or fish which spoiled the kraut and potatoes.

The morning was rainy and damp, but not as chilly as the three preceding days which were really too cool to be comfortable.

Some of the officers here find their pleasure, in bridge, some 8 or 9 in poker, some 3 or 5 in playing pinochle and the rest decide their time, between studying…”

At one point, he notes:

No chance to go to church today as for 3 sundays in succession however we look forward to the advent of Chaplains for all religions here soon.

Released after the Armistice, Cousart made his way home in May 1919, aboard a military ship full of Pennsylvanians that “bore her big keystone proudly. Three days ago, when the men learned they were coming straight home to Philadelphia, they got out a huge bolt of khaki and one of the ship’s quartermasters made them a yellow flag with a keystone on it which could be seen almost as far as the ship itself… There were many men on board we will learn to know as heroes,” but “they seemed to think more of comrades lost than of citations won.” Among them was Captain Cousart, whose “reward came when he saw Mrs. Cousart on a tug and was yelled at through a megaphone.

According to parish records, 379 young people from SFDS served in World War I, and of these, 14 never returned; more than 400 served from MBS. Sadly, the SFDS memorial plaque has gone missing.

Page from Captain Cousart’s scrapbook
The old Boys’ Battalion insignia can still be seen above an SFDS School door

Interested in other local history? Check out our new sister webpage https://streetofhistoryphiladelphia.wordpress.com/

Different Perspectives

Double vision? Not quite! The work on the left, by Danish painter Carl Bloch; and the right-hand work — our Agony in the Garden window, by stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo – are strikingly similar, but their differences reveal the artists’ separate worldviews.

Artist Carl Bloch was born to a Danish merchant family, in Copenhagen, in 1834, and his father planned for his “respectable” future as an officer in the Danish Navy. In 1855, Bloch chose, instead, to enter the Royal Danish Academy of Art, for formal art training. He always traveled in good society: among his friends were playwright Henrik Ibsen and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (of Little Mermaid fame), who even wrote a cringeworthy poem in his honor. Today Bloch is best remembered for the much-reproduced series of 23 religious paintings he created for the King’s Chapel at Fredriksborg Palace in Denmark between 1865 and 1879 (Now the National History Museum run by the Carlsberg brewery foundation). Wikipedia notes that “For over 40 years The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made heavy use of Bloch’s paintings, mostly from the Frederiksborg Palace collection, in its church buildings and printed media. The Church has produced films depicting scriptural accounts of Christ’s public ministry, using Bloch’s paintings as models for the colour, light and overall set design as well as the movement of the actors in many of the films’ scenes.” 

                Our stained-glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s life followed a different path. He was born into a family of artists, metalworkers and armor makers, in Torricella Peligna, Italy, in 1871 – a region rich with romantic ancient legends, historic sites, and wild landscapes. His family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia in 1882. Some form of handcrafts was always in D’Ascenzo’s future: he initially apprenticed as a stonecutter and to a woodworker, studying painting in the evenings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now part of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts) and the New York School of Design. D’Ascenzo embraced the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, which reacted against industrialization and mass-production — setting up a medieval-style guild to create one-of-a-kind handcrafted artworks – such as our church windows, which were one of his early commissions. Among his other well-known works are stained glass in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge; on the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey; and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The two artists probably never crossed paths, though Carl Bloch lived in Italy from 1859 to 1866, and likely traveled back and forth afterwards. D’Ascenzo would have been nineteen when Bloch died of cancer in Denmark.

D’Ascenzo’s Agony in the Garden window is clearly inspired by Bloch’s work, but D’Ascenzo added his own layer of meaning. Bloch’s paintings are like stage sets, focused on the drama of the characters, while D’Ascenzo’s Arts-and-Crafts style designs also celebrate “our deep human need to connect with the natural world.”  The contrast in the Agony in the Garden images is especially outstanding: Bloch’s bleak landscape emphasizes Christ’s sorrow and loneliness, while D’Ascenzo changes a barren tree into a beautiful green tapestry and tucks several apostles into the lush foliage.  The tree is essential to his message – a reminder of Christ’s passion, and an emblem of our faith’s deep spiritual connection to the natural world. In the Old Testament, the olive tree was seen as a symbol of Hope: D’Ascenzo profoundly transforms Bloch’s “glass half empty;” to a “glass half full!”

Interested in other local history? Check out our new sister webpage httpps://streetofhistoryphiladelphia.wordpress.com

French Heritage

A lot of ideas came together – by chance or by providence – when the statue of our patron Saint Francis de Sales was mounted above the door of our Guastavino-domed Byzantine-Romanesque style church back in 1911.

                Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia, explains that the Byzantine Revival movement originated in France in the late nineteenth century and our church owes “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with welcoming rounded arches and vaults — rather than stern, angular Gothic pointed arches and steeples — and with a heaven-like dome to complete the thought.  The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Paris began construction in1875 and the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille was finished in 1896, so the energy was in the air with some striking new examples as guides.

                Architect Henry Dagit, who lived in the parish at 4529 Pine St., had a deeply personal interest in the building, even memorializing some of his relatives in its decorations. The Dagit family were of French/German heritage, so Henry was naturally attracted to French and German design inspiration for his family church.

                For an American twist, Dagit realized that a distinctive Guastavino Dome roof — an engineering marvel — could complete the design, and allow a generous open-space floor plan for the church. Spanish immigrant Rafael Guastavino was famous for his unique building system in which tiles were layered with special mortar to create a strong, lightweight dome structure which did not require interior bracing, or space-taking, view-obscuring rows of supporting columns. The magnificent dome is one of only three Guastavino projects in Philadelphia: Girard Bank (Ritz-Carlton Hotel today) was built in 1908, and the Penn Museum’s dome would be constructed in 1916.

                The French-inspired architectural style, updated with the modern dome, offered an especially appropriate setting to honor our 17th century French patron saint, who acquired new visibility just as our church was being finished. France became a secular state in 1905. In 1911, when the French government took over the church where the saint was buried, journalists around the world reported on the procession of relics, as his remains were moved across town to a new shrine, and remarked on his then-unofficial title – dating back to the 1870s –as their patron saint.

Over time, our parish sense of identity – once so neatly linked to our building — has become obscured as our building has changed. Our patron saint’s statue was removed from his perch above our door in the 1980s for safety reasons, and stood in the parking lot for several years before disappearing. Our historically significant Guastavino dome – still intact inside the church — was covered with a cement shell on the outside in the 1950s. Our architecture and details of our history have been mischaracterized over time, contributing to a muddled sense of identity and purpose. What we are  remains elegantly simple: a diverse, welcoming congregation in a historic, architecturally significant, neighborhood church, built by immigrants and named for a saint who was known for his kindness and his gentle persuasion in drawing people back to the faith – and whose efforts to write truth earned him the title “Patron Saint of Journalists.” Merged in 2007 with Most Blessed Sacrament Parish – named for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ — we have an added reminder of our core mission, to actively promote what is best and truest about our faith in our neighborhood and beyond.

First Baptism

When William and Ellen Krapp baptized baby daughter Hannah, quietly, in a temporary new chapel above a Woodland Avenue store on October 19, 1890, they could have no idea that the brief record of their family event would be the opening line – the first recorded baptism — in the long history of our distinguished parish. Nor could they foresee their own family tragedy just ahead.

Census data suggests that William and Ellen (known also as Ella) may have married the same year that Hannah was born. The son of German immigrants, William was a barber by trade, and a widower with two children, age four and six. We don’t know anything about Ellen, except that her maiden name was McGettigan. They lived at 5210 Woodland Avenue.

         A son named William Jr., known as “Willie,” born a few years later, died at age fifteen months. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported his short sad story in a November 1895 court case: “The mother of the child testified that she took him to the Jefferson Hospital for treatment for teething. She was given a prescription which was put up at the dispensary attached to the hospital, and when she got home she gave the child a tablespoonful of the liquid. Shortly afterwards he began to cry and had difficulty in breathing. The child went into convulsions, and when she took him to the Presbyterian Hospital the doctors said he was suffering from carbolic acid poisoning. Mrs. Krapp also said that when she kissed the child her lips pained her as if they had been burned by poison.” The child died shortly afterwards.

  E. P. Stephens, the druggist at Jefferson, testified in court that the medicine he compounded for the child “was harmless, and was composed of one-half grain of carbolic acid diluted with one ounce of water, and one ounce of peppermint water.” He brought a similar sample of the formula to court, but Deputy Coroner Dugan thought the provided liquid was not “as strong as that which is supposed to have caused the child’s death. ‘You claim that the preparation is harmless,’ continued Mr. Dugan, ‘Wouldn’t you be afraid to drink it?’ ‘Not at all,’ replied Stephens,” swallowing theatrically from the little bottle without any harm.

After this display, the proceedings were put on hold until the baby could be autopsied. Dr. Graham, the physician in charge of the children’s ward at Jefferson, then tried to deflect blame to the mother for the child’s original condition, testifying that “the child had been affected with acute gastritis and catarrh of the stomach, brought on by improper feeding” when he was first brought in. However, Dr. Griggs, of Presbyterian Hospital, who attended the child when he was near death, testified that he “sampled the Jefferson Hospital prescription which had been administered to the little one…It was so strongly carbolic that his lips were burned by a portion, that accidentally ran down.”

On November 7, 1895, after reviewing the evidence, “the Jury rendered a verdict to the effect that the death was due to a mistake made by E. P. Stephens, a drug clerk at the Jefferson Hospital” who used too much carbolic acid in compounding the prescription (1 ounce instead of .5 grain). Stephens was not disciplined: “The jury and Coroner Ashbridge and Deputy Coroner Dugan were very lenient toward Stephens…not even, subjecting him to a censure, for it was shown that, ordinarily, he was very careful in his duties. ‘He has been compounding medicines for the past eighteen years, and it was the first mistake of the kind he has ever made.’”

The mother died three years later in 1898, age 43 years, and was buried from our church.

Whatever became of Baby Hannah, the first baby baptized in our church? Census data suggests she became an artist’s model, downtown, at age 19, before disappearing from the available records.    

The Children’s Hour: First Communion 1911

The year 1911 was notable for the children of our parish – and not just because the newly-built church opened with great celebration and ceremony.

An old parish document states that “Nineteen hundred and eleven was a red letter year in the history of the school, for the children of St. Francis de Sales, shared with other children throughout the world the benefits of the new Decree of Pius X, making possible the reception of our dear Lord in Holy Communion at the early age of seven. Accordingly all the little ones who had reached that age received our Lord on the First Friday of May…

This was a big moment for the church. In October 1910, the Philadelphia Inquirer had reported Pope Pius X’s new decree that children should receive their first Communion at the “age of reason,” when they made their first Penance: “regarding the points of instruction, it will not be necessary for the child to know the whole catechism, as has been customary heretofore in the United States.” First Communion, which “completed” the sacraments of initiation, came after Confirmation in those days: Confirmation was regarded as a “strengthening sacrament,” rather than a “sacrament of maturity” (the order didn’t begin to change until 1932), and the Inquirer reported that before the 1910 ruling, “children making their first Communion were usually between the ages of ten and fourteen.

The 1911 ceremony – which may have been a combination Confirmation/First Communion — probably took place in the original chapel/school building, (the building that today contains the Parish Auditorium), since the new church would not be ready until November and we don’t know what “finishing touches” were still underway. Unfortunately, the Communion and Confirmation records for that year are unavailable, so we don’t know much about the actual ceremony, or the specific names of those receiving the sacraments — although we can guess that  the list might have included one of the Slattery boys — sons of the local coal wholesaler, who would help to “baptize” our bells in 1916; one of the Hasson girls — whose big brother Philip would be the first boy ordained from our parish; and perhaps one of the Dagits —  children of the architect, who may have modeled for our angel sculptures; among many others.

Reverend Crane chose a Friday for the 1911 First Communion, so that children could continue afterwards with “The Communion of Reparation, the receiving of Our Divine Savior, on the First Friday of every month for nine consecutive months….” A 1928 report noted that this “has ever been a devotion dear to the heart of the Pastor, and the children have responded joyously to the call of Christ, and the voice of their beloved shepherd…

Six years later, in 1917, when most of the children in the school were receiving Communion, they mobilized further with the entrance of the United States into World War I: “A Children’s Eucharistic League was formed, the principal duty of which was to receive our Lord frequently that He might bring peace to the war-ridden world….” This was part of a much larger movement, begun by Pope Pius X, who wanted everyone to take Communion more often, and promoted the special power of children’s eucharistic participation – especially in times of trouble.

Incidentally, our Father Eric wrote a thesis on the changed order of confirmation and First Communion, so we have our own “in-house expert” to take us full circle on this interesting historical subject!

Parish Report Card

An old folder recently yielded up a copy of our parish 2002 Self-Assessment of the Pastoral Plan – our parish self-written “report card” – put together under 12th pastor Father Roland Slobogin, almost twenty years ago, to mark the start of our “Second Hundred Years.” That surprisingly interesting time capsule included several pages from an earlier report, composed by Angie Coughlan and Maureen Tate in 1995 for 11th pastor Father Janton, offering some “reflections for consideration” that were still considered relevant in 2002. Do they seem familiar?

                “We have long sensed a need for collaborative decision-making at St. Francis de Sales. The need exists for the ministry team as well as the Parish and Finance Councils and parishioners. Great efforts are made in the areas of parish life but they are not coordinated or in communication with each other. There needs to be further development of the Parish Council so that it can be included in decision-making with the ministry team as well as solicit input from parishioners.

                “There has long been a great need for dialogue about liturgy. Because of our diverse community we have many views on liturgical music, symbol and ritual, and the spirit of worship that makes prayer possible...” (This was topical in 2002, since SFDS and MBS had recently been twinned; we became a combined parish in 2007)

                “We currently have no vehicle for addressing the social and spiritual needs of our teenagers. We need to find a way for them to be a more visible presence in the community and to enable them to make their own contribution.”

                “Our social action focus has been limited to direct service and referral. Parishioners who constitute the microcosm which is St. Francis de Sales face issues of race, class, economic injustice, violence and community disintegration on a daily basis in very real ways and we need the Church to provide some guidance or forum in which to address these major influences in our lives and community. For those who are working on these issues constantly, we feel that we should be making a Christian response and yet there is not a way to help one another discern what this might be.”

                “There have been very infrequent and limited opportunities for adult spiritual enrichment. We recognize that past efforts were not always well attended but we believe there needs to be a consistent effort to build this into our parish life. Many of our parishioners could be resource people for such programs.

                “When funds were available parishioners valued and benefited from the resources of a DRE (A Director of Religious Education to run the PREP. Now we have Sr. Alice!) Parents are willing and able to maintain the religious education program for children although administration, development and growth is very limited...”

                “Although our parish is well regarded by the community we have observed that there is no interaction with other churches in the immediate neighborhood. We do have some relationship with the other Catholic churches of West Philadelphia although this is also very limited. Because of the pressing social problems in our midst and because other church communities are trying to address these same immediate concerns we feel that the community and parishioners would benefit by collaboration with the other churches….”

                “We noted that our parish school is an important resource in the parish. There does exist, however, a significant separation between the school community and the parish...” (The school became independent in 2011)

The Hand of St. Joseph

Have you ever noticed that when sculptor Adolfo de Nesti carved our statue of St. Joseph, back around 1911, he depicted the saint with his eyes closed?

Perhaps that has protected St. Joseph from having to witness a lot of “indignities” heaped on our statues over the years.

In pre-Vatican II times, John Deady recalls “at least twice a year they used to hang a shrine around his neck. One was for the feast of Christ the King in October, another that occurred around this time of year was a portrait of St. Francis X for the annual Novena of Grace. These were drapes and pictures of the appropriate individual.” He notes that “The Blessed Mother was not spared this indignity: at Christmas she was hidden behind Christmas trees as a backdrop for the manger and again she held up the elaborate repository that was set up for Holy Thursday….The Holy Thursday repository was particularly elaborate…”

During Lent, before Vatican II, the statues in the church were draped in purple. This wrapping of statues entailed a certain amount of manhandling by the crew of boys who helped out at the time. The late Don McDermott recalled how the boys who assisted at the Holy Saturday Liturgy, would then “stand in assigned places around the packed church and at the Gloria they would in perfect unison using the long window poles from the school classrooms, uncover all the statues as the bells rang.” This provided a dramatic ritual, but the wielding of long poles with metal hooks in a crowded space might have offered its own perils.

The statues of the Sacred Heart and St. Francis de Sales both stood proudly up in the sanctuary for many years: the Sacred Heart, to the right of the Blessed Mother; and St. Francis de Sales, to the left of the St. Joseph altar. They were both banished – the Sacred Heart, unceremoniously shuffled to the side of the church, and St. Francis de Sales to the back — with the Vatican II “de-cluttering” of the sanctuary, probably during the Venturi neon lights renovation in the late 1960s.  

In modern times, Mary and Joseph were half-concealed behind the heavy metal scaffolding that filled the sanctuary from 2006 to 2013, during roof repairs. Saint Anne and Saint Anthony are still hidden in the lonely darkness behind the metal mesh on the sides of the church. For awhile, Saint Anthony sported a construction helmet to protect him from falling debris; today, the two statues are shielded under rough wooden shelters.

The custom seems to have been revived, recently, of mummifying statues in purple, in the last two weeks of Lent “at the discretion of the local pastor.” It is suggested that “The veiling of crosses and images is a sort of ‘fasting’ from sacred depictions which represent the paschal glory of our salvation.

One might wonder how meaningful is this veiling, if the statues are not appreciated the rest of the year: how is it that nobody noticed when St. Joseph’s index finger broke off, sometime in the past ten years or so! Our statues of St. Martin de Porres and the Sacred Heart also have damaged fingers. The Sacred Heart is ancient breakage, badly repaired; St. Martin’s cracked finger is more recent.

We’re not sure when or how the damage to our St. Joseph statue occurred, but it’s part of our story now. Perhaps we should take it as a symbol and caution: he used to raise his hand in blessing, pointing to the heavens; today, his hand curves down, his thumb pointing towards himself. Did our world turn inward when we weren’t watching? We need to point to the heavens once again! In the “Year of St. Joseph,” perhaps that should be our parish mandate.

Divine Providence

Rev. Joseph O’Neill

Our patron saint Francis de Sales knew that outcomes can’t always be controlled, and things don’t always turn out as planned, but he advised: “If you have a sure trust in God, the success that comes to you will always be that which is most useful to you, whether it appears good or bad in your private judgment.

A long-ago news item, reporting an effort to change an archdiocesan assignment, offers an intriguing backward glance at the providence that brought us where we are today.

When our parish was carved from the territory of St. James Parish (today St. Agatha-St. James) at 38th and Chestnut, in 1890, our founding pastor was Reverend Joseph O’Neill, who had been assisting at St. James. In March 1898, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that parishioners at St. James moved to have him back:

“In fact the feeling has risen to such an extent that a meeting of the members the parish will be held evening in the church building, the intention being to prepare a formal protest to be sent to Archbishop Ryan.”

“In discussing the matter a member of the congregation said: ‘We are going to make this protest because we feel that Father Joseph O’Neill, now in charge of St. Francis de Sales, forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue, was entitled to the rectorship of St. James’ when it was made vacant by the departure of Father P. J. Garvey. Father O’Neill came to the parish sixteen years ago, just one year before Father Garvey assumed charge. When the mission St. Francis de Sales was started Father O’Neill was placed in charge and has been there ever since. Father O’Neill is a man 55 years old and has endeared himself to very one with whom he has been thrown in contact, and we do not like the idea of having him set aside for Father Monahan, who is from the Cathedral and whom we do not know.’”

“A committee has been appointed and they have been so energetic that a good meeting is expected. The members of the congregation who are foremost in the fight for Father O’Neill say that they do not oppose Father Monahan on personal grounds, in fact they would be pleased to have him as rector if Father O’Neill had not been slighted. It is realized, of course, that the congregation has no choice in the selection of rectors, but they think. that a strong protest will have weight.”

The efforts of St. James parishioners to get Rev. O’Neill reassigned to them were unsuccessful, but their story still ended well: the 1950 St. James Jubilee Book notes that “the Standard of February 26, 1898 carried the news of the appointment of Father James C. Monahan to the pastorate of St. James. This short-limbed, eloquent, kindly yet combative priest was to remain at St. James for twenty-seven years” where he became much beloved and respected, as one of their longest-serving pastors.

It may seem funny today, and we may even feel mildly insulted, to think that anyone ever felt Reverend O’Neill was being “slighted” by his appointment to our parish! By the time of the conflict, he had been with us for eight years, and had built our first chapel/school and the rectory.  But our Rev. Joseph O’Neill was the brother of former St. James pastor Rev. Francis O’Neil — who had built their church – so perhaps he represented continuity to parishioners at St. James, and they felt loyalty and feared the unknown.

How would things have been different, if Reverend Joseph O’Neill had not been our pastor? He chose the site for our church and we believe he named our parish Saint Francis de Sales to honor his deceased brother Francis — so we might have had a completely different name, location, patron saint, and identity. At the time of this letter in 1898, our future second pastor Rev. Crane, was assisting Bishop Prendergast at St. Malachy Church, planning renovations there (in the Byzantine style), working with architect Henry Dagit, so he would not have been available to come here. If Reverend O’Neill had been reassigned to St. James, some other second pastor would have built us a different church!

Unexpected Cherubs

What comes to mind when you hear the word “cherub”? Our church has a few, and some are not quite what you might expect.

The beings shown in our round stained-glass windows – crafted by Nicola D’Ascenzo in 1910 – are a good fit with the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art, which observes that: “In art, cherubim and seraphim are often represented as chubby children with wings, sometimes only a head and two wings. Because cherubim are referred to as ‘burning coals of fire’ (Ezek 1:13), they are often coloured red, symbolizing burning love, while seraphim may be blue, the colour of heaven, but it often occurs the other way round…”  But that’s only one idea.

Cherubim are types of angels. The word angel comes from Latin for “messenger.” The roots of the word cherubim are unclear, but it may be related to “blessing” or “approaching.” Beings called cherubim are mentioned in the Old Testament, as guarding the Tree of Life in Genesis; and in Exodus, as guardians of the Mercy-Seat in Solomon’s Temple. They appear in the Vision of Ezekiel and in the Apocalypse. When a fifth-century Greek monk named Dionysius proposed a “celestial hierarchy” — which was later accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas (who imagined Satan as a fallen Cherub) and used by Dante in his works – he placed the cherubim and seraphim in the highest order of angels, closest to God. But what do they look like? We can only guess!

The original cherubim of Jewish tradition are both fierce and solemn. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,The prophet Ezekiel describes the cherubim as a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces—of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man—the stature and hands of a man, the feet of a calf, and four wings. Two of the wings extended upward, meeting above and sustaining the throne of God; while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves… and they were full of eyes ‘like burning coals of fire.’” These imposing characters eventually supplied the artistic symbols for the four gospel-writing evangelists of Christianity – the eagle, winged lion, winged ox and winged man shown on the four pillars supporting our dome!

How did “cherub” come to refer both to scary winged creatures and sweet, winged children? Angelic beings are made of energy and don’t actually have bodies, so any representation is symbolic — and symbols can change with time and circumstance. In the early 1400s, when Italian Sculptor Donatello saw Eros and Cupid — spirits of love and desire in classical mythology – depicted as cheeky, winged babies on ancient Greek and Roman funerary art, he was inspired to create charming child angels to embody the Christian spirit of God’s love. These figures were called “putto,” plural “putti” (from the Latin for “boy” or “child“), and they became a popular theme in art through the Renaissance. Often grouped closely around sacred figures in paintings, their arrangement suggested an important position in the angelic hierarchy. The English use of the word “cherub” to describe these characters appears to have evolved over time: the word originally signified the fierce cherubim of Ezekiel. Cherub was also occasionally used to describe someone with a red face. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the adjective “cherubic” as meaning “like a child angel,” seems to date from the 1800s.

Today, whether they are “blessing” or “approaching,” cherub messengers bring gifts of continuity and connection to our church — in art evolved from Old Testament tradition that adorns our four supporting pillars, and Renaissance-style putti represented in our windows. Two post-Victorian winged-child sculptures — perched at the back of our church, near the doors to the Baptistry and the Choir — are quite possibly modeled on the youngest child of architect Henry Dagit or sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s own baby son, born in 1908. And high in the choir loft, if you listen closely enough, perhaps you’ll hear ghost echoes from recent generations of “choir babies” – the young children of our choir members – warbling their own cherubic notes to our song.

Color OUR Collections!

Launched by The New York Academy of Medicine Library in 2016, #ColorOurCollections is an annual coloring festival on social media during which libraries, museums, archives and other cultural institutions around the world share free coloring content featuring images from their collections.

 In past years, our SFDS Parish History Archives has contributed stained-glass windows and other church details to color, and 1920s parish bulletin advertising art. This year’s parish coloring book celebrates parish organizations and activities of yesteryear. Check out all the new offerings for 2021 – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/

Here’s our 2021 coloring book:http://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/01/sfds-2021-coloring-parish-activiities.pdf