Horse Party

horse partyStep back in time, just after World War I,  and imagine city streets filled with horse carriages and carts instead of motor vehicles. Miss Laura Blackburne (3808 Walnut; later 5038 Larchwood), an early donor to St. Francis de Sales Church, was also a board member of  the Women’s SPCA (today’s Women’s Humane Society) and worked on the Dispensary Committee for a unique holiday event as reported in The Philadelphia Public Ledger, December 24, 1918:

There was great rejoicing in “animal circles” at the announcement that Santa Claus today would visit the stables and kennels of the poor horses, dogs, and cats, as well as the homes of real folks. 

            Through the agency of the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Santa gave Christmas dinners to more than 200 animals. The horses that have so nobly done double duty during the war were given especial notice. 

            There was a sort of thin, soupy mixture for the first course, mixed feed for the entree and carrots and big red apples for dessert. Dog biscuits were Rover’s share and there was catnip in prettily tied bunches for the kitties. 

            Ned, a staunch old dray horse who for the last year has been supporting a family of eleven, had the time of his long life. Ned’s master is sick and has been almost blind for many months. Ned’s steady work in hauling has furnished the only livelihood for the master, mistress and the nine children of the family. 

            Dan is another of the heroes who were decorated “inside and out” for his splendid services. He has been earning the living for an eighty year old man and his family. 

            Girl Scouts distributed the Christmas dinners for the animals from the Lighthouse at Second Street and Lehigh avenue, from the dispensary at 315 South Chadwick Street (near Rittenhouse), and from Lowry Home (for homeless dogs and cats), Eighty-Sixth and Eastwick Streets. Horses in the police van and traffic squad stables were remembered by the women too. The Christmas compliments were in the form of bright red apples. 

            Members of the dispensary committee of the women’s society investigate their “horse families” just as conscientiously and carefully as social workers investigate the homes of they city’s poor people. Wherever the people are poor and deserving of help, and their horse or animals are hungry, the society gives its aid…

            The lighthearted article sounds reassuringly normal, considering that the Great Influenza Pandemic, which killed an estimated 12,191 people in Philadelphia alone, had finally slowed its brutal onslaught just the previous month! All schools and churches in the city — including ours — were closed down for three weeks, from October 6 to October 26, 1918, in an apparently successful effort to help stem the contagion.

 

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The Dragon of Saint Philip

_MG_2572 (2)Tales of long ago saints have, in modern times, been stripped of their more fantastical elements, often leaving us with confusing vague stories of good people with few distinguishing details. Such has been the fate of Saint Philip, whose cross emblem is on the St. Joseph side of our St. Francis de Sales Church. It’s time to reclaim him!

We know very little about Philip from the Bible. He is said to have been the third Apostle to be called by Jesus. He is quoted in the story of the Loaves and the Fishes from St. John’s Gospel, and he is thought to have been present with the other Apostles at Pentecost. His emblem in our church is the cross “by which he is said to have overthrown the statues of the idols in the countries which he converted.

A lost story of Saint Philip, handed down through the medieval mythical Golden Legends, described how he overcame a dragon in the ancient spa city of Hierapolis, in what is now Turkey. He was said to have been captured there and taken to a pagan (Roman) temple to make a forced sacrifice, when “anon under the idol issued out a right great dragon...” which killed several people who were preparing the sacrificial fire. Then “the dragon corrupted the people with his breath that they all were sick, and St. Philip said: Believe ye me and break this idol and set in his place the cross of Jesus Christ and after, worship ye it, and they that be here dead shall revive, and all the sick people shall be made whole.

It seemed implausible, until 2013, when archaeologist Francesco D’Andria uncovered an ancient Roman shrine called the “Gates of Hell” buried under the ruins of Hierapolis. A natural gas pocket, running beneath the shrine, produces a hallucinogenic and deadly vapor which issues from the doorway. The air is poisonous even today: as it was being excavated, birds and small animals were killed when they strayed  too close to the entrance. It is easy to see how this mysterious phenomenon could be interpreted as a giant beast hidden underground, breathing out  foul and murderous breath. Sealing its shrine and constructing a cross above it would likely have closed off the vent and stopped the poison – a miracle for its time.

Suddenly, the story of Philip gains colour and interest! And a piece of our Catholic culture is restored with a new appreciation of history.

The Art of the Kneel

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Who are these four people and what has brought them to their knees in the middle window on the St. Mary side of St. Francis de Sales Church?

Crafted around 1910, the long stained glass windows at the back of the church were one of Philadelphia stained glass artist Nicholas D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions. Episodes from the life of St. Francis de Sales in the lower part of each window, were carefully synchronized to the life of Christ above them, and with an Old Testament prophecy at the top. But only a few of the Jesus windows have captions so we have to use other clues to find their meanings.

david (3)The prophecy above the middle window, from the psalms of David, translates: “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And the bottom part of the window shows St. Francis de Sales establishing the cloistered Sisters of the Visitation: “giving  St. Jeanne de Chantal and her first two companions the rules of visitation” (D’Ascenzo conveniently copyrighted that design with its description). The associated Jesus scene should, therefore, relate to religious life.

The four kneeling figures in the Jesus window have halos, so they are saints — and they are men, so probably apostles — and the picture represents a significant event between the Sermon on the Mount and the Agony in the garden. Why do they kneel? Wikipedia helpfully observes that  “Kneeling, similar to bowing, is associated with reverence,  submission and  obeisance, particularly if one kneels before a person who is standing or sitting: the kneeling position renders a person defenseless and unable to flee. For this reason, in some religions, in particular by  Christians and Muslims, kneeling is used as a position for prayer.

When Jesus lays his hand on the head of one of the respectful  men — like a monarch bestowing a knighthood – the meaning becomes clear: he is saying “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church….” (Mt 16:18)

The early 1900s, when our church was built, were troubled times of local religious intolerance and rising European hostility to Pope Pius X – part of the simmering global unrest that led up to World War I. Our window reassured parishioners of their faith’s deep roots and enduring history. Further, it offered a social example. The 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, current when our church was built,  suggested that kneeling and standing were both acceptable prayer postures, but the ancient gesture of bending the knee had a more profound significance as an expression of reverence, humility, and trust.

 

The Lady and the Lamp

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Photo: Women’s Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
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SFDS Sanctuary Lamp

Some of our original Saint Francis de Sales building contributors have been forgotten because the items they donated are no longer part of our church. But their presence on the Donor Plaque by the 47th Street door should remind us of their part in our story.

Such is the case with Miss Laura Blackburne, who donated a massive hanging cross-shaped sanctuary lamp – supposed to be a “reproduction” of one at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy – that was a prominent feature of our Sanctuary until the 1950s.

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The Gothic Mansion, 12th and Chestnut

The lamp was given to honor Miss Blackburne’s mother, Ann Eliza Priestman Blackburne, who was buried at The Woodlands (Section L185), from Saint James, our “parent church,”  in 1909.All we know of the mother is from an archived letter describing her youthful education at the Young Ladies’ French and English Academy located  briefly in the Gothic Mansion on Chestnut St. above 12th (which later housed the St. John’s Orphan Asylum associated with Saint John the Evangelist Church). There, from 1831 to 1833, she learned regular academic subjects, as well as Astronomy, music, needlework, and art taught by the French Dames de la Retraite.

Daughter Laura lived with her mother at 3808 Walnut, inherited a small fortune from a relative, and engaged in a number of organizations. She was on the board of the American Catholic Historical Society, and worked on fundraisers for St. Vincent’s home – a boys’ orphanage at 70th and Woodland. In 1897, she co-sponsored a very successful Cake Sale fundraiser for the Women’s Suffrage (right to vote) Society.

As a board member for the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (today’s Women’s Humane Society), Miss Blackburne seemed especially interested in horses – still the primary form of transportation. In 1909, she was on a committee planning construction of a clinic at 315 Chadwick Street, near Rittenhouse,  “equipped with the most up-to-date appliances  for the treatment of horses.” The dispensary would be “fitted up and conducted along the lines of dispensaries in London and Florence.” During World War I, she became a member of the Red Star, a sub-group of the WSPCA funding care for the sick and wounded among the “half a million horses and mules” used by the American army in Europe to transport “food, supplies, guns, and ammunition;” as well as for the many “war dogs” used to “search for wounded soldiers, carry messages, and keep vermin from the trenches.”

Today, the Women’s Humane Society continues its commitment to humane and compassionate treatment of animals, and it’s nice to discover our connections!

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Photo: Women’s Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Stuccoed Stars

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St. Francis de Sales 1954

The side walls of Saint Francis de Sales church might seem restfully plain when the rest of the church is ornate, but it’s deceptive! Parish history is thickly layered beneath the surface.

When our church was built, the side walls showed the same bricks that you see today on the walls of the Sanctuary. Early pictures reveal mosaic medallions — a star in an eternal circle, and a Trinity triangle  — decorating each of the six arches. Eight-pointed Nativity stars adorned the middle arches; and the side arches appear to have featured six-pointed stars representing the six days of creation and the House of David — earthly lineage of Jesus.

In the 1920s, each triangle had a large round lightbulb at its centre, and a row of  lightbulbs lined each arch. That changed in 1940, when Bishop Lamb replaced the exuberant celebration of electricity with more elegant and “practical” metal sconces, fastened to cross-shaped brackets in the mosaic triangles, their shaded lamps dangling from metal chains.

The church decor was slightly altered in the 1950s by Bishop McShea, then heavily renovated for the Parish 1965 Diamond Anniversary under Monsignor Sefton. A story says that Monsignor Sefton came home from a trip to Europe, inspired by the cool blue lighting of Mediterranean churches, and wished to replicate the effect with blue walls. His chosen shade of tile was very fashionable in the 1960s and prevailing tastes were for streamlined modern decor. Diocesan-approved changes at that time included new pews; new flooring; and an electrical update to remove wall lamps (leaving wall holes?) and replace ceiling lamps with chandeliers. Unapproved tile walls quietly slid in, with two casual notations: “The price listed for the terrazzo floor also includes setting tile in six arches of the church” and “Belfi Brothers. This amount also includes setting tile in 6 arches of church.”

Skip forward to the 1990s, when the “blue bathroom tiles” began to fall off the walls, revealing the patchy tile-prepped surface underneath. Father Janton remarked that the bald patch looked like the African  continent drawn on an ancient map. When  it expanded to resemble Pangaea, it was time to do something. The mustard-coloured resurfacing was a simple, attractive solution (look above the sacristy doorway for the remaining blue tiles)

The walls of our church are layered with stories. Symbols changed their meaning over time. Technologies advanced. A richly ceremonial era gave way to the sleek modernism of the 1960s and early Vatican II. Hard times improved. And today we should find meaning in graceful continuity.

 

Imperfection

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Have you ever noticed that Saint Matthew’s name  is missing an H above the 47th Street door inside St. Francis de Sales Church?

It is ironic – or appropriate — that Saint Matthew should be victim of a typo, since he is the Gospel-writing Evangelist whose chronicle is thought to represent the “human” side of Christ; and spelling mistakes are pretty human! Matthew, whose Evangelist symbol is the “Winged Man” shown on one of the triangular pendentives that support the dome, begins his  Gospel with a litany of Jesus’ earthly family lineage through Joseph. His writing stresses the Jewish background and human nature of Jesus.

_MG_2568 (2)Matthew is both Evangelist and Apostle. As an Apostle, his symbol is the tax collector’s bag (shown near the parking lot door), since his profession before becoming a follower of Jesus, was that of publican, collecting taxes for the occupying Roman forces. Tax collectors in those times were allowed to collect as much extra money as they dared for themselves, once they had extracted the amount required by the government, so they were despised for greed and feared for extortion. And to the Jewish people, tax collectors were complicit with the Romans, which was considered particularly awful (though Jesus did remind his followers to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” so he was not against funding the government!)

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was criticized for associating with undesirables. When Pharisees asked  Matthew “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied “Those who are well have no need of a physicianI came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:11-13). Jesus  came to minister to those in need,  not to praise the smug and judgmental.  And he supports and stands by those who follow him: the quote above our door reminds us that Jesus vowed “I am with you all days, even to the consummation (end!) of the world...”

In many cultures and times, it has been a tradition purposely to  insert an error in an artistic work to acknowledge that God alone is perfect. The spelling error in our otherwise magnificent interior is likely to be a genuine mistake, but it still reminds us that the church is a place for imperfect people to find hope in trying to connect with something greater than themselves. And we are all imperfect – no room for complacency – with every reason to be welcoming to all.

Philadelphia Orchestra at de Sales

Michael Murray and Philadelphia Orchestra at St. Francis de Sales, Feb 1980 (PAHRC)

Did you know we were digital sound pioneers? On February 1, 1980, Michael Murray and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy recorded the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3 in C in our church – with recording company Telarc using then new Soundstream technology to capture the sound.

Michael Murray, the organist, recalls  that “a few months prior to the recording, the Telarc folks and I visited half a dozen churches in the Philadelphia area to try out organs, before settling on the St. Francis de Sales instrument.”

Fran Byers writes that the recording took a lot of preparation:  Bruce Schultz “had to ‘re-pitch’ the whole organ to conform with Maestro Eugene Ormandy’s pitch for the orchestra in order to make the sound ‘brighter.’ The organ was originally set to 435 pitch since 1911, which is flat compared with 440 (modern) and Ormandy wanted 442, to make the sound brighter. Every pipe had to be tuned or cut to make its pitch sharper. The organ is still at that pitch. All 6,000-plus pipes had to be physically cut after being taken out of position. It was quite a project. Also, the pitch of the organ is heavily dependent on the weather. The hotter the temperature, the sharper the organ’s sound. In winter, the pitch can go below 440, which makes it flatter than standard pitch.   It took about a week to prepare the organ, with round-the-clock work.”

Father Leo Oswald later recollected that “it was freezing cold, so space heaters were brought in… There was too much reverberation, so the area was draped…” Fran remembers “26 pews were taken out, 13 on each side of the middle aisle…The sound engineer and his equipment were in the lower church. They closed off the neighboring streets.  At one point, there was a siren outside, which had to be cut off.”

“Only a small handful of us were allowed in the church to observe and hear the recording, “ Fran recalls, “We sat in front of the St. Joseph altar. I recall Sister Carmella being there, as well as Dr. Harry Wilkinson and Father Oswald,” and Bruce was with the orchestra.

Years later, Michael Murray remembers that “several orchestra members mentioned really enjoying making music in those reverberant acoustics. The players were accustomed to the rather dry acoustics of the Academy of Music.”  Reviewers still note that the innovative recording exemplifies the best of Ormandy’s “Philadelphia Orchestra Sound.”

Early Parishioners

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Undated letter shown in 1940 Parish Jubilee book

 

 

 

 

SFDS Parish legend suggests that a long-ago letter written to Archbishop Ryan by an Irish servant girl inspired the creation of our parish. The original of that undated letter has long since vanished, and the name Mary Bryan is common enough to be so far untraceable in available archives. A careful reading of early histories shows that the letter was always considered more of a heartwarming artifact than a mandate.

 

So who really were our original parishioners?

They are said to have been Irish immigrants, and this is largely true — including a few militant Irish nationalists. However, Philadelphia also had a large Germanic population before the First World War, reflected in parish names such as Dagit, Lippe, Schwoerer, Engel, Vetterlein, and Speckman. Most Blessed Sacrament was mostly Irish and Italian: their 1917 history book notes that the pastor could speak to Italians “in their native tongue.” Photographs show African Americans in both parishes from early days.

Many houses in our immediate neighbourhood were constructed for middle-class professionals. Early parishioners included our church architect; the Maitre’d at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel; a renowned female poet; the owner of a fleet of oyster schooners; an electrician (Joe Ruane’s grandfather!); a railroad  foreman; a police chief; a movie theatre magnate; a liquor wholesaler; and several doctors, construction contractors, bankers, and realtors. We also had teachers, saloon keepers, and store owners.

Professions of younger parishioners, just starting out,  are a little more mystifying in the modern world: milliner (made hats);  milk salesman (delivered milk door-to-door); coal wholesaler (houses were heated by coal-fired burners); gas inspector (light fixtures were often dual-purpose gas-over-electric, since electricity was still new); telephone company auditor (landlines were new technology); stenographer (used special handwriting called shorthand to write down dictated information). And then there were the many local live-in servant girls.

What did all these folks do in their spare time?

In days before television, tablets, and smartphones, people socialized more. The parish was a community centre, at times offering religious clubs, bowling, roller skating, and radio and movie parties. Newspapers reported frequent “Euchre” card parties in the neighbourhood. Every institution seemed to have “Lawn Fetes” or other fundraisers during the year, and Catholics enthusiastically supported Catholic institutions from hospitals, to schools and nursing homes. The school offered youth organizations and activities. With fewer cars, people found entertainment nearby, and friendly rivalries among local churches helped to knit together a large, strong community – just as the dropped stitches of lost parishes and modern distractions have left holes today.

Little Chapel in the Big Woods

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Reverend P.F. Burke, First Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament

In June, 1901, eleven years after Saint Francis de Sales Parish was founded, Archbishop Ryan saw need for an additional parish further west. Reverend Patrick Burke, appointed its first pastor, imagined all the challenges ahead and suggested jokingly to the Archbishop that his new parish be named “The Agony in the Garden.” “Ah,” said his Grace, with a knowing smile, “Yes, Father Burke, you have a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come.”

Most Blessed Sacrament Parish was a “fine garden” back then. Its first Chapel, a temporary wooden building at 56th and Chester Ave., was dedicated in December 1901. A 1917 parish history provides a lyrical description of the landscape, when “the very ground now hallowed by the erection of our Chapel and School was part of a vast woodland…To the south and east the Schuylkill, teeming with its myriads of fish, wound through sylvan glades to meet the lordly Delaware, while on the western slope of this section…Cobb’s Creek (was a ) variegated ribbon in and out among the trees…But  “the busy march of progress” was turning forest into farmland and placing mills and factories along the waterways. When immigrant workers – many of them Catholic — needed housing, green fields further transformed into “long imposing thoroughfares lined with blocks of houses.”

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Rev. John Walsh, First Assistat at Most Blessed Sacrament

Conditions were primitive as the neighbourhood developed, and Father Burke suffered “many privations…. Gray’s Lane was at times almost a trough of yellow mud and he had to walk from 55th and Woodland Avenue to the Chapel. Some of the most public-spirited among the parishioners at their own expense had a part of the lane filled in and a cinder path laid. Once in a while, a good soul would provide a carriage to convey the delicate priest to Mass.” Father John Walsh came to assist in 1902, but Father Burke had already exhausted his frail health trying to build the parish and died in 1906, while the chapel/school and permanent church were still being planned.

The 1917 writer was already nostalgic: “Memory calls up the little wooden Chapel among the trees in all the glory of its rustic setting on a Sunday morning in Spring. Over the fields, up the lane and through the main thoroughfare, came these worshipers, eagerly and happily.  At the door smiling and buoyant stood Father John  welcoming the newcomers, learning the names of the children, and by his subtle charm winning souls and also gaining workers for the new church…”

Different times!

Seeing and Believing

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Saint Thomas the Apostle was labeled “The Doubter” because he needed to see proof of the resurrection in order to believe. But his focus on visual  confirmation might have been a natural result of his professional training, with some modern implications.

The Builder’s Square (near the 47th street door) is an especially appropriate symbol for Thomas, because square encompasses multiple meanings: it can be a geometric shape, or a tool used  to measure and lay out right angles. As a figure of speech, it relates to certainty, as in a sample sentence from Thesaurus.com: “do those announcements really square with the facts?”

Ironically, we have few dependable facts about Thomas, who is thought to have been a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan (and who may have been Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany).  Encyclopaedia Iranica reports an ancient tale that “The apostle was entrusted with funds for building a palace, but spent them on relief of the poor. When called to account, he declared he had built the king a palace in heaven…”  (this is a slightly different version from our 1940 Anniversary Book, which claims Thomas built the palace then donated his own construction profits to the poor). Tradition says Thomas went afterwards to India, where he is  “commemorated as a founder of the South Indian Christian community, and a church is named in his honor.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually built a palace for the glory of King Gondophares: his story is from an early manuscript in the Apocrypha not considered reliable enough to become part of the Bible. But its lesson – that a heavenly palace built of good deeds is superior to an ostentatious display of personal wealth – is very apostolic. The location of Thomas’ emblem next to the donor plaque in our church is also interesting: is it there because he is the Patron Saint of Architects and Builders or is it a  subtle reminder to early wealthy parishioners that they should also work on their spiritual palaces?

Thomas, emphasizing visual symbols, is an important saint for those who build and maintain religious structures. Large buildings commemorate what is valued in a society and modern landmarks tend to be commercial.  But each church in the landscape provides a needed visual reminder of God’s presence to all who pass by — a reason to keep ours in good order!