Month: February 2016

A Flying Nun

balloon          How did an IHM Sister wind up in a hot air balloon drifting over Clark Park in Philadelphia back in 1986?

When the United Nations declared an International Year of Peace that year, a plan was concocted to send a teacher from SFDS or St. Lucy School for the Blind (which shared a close relationship with the parish school), to drop leaflets, asking people to sign pledges for peace and return them to the school. Mary Brewster researched and tells the story:

          The crowd on the hillside was growing restless. The hot air balloon was ready to ascend but was short one passenger. “Run, run, if you want to go up.” This was not the Wizard of Oz speaking to Dorothy in the Emerald City: this was Sister Constance speaking to Sister Josette Marie in Clark Park during Catholic Schools Week in March, 1986.

           Sister Josette, now Sister Mary McKinley, taught fourth grade at Saint Francis de Sales School when she heard about the hot air balloon in Clark Park.  Sister Mary came to watch with several other Sisters after school, and shortly after they arrived, Sister Constance asked for volunteers to join the pilot and another teacher, Alice D’Gamma, on the ride.  This was not something Sister Mary planned to do, but her love of adventure took over, and without giving it a second thought she said “I’ll do it” and she ran down the hill. “They were trying to take off, and they literally threw me in,” she said.  As the other Sisters watched from the hillside, Sister Mary soon was airborne.

          Sister remembers floating from Clark Park over to West Chester Pike and seeing people below waving when they saw the balloon passing over them. She saw several trucks following the balloon ready to go in any direction to assist with the landing. Sister remembers being up in the air from about 4:00 to about 8:00, long enough to see the sunset as they floated along. Sister remembers how exciting it was to soar high above the rest of the world.  It was a smooth ride, the temperature was comfortable and Sister enjoyed the view.  

          When the balloon hit the ground on a field near Route 1, Sister saw 25-30 men struggling to hold the ropes as the wind dragged the balloon along the ground. They were trying to secure the balloon to allow the passengers to disembark safely.

Sister’s Peace adventure resonates in today’s unsettled world: is it time for a new excursion.


War of the Worlds

war of the worlds

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make…. Incredible as it may seem, those strange beings who landed in New Jersey to-night are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars…At this moment martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania…People are now holding service below us in the Cathedral…This is the end. Black smoke is drifting over the city…”

          The doors of St. Francis de Sales swung open, and a phalanx of men and boys – one account says two thousand – processed slowly out into the darkness, rank upon rank, chanting solemnly and carrying candles.

          Neighbours were unnerved.

          The date was Sunday, October 30, 1938. Orson Welles was just closing his famous radio drama, and police stations and newspaper offices nationwide were overwhelmed by telephone calls. Panicked civilians jammed traffic, fleeing the fictional invasion.

          Meanwhile, away from the radio, St. Francis de Sales Parish celebrated the feast of Christ the King. Under Bishop Lamb, the feast was celebrated in a day-long series of events culminating in a gathering of men and boys of the parish: “This Holy Hour and its attendant Eucharistic Procession of men is singular to this parish. It is a thrilling sight to see the men and the boys of the parish, carrying lighted candles walking before the Blessed Sacrament…” It “provides a splendid opportunity for father and son to walk with Christ…”

          The feast was relatively new, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to be held on the last Sunday of October (moved later to the last Sunday of the church year). A response to growing nationalism and secularism, it was reported that “Pope Pius XI sought, through the establishment of this feast, to restore Christ to his rightful, pre-eminent place in both the minds and wills of men...” In 1939, The Catholic Standard noted that “If his efforts had been universally successful, the rampant hatred which stalks across the world today would have been fettered, and world powers would not now be locked in terrible conflict….”

          Weird delusions. World’s Wars. Culture Wars. What’s changed!

Knights of Peter Claver

Who are those folks in the fez hats and golden sashes?

          They represent an important American Catholic tradition, with an SFDS difference.

          The Knights of Peter Claver were founded in Mobile, Alabama, in 1909, in an age of strict segregation. The fraternal organization was named after the Jesuit saint who ministered to African slaves in Colombia in the 16th century, and initially provided fellowship and spiritual direction for African American Catholics.

          Paul Harvey recalls November 3, 1990,  when “eight laymen and two clerics from St. Francis de Sales Parish were initiated…One cleric was the Pastor, Rev, John Kilgallon; the other was…Brother Brendan Garwood… The laymen were John Carrigan, David Collins, Paul Harvey, William Mellette, Lonnie Perry, Larry Riley, Ogden Wing and Edmund Wells. These men represented one of the first integrated councils in the city.  John Carrigan — Grand Knight of the new Council #315 — was the first white Grand Knight in the City of Philadelphia. In December 1990 Paul Harvey was elected the first white President of the Central Committee of Philadelphia, the representative and guiding body of all Councils of the Knights of Peter Claver and Courts of the Ladies of Peter Claver in the city.

          During the early years the Knights sponsored weekly donuts after both the 10AM and noon Masses… Later this parish community also supported the monthly breakfasts that became a staple of Knightly community-building. When the De Sales Night Dinner Dances restarted, then-Grand Knight Bill Mellette, a professional chef, organized a catering committee made up almost exclusively of Knights that provided tasty fare for many years at less than commercial prices.

          A proud moment for the Knights came when parishioner and Knight James Kettor asked for help reuniting his large family of eight children, left behind in Liberia. Then-Grand Knight Paul Harvey, helped by SFDS parishioners; Religious of the Assumption Sister Frances Joseph; and Sue Small from Villanova University… raised over $10,000 dollars in multiple fund raisers that brought the family together at a New York airport and drove them back to West Philadelphia. The Kettors remain members of the parish to this day even though they no longer reside within parish boundaries.

            Now, twenty five years after that 1990 initiation Deputy Grand Knight Paul Harvey and Financial Secretary Edmund Wells received their 25 year pins from the Knights of Peter Claver in November 2015 at the closing Mass of the 125th Anniversary of St Francis de Sales Parish.

Oysters and Altars


          Generations of altar servers have seen the “Pray for John  Cooney and Family” inscription engraved on the side of the main altar. A few have wondered what it meant!

          In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when oysters were a  “Nutritious, Inexpensive Luxury,” Irishman John Cooney was one of the largest oyster dealers in Philadelphia. Operating an oyster fishery on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay at Maurice River Cove, he sold his product at 116 Spruce Street. Business must have been good: he lived at 4814 Regent Street, but owned several properties downtown, and left legacies to Old St. Mary’s Church, as well as SFDS when he died in 1913.

          Cooney’s business made the news a few times through the decades. In 1889, his oyster schooner Annie Cooney capsized.  Two members of the crew,  thought to be drowned, were later found alive. (Cooney is quoted as saying “I am confident…that Whisky capsized my vessel…You can’t ship a sober crew nowadays….”). In 1890, “a teamster for John Cooney…fell overboard into dock 17…” Grappling irons were used to fish him out after seven minutes underwater. We are told that “after a marvelous experience on a barrel, over which the oysterman rolled him vigorously, the apparently dead man revived. When he did get his senses back he wanted to thrash the whole party of rescuers…” Cooney himself wasn’t perfect: in 1892, he attacked another dealer with an oyster knife in a brawl – we don’t know why or how that played out in court. In 1899, when  the temperature dropped to minus ten degrees Fahrenheit, his schooner Annie Cooney got stuck in the ice, and the abandoned boat became part of Philadelphia history, famously rescued by Philadelphia Ice Boat 3.

          What does all this have to do with our church today?

          Quite a lot! Our main altar was donated by John Cooney, which is why his name is engraved on its side. He requested our parish prayers in perpetuity, so he still figures frequently in the calendar of dedicated masses. And consider the symbolism: our Mary altar was donated by a female poet; the St. Joseph altar, by a family in the construction business; and our main altar, by a fisherman – and fisher of men. What could be more apt!



        November is the month for lavish Thanksgiving feasting. It’s also Diabetes Awareness Month. Design? Coincidence? Irony? And what does this have to do with our parish?

          Diabetes – named by the ancient Greeks in Biblical times — is a metabolic disorder in which the body fails to create insulin to properly process glucose, or blood sugar. It is a terrible – and increasingly prevalent — disease worldwide. Though it’s been around for centuries, it was a death sentence for many until recent times.

          The breakthrough came in 1920, when  Canadian Dr. Frederick Banting demonstrated that insulin extracted from a dog pancreas could control blood glucose levels. The first test of insulin on human patients began with a 14-year-old diabetic boy at the Toronto General Hospital in January 1922, and other trials continued that year. Not all of the test subjects were children – fortunately for our parish..

          Bishop Michael Crane, the Pastor who built our church in the early 1900s, had long suffered from diabetes and his condition was worrisome. The Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center (PAHRC) recently uncovered several letters from Cardinal Dougherty to the Archbishop of Toronto, begging him to see what could be done to get insulin for his Assistant Bishop. In late 1922, Bishop Crane was accepted into Banting’s programme as one of the “guinea pigs” for the early testing of insulin on humans.

          On November 18, 1922, Bishop Crane wrote to Cardinal Dougherty from the Toronto General Hospital, detailing his treatment. He noted that only small amounts of insulin could yet be created, so “they have only thirteen patients in the diabetic clinic…They give you a certain amount of food, some of which contains sugar to see what percentage goes into the blood. I got my first record today…The percentage of sugar in the urine was less than 2 percent. In August I had 6 percent. This I consider very encouraging…” (A curious subject for a letter to a Cardinal!).

          The following year, in 1923, Dr. Frederick Banting and Professor John MacLeod received the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discovery and refinement of insulin.

          Bishop Crane returned to our parish after his successful treatment and resumed his many duties. Curiously, our parish chronicles contain no mention of his absence! He died of pneumonia during a flu epidemic just a few years later,  on December 26, 1928, at age 65.

Talking Heads


        Isaiah, Micah, Zachariah, Malachi, David, and Jeremiah. If you had to pick your favorite Old-Testament characters, would these guys be on the list? So why do their faces appear at the tops of our stained glass windows?

        The answer lies in the Latin above their heads. Each one made a prophecy about the coming of Jesus, which relates loosely  to the scene in the window below.

        Starting from the left, above the Annunciation window on the St. Joseph side of the church, and using the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible that would have been prevalent at the time, Isaias (Isaiah 7:14) announces “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” The Adoration of the Shepherds window has Michaeas (Micah 5:2) quoting “And Thou, Bethlehem…out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler” while above the scene of life at Nazareth, Zacharaias (Zecharia 2:11-12) proclaims “Behold, I come and I will dwell in the midst of thee….in the sanctified land.”

        On the Mary side of the church, starting near the Vatican flag, above the scene of the Sermon on the Mount, Malachias (Malachi 3:1) says “I send my angel and he will prepare the way…Behold, he cometh.” As Jesus performs his healing ministry, David (Psalms 109) intones “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And finally, above the Agony in the Garden, Jeremias (Jeremiah 25:17) quotes “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord…”

        Many prophecies in the Old Testament relate to Jesus. The challenge for D’Ascenzo, Studios, creating the windows back in 1910, would have been to find six different quotes by six different people, which could be related to a series of specific scenes from the Life of Christ. Most of the quotes had to be shortened to fit in the space, and they remain in ceremonial Latin. Note that in one of the windows (see if you can find it!), a piece of a quote is upside down. This could be a simple error – or it could be part of a very old tradition, in which a deliberate mistake was introduced into a piece of art as an acknowledgement that God alone is perfect.

        We do live in an imperfect world. This Christmas season, let us all pray for light and peace!

Why a Church?


            Our church celebrated the Fifth Anniversary of the building’s dedication on Catholic University Day, November 12, 1916 . It was an auspicious date, since our then pastor, Monsignor Crane, was among the first graduates of newly established Catholic University in Washington, DC. The main celebrant was Right Reverend Thomas Shahan, Rector of the University. Reverend James T. Higgins of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, a classmate of Monsignor Crane, assisted.

        The sermon described our church construction: “Nine years ago last spring the first spadeful of earth was turned on the site of this magnificent building…month by month afterwards you watched the majestic structure rise, cradled by scaffolding, until the commanding dome was finished and the elaborate furnishing completed, and your church was ready for its dedication…” Today, “the sweet voices of the newly christened bells proclaim to the neighborhood that this is a day of joy for St. Francis de Sales Parish….” Dedicated in October, this was the first time the bells were rung.

          Addressing the building’s symbolism, the homilist noted that, atop the dome, “ its cross points heavenwards… to belief in God and hope in the world to come…” and  “pierces the clouds of doubt…which come between the soul and the Creator…” Doubt was strong in 1916: “The present is to a great extent the age of the merely natural. Man will believe only what he can see and science is so vastly increasing his vision that he has come to believe that there is no limit to his powers of penetration. The world of spirit, the world of faith, the supernatural, has to prove its reality before man will accept it…” using quantifiable scientific evidence from five senses.

          Our building outlines a sacred space, to be experienced with a different sense: “All the glories of Christian architecture owe their inspiration to a belief…that a church should be a worthy tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament…It is not an empty monument, but a place “within whose walls the Sacramental Christ is always dwelling;” a space to inspire, refresh, and lift us above the ordinary.

          The five-year anniversary of our building came in the darkness of World War I. A hundred years later, in this new century of unrest, we are still reconciling faith with reason, but science has begun to acknowledge that the more we learn about our universe, the more we realize that we don’t know. Our church is a refuge to reach for that which continues to be beyond our understanding.

Parish Night at the Byrd

C007 sfds 1933a



In 1933, for just one year in the middle of the Great Depression, De Sales Night at the Bellevue-Stratford was cancelled, and  Parish Night at the Byrd Theatre, at 47th and Baltimore, was substituted.

The “Somewhat different social evening than hithero enjoyed…in our parish events” included an organ recital on the theatre’s Gottfriedson organ, followed by Screen Entertainment: a short travel picture, followed by a humorous picture, and then, mysteriously,  “A somewhat different type of moving picture entertainment from that usually enjoyed in the average photo-playhouse.” A full-length feature film of truly amazing character. After Intermission, came a special greeting song, written by Father Canney and arranged by organist and choir master Albert Dooner; followed by other more traditional and religious organ, instrumental, and choral pieces; a solo dance; and  a short topical play called “The Photograph.”

          The event was wildly successful. The Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that: “The features of unusual entertainment…entirely captivated the interest and cooperation of our people. Although the evening was a blustery, teemingly rainful one, providing conditions such as old mariners would characterize as “dirty weather,” yet we taxed the capacity of a theatre which had never previously been filled. When the “De Sales Parish Night” began, we had hundreds standing and the S.R.O. (Standing Room Only) sign displayed at the box office. The Parish Bulletin also reported that The Parish Auditorium, where a promenade was held was filled to capacity.” In all, the event raised $3,112, which was almost $200 more than De Sales Night the previous year.

          De Sales Night returned to the Bellevue the following year.

          Things were never quite so bright again for the Byrd. The Byrd Theatre opened in 1928 with a capacity of 1,800 seats, but, according to the Glazer directory, had “trouble getting product” from the beginning, and, despite an acknowledgement from Admiral Byrd (the famous polar explorer), displayed in the lobby, it never was successful. In 1970, the property was sold to the Philadelphia department of Public Property, to be used as a parking lot (as it is still today); by that time, the theatre had already been closed for twelve years.