Month: June 2016

A White House Invitation

white house

Long ago, in a pre-9/11 world, our parish choir treasured a thank you letter from the White House in Washington DC.

In December 1998 and again in 1999, SFDS Parish Chorale represented the Great State of Pennsylvania, singing a short medley of traditional carols one evening to White House visitors. Each state sent a diverse musical delegation, for a total of over 2,600 performers through the holiday season. Other Pennsylvania groups included Renaissance of Dover; LanChester Chorus of Christiana; The Eric Mintel Quartet of Morrisville; and the Rankin Junior Tambouritzens of Pittsburgh.

When our choir arrived on a chartered bus, they were ushered into “A Winter Wonderland” — announced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the 1998 theme for the all-American holiday festivities. According to documents in The Clinton Library,  the Blue Room tree that year featured snowman ornaments “designed by artists, recommended by the governors’ spouses in each of the fifty states.” Members of  The Knitting Guild of America, from across the country, contributed little mittens and hats; and the Society of Decorative Painters crafted wooden decorations related to winter sports. An elaborate gingerbread house in the State Dining Room weighed over 150 pounds, and  featured miniature versions of the Clintons’ cat Socks and dog Buddy frolicking in an intricate (and edible) snowy landscape.

The East Room, where our choir sang, was “ transformed into an enchanted glittering wonderland…decorated with eighteen soaring conical trees…” The press department noted that “The traditional White House creche,” or Nativity scene, which formed “the focal point of the East Room, was made in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century. It features 47 carved wood and terra cotta figures. The creche…has been displayed each year at the White House since it was presented in 1967” (a tradition which continues today). A hand-crafted menorah was displayed in the West Wing.

Times were very different then. Security seemed minimal: choir members just submitted social security numbers ahead of time, brought identification, and observed the expected protocols. Fran Byers does remember a heavy presence of the Secret Service at one of the concerts – bringing their spouses and children, for their departmental family holiday gathering!

There’s a pleasant nostalgia in thinking about snowmen and Christmas carols in the heat of the summer, and recalling a more optimistic time. This year, Philadelphia hosts a political convention, and, hopefully, we can be as welcoming.

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On Eagle’s Wings

De Sales Photos Binder 06 030 (2)On the Mary side of the church, halfway up the wall, an eagle sculpture forms part of the design of a pulpit, once used to proclaim the Gospel and deliver the sermon. The book rested on the back of the eagle’s wings  – a familiar pulpit motif, because it is the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, whose Gospel opens, appropriately,  “In the beginning was the Word…”

The eagle might have been important for other reasons to the long-ago donors of the pulpit –- R. Conrad Schwoerer and family — who lived at 4712 Windsor Avenue. As our national bird, it signified American patriotism.  Richard Conrad Schwoerer  was a proud Civil War veteran of Company B of the 51st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. The eagle also symbolized strength and power. The Schwoerers, father and son, were bankers, occupying positions of trust and authority on the board of the Central Trust Company in Camden. The father died in 1910, shortly before our church was finished, so the donation became a fitting memorial.

Why did the architect include a pulpit high in the wall? Jesus preached an important sermon on a mountain, where he could be more easily seen and heard. In days before microphones and loudspeakers, the high pulpit was symbolic and served a similar purpose, lifting the celebrant above the congregation to increase his visibility. The wooden tester, or sounding board, that formed the roof of the pulpit was intended to reflect the celebrant’s voice out to the congregation.

When the Mass was simplified after Vatican II, the pageantry associated with the high pulpit was eliminated, and sanctuary furnishings were streamlined worldwide. Our pulpit survived because it is a part of the architecture, but it was not used for many years. Today, the high pulpit is used on special occasions, as when the Nativity Proclamation is read just before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In the glittering light, the litany of Jesus’ lineage, proclaimed from the high pulpit, reminds us of the past and connects us with all of the faithful down through the ages – from ancient times, through more than 125 years of our own parish history, to the families in the pews today. And the eagle still reminds us that before everything, “In the beginning was the word…”