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…”

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