Month: July 2016

Atlantis Lore and Civil War


How is SFDS parish connected with the lost city of Atlantis?

Admittedly a tenuous link, it comes to us through Eleanor C. Donnelly, the donor of our Blessed Mother altar, who was born in Philadelphia in 1838. The sixth child in a large literary family, she credited her brother Ignatius with teaching her to write verse when she was age nine, and she published her first book during the American Civil War.

By the early 1900s, Eleanor was “The Poet Laureate of the Catholic Church” in America and her religious poems were read at many public events. Her published works comprised “almost fifty volumes” of short stories, poems, and  biographies – including a biography of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace, head nurse of the local  Civil War Satterlee Hospital (its location marked by the Gettysburg stone in Clark Park), filled with interesting details of hospital life. Another poetry volume, Lyrics and Legends of Ancient Youth , published in 1906, is notable as all proceeds from its sale went to “the building fund of the new church of St. Francis de Sales, Forty seventh street, West Philadelphia, of which the Rev. M.J. Crane is the Rector.”

Eleanor was a prolific letter writer: the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center (PAHRC) archives and the Minnesota Historical Society contain many letters to and from prominent people, including correspondence with her favorite big brother Ignatius. This is where the Atlantean connection comes in: a Minnesota congressman and Lieutenant Governor, Ignatius Donnelly is better remembered today for supporting the theory that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and for his book  Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, which remains a seminal cult classic of Atlantis lore.

Eleanor’s life had its share of shadows. She never married and never quite fulfilled her dream of religious life, which proved “too taxing.” Our Mary altar is poignantly engraved with a memorial to her parents and brothers and sisters. Her parents died young. Her brother Ignatius passed away suddenly in 1901. Two of Eleanor’s sisters and a niece died within days of each other  in 1909, and other relatives perished soon after.

Eleanor lived at 4502 Springfield Avenue, according to Who’s Who in America 1908-1909. She and her last remaining sibling retired from there to live with the IHM Sisters at Villa Maria convent in West Chester, where Eleanor wrote a dedication poem for our church in 1911. She was buried from the Cathedral with great ceremony, in 1917.


Family Crosses

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The design of our church interior  includes multiple symbols of the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like most Catholic churches, it also includes a representation of another important trinity in the Sanctuary: the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. But our church has an interesting symbolic variation.

When Jesus was crucified on the hill at Golgotha, he was not alone: two other people shared his fate on crosses beside him.

Like Golgotha, our church features three crosses in the sanctuary — but  here, their placement has a different meaning. The central image in our sanctuary is a magnificent glass mosaic of the crucified Christ. The other two crosses are simple marble outlines behind his earthly parents — the statues of Mary and Joseph.

Think about the symbolism. Mary and Joseph each stand, prayerfully, in the shadow of a cross. Very humanly, they both had crosses to bear. Joseph, as an elderly parent in an unsettled age, had to fend for his family in an era without Social Security or other safety nets. Frustratingly, perhaps, his son Jesus was not destined to be his helper and carry on the family business. Youthful Mary may have felt isolated and apprehensive – especially in a dangerous pregnancy. Giving birth in a stable and then fleeing as a refugee, her special child was a great and lonely responsibility. She experienced widowhood that left her a single parent, and then she witnessed the death of her son.

The symbolism of family crosses might have been especially meaningful to our original congregation. Our church was finished in 1911 – just when electricity, radio communication, and  the automobile were rapidly changing the world; but medicine was primitive, with few vaccines and no antibiotics, so mortality  was a constant theme. The nation still remembered the terrible upheaval of the Civil War: several parishioners were veterans. Others were immigrants from abroad, seeking to escape famine and a  roiling global unrest that would erupt in 1914 as the first “War to End All Wars.”  The three crosses in our sanctuary quietly reminded parishioners that life could be tumultuous for even the most blessed of households. The Holy Family’s steadfastness is built into the fabric of our church.


Story of a Menu

sfds garden court

A card fluttered out of a book at the rectory and into a different century.

Its color was pale green, and its lettering,  gothic and ceremonial: a formal invitation from an age of suits and hats. It was addressed to the Ushers, Choir Members, and Aids (all male), from the Clergy of the Parish, inviting them to an annual Appreciation Dinner on January 25, 1926.

The event would be held at the newly-built Garden Court Apartments at 47th and Pine. A shield at the top of the invitation may have represented Clarence Siegel, the developer, anxious to promote  his luxurious new construction. The Garden Court Restaurant was advertised in the Parish Monthly Calendar as West Philadelphia’s smartest restaurant.

First on the menu was a Salt Oyster Cocktail. Sources suggest this was a precursor of the Bloody Mary: a beverage made with tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, and salt – with an oyster stirred in, instead of alcohol, as Prohibition was in force in 1926. The appetizer was celery, the status vegetable of the day, forced in a greenhouse and served in a special vase at the table. After Oxtail Soup, entrees were Sea Bass and Chicken. Dessert was  Peach Melba, consisting of vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry sauce and a peach. This special occasion dish was created in 1895 by celebrity chef Escoffier for renowned singer Nellie Melba. Due to primitive refrigeration, ice cream tended to be a winter treat, and peaches, a luxury.

After the meal, the menu lists cigars and cigarettes. Picture the room wreathed in smoke, as the men discussed news of the day over coffee: Dame Nellie Melba’s recently published autobiography (parishioner Baptiste knew her!); Irish Independence; the upcoming Sesquicentennial Exposition downtown; and the construction of the Delaware River (today the Benjamin Franklin) Bridge to New Jersey. Silent comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and the new Chrysler Automobiles probably inspired a comment or two. Business would include De Sales Night planning and a report on construction of the new school wing. Nobody knew that the Great Depression was just ahead.

One document, one time machine! What will future parishioners discover about us?





What does our church have in common with silent films?

“High-Tech” is not an adjective that immediately comes to mind to describe our church, but it was when it was built in 1911.

Electricity was a hot topic at that time: a history of PECO notes that “Of Philadelphia’s 850 churches, five hundred were customers of Philadelphia Electric in 1912.” The new technology was promoted as an enhancement to sacred spaces: a typical article in a 1913 issue of The Lighting Journal observed that “it is the aim of the engineer to bring out the sublimity of the altar and cause the emotion of the worshipper to feel those lofty conceptions and reverence for this holy place...”

Our church was built for electricity. A 1922 interior photo shows rows of light bulbs lining the arches on the side walls, on the columns,  around windows, and above the doors and confessionals. The sockets are embedded in the terracotta tiles. Original lighting also included electric sconces below the round windows on the side walls, and two electroliers, or round metal stands of electric candles, in the sanctuary.

So who designed the original lighting system?

A recently-discovered ad for Edward L. Simons, Mechanical and Electrical Engineer and Contractor, operating out of Lansdowne, PA, references his work for our parish — along with St. Philomena of Lansdowne, Immaculate Conception and Visitation in Philadelphia, and others — but we don’t know if he worked on our original chapel/school (today’s auditorium) or the church.

We do know that church work provided a natural career progression for Simons, who is better-remembered today as a pioneer in dramatic set lighting for movies at Sigmund Lubin’s Lubinville (20th and Indiana)  and Betzwood (near Valley Forge) silent film studios around 1911. Initially, films were made outdoors using hand-cranked cameras on location around Philadelphia and on the studio rooftop downtown. When Lubin wanted to continue filming in bad weather, Simons re-created the sun indoors for him at Betzwood with a massive  rig of “112  four-foot mercury vapor tubes and 20 aristo arc lights.”  It was noted that  “the heat produced by the 144,000 candle-power lights bordered on the lethal,” and “on occasion those who remained close to the lights for too long suffered blisters on their eyeballs.”

The lights in our church, calibrated for quiet meditation, have never been quite so bright – even in the brief neon period in 1969 — something for which we didn’t know we needed  to be thankful!