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!