Month: August 2016

Door Number Three

sfds statue now (2)

As you enter the church vestibule through the recently-re-opened main doors, look to your right, and you’ll see a former interior doorway (note the transom window above it) transformed into a golden shrine to St. Francis de Sales – and, incidentally, to the spirit of Vatican II!

The statue appears to be the one donated to the parish by Timothy J. Wholey in 1920. For its first  forty-five years, it stood proudly in the sanctuary at the front of the church, beside the St. Joseph altar, overseeing countless richly choreographed solemn high masses.

By 1965, Vatican II and changing tastes dictated that venerable ornate churches were “fussy” and “old-fashioned.” Our parish celebrated its 75th Diamond Jubilee Anniversary that year with a modern streamlined blue-tiled-wall redecoration of the main part of the church (four years before the Venturi neon lights!). Parishes were also urged to “clear the clutter” in the sanctuary, so freestanding statues including our patron saint were banished.

Meanwhile, as rituals simplified, architectural usage adjusted. The Baptistry, the small room at the back of the church where baptismal ceremonies were held (today’s Adoration Chapel), was designed with three doors: an entrance from outdoors; a door from the vestibule; and a door leading into the main church. In old tradition, the first part of a baptism, which involved an exorcism, was supposed to take place outside the church, or symbolically in the church vestibule, before formal admittance into the Baptistry. When the ceremony changed, the vestibule door became superfluous.

The doorway space did turn out to be a convenient place to relocate the statue of St. Francis de Sales. Its modern shrine would also brighten the parish entrance and make it more welcoming. The family of Eugene F. White, a longtime parishioner who had died in 1962  (his family ran the J.J. White Funeral Home at 4700 and later 4701 Springfield), funded the construction as a memorial. Its trendy gold colored tiles and white marble base were slipped in with the other work, and casually mentioned in a single sentence in the Monthly Bulletin related to the Jubilee renovations.

Now, fifty years later, with the main doors of the church and vestibule re-opened after the latest phase of our 125th Anniversary restoration, we can welcome our patron saint’s statue out of  construction dust into another new chapter of our parish history!

Sacred Landscape

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DCIM101GOPRO

Driving from the airport, down 47th Street, you know you’re home when you can see the dome of St. Francis de Sales — but how often do you really think about what it means?

Our church’s colorful tile dome has been a notable architectural feature in our neighborhood since the early nineteen hundreds. One of a group of structures by Rafael Guastavino, renowned for his unique patented building technique, it adds a note of distinction to the skyline, linking us with iconic buildings such as the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Supreme Court building, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, among others. Our cross-topped dome is unique among them because it  is not hidden under an exterior roof: look up Rafael Guastavino on Wikipedia, and you’ll see a picture of our church.

Why is our church important? Architectural historian Jon Cannon notes that “in most cultures throughout history the greatest buildings have been religious ones,” and “the modern world owes much more than it realizes to the ancient architectures of faith.”  Churches are more than architectural achievements, though. Each building represents a unique cultural chronicle. It also contains the local story of  all the generations that have lived in the surrounding neighborhood.

Religious architecture has a  deeper significance, too. Canon notes that religious monuments around the world “help to further a relationship between man and the divine…” Art Historian Richard Stemp observes that “highly visible towers, steeples and domes”  serve to “remind the faithful not only where they should go to worship, but also that they should go to worship.” At our 1911 dedication ceremony, the homilist  described  our church as a “beacon to all who pass by in this troubled world.” These are many different ways of saying that sacred  buildings in the landscape inspire, connect, and center us.

What happens when the links are broken? When people in Christchurch, New Zealand, struggled to decide whether to rebuild the iconic Anglican cathedral in the middle of town after the 2011 earthquakes, their former Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Anderton remarked “I have seen what happens when you don’t look after heritage. You lose more than just buildings, you lose a city’s soul.” Imagine our skyline with a drugstore or shopping plaza or tall apartment block built on once sacred ground. Let’s not take it for granted!