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!