Month: October 2016

Guastavino Dome

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What do the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and SFDS all have in common?

Each one has a Guastavino tile Dome or vault as part of its architecture.

When you look up at the herringbone pattern in our dome, consider that Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, the founder of the R. Guastavino Company, started out working as a tailor, in the family business in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps the work of fastening fabric and linings smoothly together gave him a special affinity for knitting together the tile constructions that would one day become his life’s work!

At age 19, when he was already married. with two children, Guastavino went to Barcelona to study architecture. Seeking a better life for his family, he then moved to America in 1881, settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, and opened a construction business. There, he improved and patented a traditional Catalan technique for using interlocking tiles and thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without requiring expensive temporary interior framework and bracing. This construction method was not well known in America, and his business prospered.

Today, Guastavino’s tiles can be found on more than 600 buildings in 36 states. Our 90-foot high, 62-foot diameter dome is unique among them because it has no copper or other roofing above it. The distinctive appearance of the coloured dome has made it an  icon in our neighbourhood – with some of the same issues as other architectural icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s too-aptly named Fallingwater. It turns out that a construction method designed for use in sunny Spain is vulnerable when exposed to our region’s freeze and thaw winters.

The Guastavino firm was consulted about leaks in the 1920s and again in 1938. In the 1950s, the dome was topped with a layer of concrete and shiny ceramic “subway tiles” which held up for fifty years; today, the heavy, deteriorated tiles are gone, and the concrete shell is sealed and painted (and scheduled soon to be re-painted under warranty!) to match the original tile pattern – without the water-seeping gaps – for the next century.

God in the Details

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Our distinctive church is not an assembly line “cut out with a cookie cutter” structure (and hopefully, its marble ashlar-cut stones are more durable than cookie dough).

Perhaps we might think more often about its uniqueness. A filler article in a 1955 Parish Monthly Bulletin, at a time when new suburban churches were popping up across the country, offered some insight about church design from

a Polish friend who led the liturgical art underground classes while the Germans held his country…(He) told me that the American churches were built, the niches filled and the doors opened in the same manner as a grocer stocks his shelves. He explained that in Europe the people waited patiently until they got the money together and found just the right statue, or had it specially carved for every niche in their churches. So it took a century or two or three. Did that matter if the finished product was truly breathtakingly beautiful, a reflection of heaven?”

By those standards, our intricately-designed Byzantine Romanesque church was built too quickly, in just four years from 1907 to 1911. However, very little of our church was purchased “off the shelf” or mass-produced. Instead, every aspect was thoughtfully designed and hand crafted. The artwork is filled with symbolism and meaning, and bears the hand marks of individual artists, working with skill and inspiration – with an occasional upside-down stained glass inscription or improvised piece of flashing to remind us of human imperfections.

Your parish historians are slowly uncovering the stories of those artisans. Henry Dagit, the architect, was a parishioner. Adolfo de Nesti, an Italian immigrant who studied in Florence, carved many of the sculptures (a persistent rumour says that he used members of the Dagit family as models!). Our Altarpiece mosaic was designed by Frederick Henwood, an Englishman and local artist who converted to Catholicism shortly after working on our church. The windows, by celebrated Philadelphia stained glass artisan Nicholas D’Ascenzo, were one of his first big commissions. And our dome, crafted by Rafael Guastavino’s renowned firm, is considered an exemplar of his work.

What is the purpose of art? In a church, it should evoke awe and contribute to a sense of mystery. It should make us feel connected and feed our souls. All are encouraged to enjoy the rich visual feast, because, ultimately, the artistry becomes a “reflection of heaven” only as it inspires those who sit in the pews.

Baptism of the Bells

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Ring out the Birthday song! One hundred years ago, on October 22, 1916, our brand-new church bells were blessed in a special ceremony before installation in our bell tower.

The Catholic Standard reported:

For the ceremony of the “baptism,” they were arranged along the left side of the church, where they rested on temporary trestles which were covered with Autumn leaves and chrysanthemums. The Services began at 3:30 o’clock with a procession from the sacristy to the main entrance of the church on Springfield Avenue and down the middle aisle to the altar. The Rev. William J. Casey, of the Church of the Ascension, was cross-bearer. He was followed by the acolytes, the sponsors of the bells, the clergy, prelates, the officers of the ceremonies, and the Right Reverend Bishop McCort.

Each bell had a parishioner acting as its “sponsor;” with church architect Henry D. Dagit  among the eleven. The bells were named after the following saints: Adolph, Michael, Elizabeth, Anthony, Cecilia, Theresa, Edmund, John, Thomas, Maurice, and Gervase. After each bell was blessed, it was rung by Reverend Maurice Cowl, Assistant to Pastor Monsignor Crane. The chime rang out from the tower for the first time a month later, at the Fifth Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church.

An article in the 1925 Parish Bulletin described a traditional bell blessing ritual, which, it reported, dates back to the tenth century:

The bell is washed with holy water (whence people speak of the baptism of a bell); it is signed with holy oils, and the thurible with fuming incense is held beneath it….The washing of the bell inside and out signifies the purity of life and the soundness of doctrine which should be found in both priest and people…The sign of the cross is made seven times, to represent the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, and also the seven Sacraments of Christ; and again four times to signify the four quarters of the universe…the burning perfumes indicate the prayers of the faithful…

After Psalms, Sermon, and  Gospel, a closing prayer asks that

the ringing of the now consecrated bells may summon the faithful to prayer, may excite their devotion, may disperse the storm clouds and drive away the dangers of the air, may terrify evil spirits, and may assure us health and happiness and peace.

Those sound like good prayer requests. Let’s hope that blessing still works!