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.

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