Month: January 2017

The Patron Saint of Journalists

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St. Francis de Sales (1940 Parish Silver Jubilee Anniversary Book).

Saint Francis de Sales died in France in 1622, but made the news just a few months before our Philadelphia church building was dedicated in 1911, and his message is strangely relevant today.

Our Patron Saint is used to working through turmoil. He was known in his lifetime for perilously hand-distributing his carefully-reasoned writings during the Protestant Reformation in the 1600s, when Catholicism was forbidden in France; and for  his patient efforts to reconcile deeply divided peoples.

His bones were hidden for protection in the 1790s, in the chaos of the French Revolution.

In 1905, when France became a secular state, with religion officially separated from government, its church properties were claimed by the bureaucracy. Our saint was newsworthy when his remains, along with those of St. Jane Chantal, had to be moved from the Church of the Visitation  “to the new convent which the Sisters have been obliged to erect in a different part of the town, the Government requiring the site of their former church and convent for public buildings.”

 The procession in Annecy on August 2, 1911, was an international event, both ceremonial and festive: “Two Cardinals and upwards of fifty Bishops and Archbishops from various countries, even from the far distant Argentine Republic and New Guinea, were present…” with many pilgrims. Celebrations were not without shadows, however: The Tablet International Catholic Weekly reported that

it was scarcely to be hoped that so religious a demonstration could be allowed to pass unnoticed by the Anticlerical party. The Superior of the Visitation and some of the town authorities had received anonymous letters threatening bombs during the procession, if it took place. After prayer and deliberation it was decided that no changes should be made in the programme, all trust being placed in the intercession of the two Saints with God. This confidence was not misplaced ; all went off without the least attempt at molestation.”

News writers at that time were proud to note that St. Francis de Sales was the “Patron Saint of Journalists” – named by Pope Pius IX during a turbulent period in the 1870s — and “the choice…was an apt one, for St. Francis was a man of letters.” In 1923, in an uncertain modern age with increasing  media communication capabilities, Pope Pius XI made an official declaration.

Our early parishioners might have been pleased to have such an enduring, inspirational and newsworthy patron saint. In today’s tumultuous “post-truth” age, our saint’s fortitude and journalistic intercession are more vital than ever!

 

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Byzantine Revival

Is our church modeled after Hagia Sophia, an ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey?

The claim has been repeated a number of times in recent years, but a look at the two buildings, side by side, does not show an extraordinary resemblance.

When Architect Henry Dagit wrote about our church under construction in 1908, he described his building as “Romanesque with Byzantine details.” That was also its representation in newspaper reports about the new church; in the 1911 Dedication booklet; and in the 1911 Short History of St. Francis de Sales Church. Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who commissioned our church, envisioned a building “in which the soul would be lifted up to exaltation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty; a church rich with storied windows...” with no mention of Istanbul or Constantinople.

Art historian Richard Stemp provides a clue to the mystery, when he discusses the fifth century innovation of Hagia Sophia: “so great was the impact of a central dome that almost all Eastern churches were modeled on it thereafter.” Hagia Sophia provided an early and famous example of a Byzantine dome — although Stemp reports that “the surviving works at Ravenna (5th and 6th century Italy) have become, by default, the best representations of the splendour of the Byzantine court.”

Byzantine influence spread from Constantinople across the Mediterranean. Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia,  suggests that our church actually  traces “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with rounded arches and vaults, rather than Gothic pointed arches and steeples. The Byzantine-style dome completed the thought.

Our 1911 church, honoring a French saint,  was probably inspired by that late 19th century European architectural movement, but Moss notes that our building is “more than a rare example of the Byzantine Revival style in Philadelphia. It is also one of our three landmark examples of Guastavino tile construction” with distinctive domes and vaults built using interlocking layers of terracotta tiles (The Penn Museum and Girard Bank — Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two local examples). Rafael Guastavino’s works are prized: Structural Engineer and Guastavino authority John Ochsendorf at MIT opines that the tile domes form “some of the most exceptional masonry structures in history.”

 

 

Baked Earth

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Some of the most decorative elements in our church are made of the humblest material. Look up at the sculpted details outlining the arches and walls, and around the windows. All of the colorful green and yellow decoration in our church is made of “terracotta,” which means “baked earth” clay.

In the early 1900s, terracotta was the fashionable material for the exterior decoration of metal skyscrapers. It was easy to mould; it was relatively lightweight; weatherproof; and, most importantly, having survived the heat of a kiln in its manufacture, it was considered fireproof.

The Atlantic Terracotta Company was formed in Perth Amboy New Jersey in the mid 1800s, and, for a time, was the biggest manufacturer of terracotta tile in the world. Headquartered later in Atlanta, it kept offices and manufacturing facilities in New Jersey, where the local clay, dug out of the ground,  was perfect for the tilework that would cover the steel skeletons of many of the important skyscrapers in New York City, as well as buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere — even Japan. Some notable structures that used Atlantic Terracotta included the Flat Iron Building and the Woolworth Building in New York; the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC; and, locally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Terracotta was popular, in part, because it could take any pattern or shape. Craftsmen made clay sculptures, from which were created plaster moulds. Clay slabs, pressed into the moulds, could then be removed, dried, decorated with glaze, and fired in a kiln. Finishes could look like clay or imitate marble, limestone, or granite. The green and yellow glazes were particularly popular.

Most terracotta was used on building exteriors, but an article in The Brickbuilder, in 1911, reported that:

“An interesting example of interior decoration is the St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, Henry D. Dagit, architect. The style is an adapted combination of the Byzantine and Romanesque. The colors are very brilliant but in the mellow light of the stained glass windows the tone is softened and the result restful.”

So, should you feel “restful” during the sermon, you may now blame the terracotta.

 

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