Month: March 2017

A Saint for Healthcare

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Who is the saint who stands so patiently with his broom, near the Mary altar in our church?

No one seems to remember when his humble resin  statue arrived at our parish, or who was the donor. For many years, he stood on the St. Joseph side of the church, near the sacristy doorway, until he was moved to his present position by Father Hand.

Martin de Porres is an interesting saint! Born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, he lived during the same period as our patron Saint Francis de Sales – though in a very different location and circumstances. Francis de Sales was born to rich parents in France, and rejected the noble lifestyle. Martin de Porres’ father was a Spanish nobleman, but his mother was a freed Black slave from Panama – possibly with some Native American heritage – so his parents could not legally marry. His father abandoned the family and Martin grew up in poverty,  stigmatized as illegitimate and biracial.

At an early age, after two years of school, Martin apprenticed to a barber/surgeon to learn the practical trade of haircutting and medical bloodletting. He wanted to join a religious order, but discriminatory laws prohibited it. Eventually, he was allowed to volunteer as a servant to the Dominicans, where he worked tirelessly in the kitchen and laundry, as well as cutting hair and tending the sick in the infirmary.

Martin was a mystic contemplative vegetarian, who did menial tasks willingly and spent long hours in prayer. He became known for almsgiving and for his gentle and effective medical ministry, helping anyone in need, regardless of who they were. His medical skills were renowned and it was said he was able to mysteriously pass through walls to perform healing miracles in locked rooms. He also is known, like Francis of Assisi, as a friend of animals. A story is told that when the monastery was troubled with mice (or rats), Saint Martin refused to poison them; instead, he politely asked them to leave, which they did.

Because of his growing holy reputation, exceptions were made for his birth circumstances, and Martin was eventually allowed to become a Dominican lay brother and to spend the rest of his life working as a healer in the monastery.

Martin de Porres died in 1639. He was beatified in 1837, canonized on May 6, 1962, and his feast day is November 3. He is known today as the patron saint for people of mixed race, as well as for barbers, innkeepers, and healthcare workers.

 

A Tale of Two Parishes

It’s tempting to think that while our “Romanesque Church with Byzantine Details” was under construction between 1907 and 1911, architect Henry Dagit and contractors spent all their time busy on our site, planning and supervising, and obsessing over every magnificent detail.

Not true! And it turns out that de Sales and Most Blessed Sacrament have been connected longer than anyone may have realized.  While the designs for our church were still on his table, Architect Henry Dagit was also drawing plans for the combination school and chapel that would become Most Blessed Sacrament’s first permanent stone building (today Independence Charter School West at 5600 Chester), with Melody and Keating as the main contractor for both projects.

mbs mary knowlesGroundbreaking for our church was June 16, 1907, with Bishop Prendergast officiating. The smaller MBS chapel/school broke ground two weeks later on June 30  in a simpler ceremony, with the first sods cut by MBS Pastor Reverend McGinnis; two other priests; and a baby parishioner named Mary Katherine Knowles.

Construction preparations continued afterwards  at both sites. Bishop Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the MBS chapel/school building on September 15, 1907, in a ceremony described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Interesting;” he then  laid the cornerstone for St. Francis de Sales Church  a few weeks later on October 6,  in an “Impressive” ceremony with multiple bishops and dignitaries.

A relatively small project, the finished MBS school/chapel building was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan in September, 1908, in time for the start of the school year. Parish records say that the Protectory Band, the Paschalville Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Elmwood Band all played at the celebration.

SFDS church was finished and dedicated in elaborate ceremonies on November 11 and 12, 1911. Archbishop Prendergast presided at the Solemn High Mass on November 12 (having succeeded Archbishop Ryan in May of that year), with a number of priests assisting. Reverend Higgins, Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, acted as Deacon.

Meanwhile, the Guastavino firm, which designed and built our dome,  moved on to another local (secular) project, crafting the Harrison Rotunda at the Penn Museum, completed in 1915.

Most Blessed Sacrament School would grow to become  “the largest parochial school in the world” by the 1950s but closed in 2002 when attendance tapered. MBS Church, by architect Charles Willis Gilmore, was  built in 1922 and closed in 2007. Its standalone altar was moved to SFDS when the two parishes became one.

MBS aerial view
MBS historic aerial view