Two monuments at The Woodlands cemetery and two long-ago love stories offer family insights about the architect of our church.
In 1838, a rustic young Frenchwoman named Esther Poquet set sail for America as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Esther was not, perhaps, a model employee: upon reaching New York, she fell in love with a young French adventurer and cook named (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand, left service, and the two were soon married. They moved to Baltimore, and, eventually, to Philadelphia. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street called Cafe Tortoni, described by one newspaper reporter as “The best eating-house in Philadelphia…much frequented by editors, authors and the better class of men about town” and known for its excellent wine cellar. When Alexandre died in 1849, his wife Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise.
What does any of this have to do with our church?
The Dandurands’ daughter Josephine fell in love with the family’s German tenant, Charles (Karl) Dagit, who lived above the restaurant in the 1850s. Josephine’s very French mother did not approve of this French-German alliance, but the couple refused to be discouraged. They courted for several years, until they were finally allowed to marry in 1858. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit.
In the 1840s, when The Woodlands (former estate of William Hamilton, from a different Hamilton family) opened as a cemetery at 40th and Woodland Ave., it was promoted as “the most beautiful rural cemetery in the United States.” Henry Dagit’s grandmother Esther must have been impressed, since she chose the location for her husband’s 1849 burial (Section G 332-334). When her daughter — Henry’s mother Josephine — had to bury her three-year-old baby in 1882, she chose a spot at Woodlands not far from her own parents (Section I 555-557), and where she and her husband would both later be buried.
Perhaps visits to Woodlands through the years alerted Henry Dagit to the growing neighbourhoods on this side of the river, so that in 1904 he built a house at 4527 Pine Street for his own young family — and, a few years later, he embarked on the construction of our church. And perhaps his European family background gave Henry Dagit a particular affinity for the French and Swiss heritage of our patron saint – and inspired the many French and German artistic references in our church.