Month: July 2017

Seeing and Believing

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Saint Thomas the Apostle was labeled “The Doubter” because he needed to see proof of the resurrection in order to believe. But his focus on visual  confirmation might have been a natural result of his professional training, with some modern implications.

The Builder’s Square (near the 47th street door) is an especially appropriate symbol for Thomas, because square encompasses multiple meanings: it can be a geometric shape, or a tool used  to measure and lay out right angles. As a figure of speech, it relates to certainty, as in a sample sentence from Thesaurus.com: “do those announcements really square with the facts?”

Ironically, we have few dependable facts about Thomas, who is thought to have been a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan (and who may have been Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany).  Encyclopaedia Iranica reports an ancient tale that “The apostle was entrusted with funds for building a palace, but spent them on relief of the poor. When called to account, he declared he had built the king a palace in heaven…”  (this is a slightly different version from our 1940 Anniversary Book, which claims Thomas built the palace then donated his own construction profits to the poor). Tradition says Thomas went afterwards to India, where he is  “commemorated as a founder of the South Indian Christian community, and a church is named in his honor.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually built a palace for the glory of King Gondophares: his story is from an early manuscript in the Apocrypha not considered reliable enough to become part of the Bible. But its lesson – that a heavenly palace built of good deeds is superior to an ostentatious display of personal wealth – is very apostolic. The location of Thomas’ emblem next to the donor plaque in our church is also interesting: is it there because he is the Patron Saint of Architects and Builders or is it a  subtle reminder to early wealthy parishioners that they should also work on their spiritual palaces?

Thomas, emphasizing visual symbols, is an important saint for those who build and maintain religious structures. Large buildings commemorate what is valued in a society and modern landmarks tend to be commercial.  But each church in the landscape provides a needed visual reminder of God’s presence to all who pass by — a reason to keep ours in good order!

 

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Acanthus

DSCN4297 (2)Looking at all the leaves carved on columns and tucked into the arches in our church, you might wonder “why the kale obsession?”

What you see is not, however, an historic tribute to a now-trendy vegetable. Instead, the leaves are acanthus – a frilly, thorny Mediterranean plant with a long architectural and symbolic history.

When did acanthus first appear in architecture? Some suggest that the form evolved from palm designs used in ancient Egypt in the time of the pyramids. A charming legend tells a different story of an ancient Greek sculptor who, fascinated by the sight of acanthus weeds growing through a basket on a gravesite, was inspired to recreate their shapes on Corinthian columns.

Whatever the origin, the leafy border was a common feature of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. From there, it traveled to the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to be used in Byzantine design from the 600s AD. At that point, the leaves became artistic forms, combined in complicated scrolls and garlands. These patterns were further adapted in Medieval Romanesque architecture, then became popular again in Late Victorian decoration. So the acanthus leaves in our 1911 Byzantine-Romanesque church have long design roots!

Symbolically, acanthus represents eternal life. Because of its thorny leaves, it also references the loss of Eden in Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field…”

When our church was built in the early 1900s, the Garden of Eden reference was accidentally relevant: new houses in the neighbourhood were being built over surrounding country fields, while flowers and leaves were remembered for us in sculptured clay and stone. (Many of those new houses, incidentally, were decorated with stylish acanthus “gingerbread”!)

At that time, and up until Vatican II simplified the church calendar, the church was more connected with the natural world, decorating with seasonal flowers and celebrating Ember Days of fasting and prayer four times a year to mark the changing seasons. Their purpose, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia,  was to “ thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.” In an increasingly technologized age, perhaps stopping to notice our acanthus “kale” can help us to reconnect!

Fireworks

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Here’s a long-ago neighbourhood tale for the holiday weekend.

Did you know that our church had an important connection with the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel before our annual  De Sales Night event existed?

Jean Baptiste Revelli, from France, was an early “pew holder” (parishioner who rented a specific seat) in our parish. Known simply as “Baptiste,” he was also the Assistant Manager and Maitre d’Hotel at the Bellevue from its earliest days.

When the Bellevue Hotel became the Bellevue-Stratford in 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a fulsome article, reassuring everyone that: “Baptiste Revelli will still be manager of all the large dinners and look after the menu. ‘Baptiste’ is a personal friend of every society man, woman, and child in the city…In addition to knowing the men and women of prominence here, Baptiste is a walking social register of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities and he is familiar with most of the titled persons of Europe who visit America or have social connections here. He has the reputation of knowing more of what is needed to make a private dinner or public banquet pass off successfully than any man in America, and his ideas as regards table decorations have won him worldwide fame.

Baptiste was married in our parish in August, 1910 – around the time that he donated one of the tall stained glass windows to the ongoing church construction. His bride, Miss Catherine Hayes, was his second wife; his first wife had died thirteen years previously. They lived at 4609 Cedar Avenue.

Sadly, being a star did not protect against flying stars. On July 8, 1926, the Reading Times reported that “Jean Baptiste Revelli came to Philadelphia in the Centennial year of American Independence and met death at an event commemorating the Sesquicentennial Anniversary…when an aerial bomb (rocket) struck him in the chest at the close of a fireworks display in Clark Park.”

Aged 75, the “genial white-haired” Baptiste  had retired from the Bellevue just a year before. In his time, he had “waited on kings and presidents… from President Arthur to President Wilson, General Pershing, King Albert and Queen Elizabeth, of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, Lloyd George and Clemenceau.” He was buried from our church.