Month: October 2017

The Art of the Kneel

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Who are these four people and what has brought them to their knees in the middle window on the St. Mary side of St. Francis de Sales Church?

Crafted around 1910, the long stained glass windows at the back of the church were one of Philadelphia stained glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions. Episodes from the life of St. Francis de Sales in the lower part of each window, were carefully synchronized to the life of Christ above them, and with an Old Testament prophecy at the top. But only a few of the Jesus windows have captions so we have to use other clues to find their meanings.

david (3)The prophecy above the middle window, from the psalms of David, translates: “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And the bottom part of the window shows St. Francis de Sales establishing the cloistered Sisters of the Visitation: “giving  St. Jeanne de Chantal and her first two companions the rules of visitation” (D’Ascenzo conveniently copyrighted that design with its description). The associated Jesus scene should, therefore, relate to religious life.

The four kneeling figures in the Jesus window have halos, so they are saints — and they are men, so probably apostles — and the picture represents a significant event between the Sermon on the Mount and the Agony in the garden. Why do they kneel? Wikipedia helpfully observes that  “Kneeling, similar to bowing, is associated with reverence,  submission and  obeisance, particularly if one kneels before a person who is standing or sitting: the kneeling position renders a person defenseless and unable to flee. For this reason, in some religions, in particular by  Christians and Muslims, kneeling is used as a position for prayer.

When Jesus lays his hand on the head of one of the respectful  men — like a monarch bestowing a knighthood – the meaning becomes clear: he is saying “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church….” (Mt 16:18)

The early 1900s, when our church was built, were troubled times of local religious intolerance and rising European hostility to Pope Pius X – part of the simmering global unrest that led up to World War I. Our window reassured parishioners of their faith’s deep roots and enduring history. Further, it offered a social example. The 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, current when our church was built,  suggested that kneeling and standing were both acceptable prayer postures, but the ancient gesture of bending the knee had a more profound significance as an expression of reverence, humility, and trust.

 

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The Lady and the Lamp

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Photo: Women’s Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
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SFDS Sanctuary Lamp

Some of our original Saint Francis de Sales building contributors have been forgotten because the items they donated are no longer part of our church. But their presence on the Donor Plaque by the 47th Street door should remind us of their part in our story.

Such is the case with Miss Laura Blackburne, who donated a massive hanging cross-shaped sanctuary lamp – supposed to be a “reproduction” of one at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy – that was a prominent feature of our Sanctuary until the 1950s.

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The Gothic Mansion, 12th and Chestnut

The lamp was given to honor Miss Blackburne’s mother, Ann Eliza Priestman Blackburne, who was buried at The Woodlands (Section L185), from Saint James, our “parent church,”  in 1909.All we know of the mother is from an archived letter describing her youthful education at the Young Ladies’ French and English Academy located  briefly in the Gothic Mansion on Chestnut St. above 12th (which later housed the St. John’s Orphan Asylum associated with Saint John the Evangelist Church). There, from 1831 to 1833, she learned regular academic subjects, as well as Astronomy, music, needlework, and art taught by the French Dames de la Retraite.

Daughter Laura lived with her mother at 3808 Walnut, inherited a small fortune from a relative, and engaged in a number of organizations. She was on the board of the American Catholic Historical Society, and worked on fundraisers for St. Vincent’s home – a boys’ orphanage at 70th and Woodland. In 1897, she co-sponsored a very successful Cake Sale fundraiser for the Women’s Suffrage (right to vote) Society.

As a board member for the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (today’s Women’s Humane Society), Miss Blackburne seemed especially interested in horses – still the primary form of transportation. In 1909, she was on a committee planning construction of a clinic at 315 Chadwick Street, near Rittenhouse,  “equipped with the most up-to-date appliances  for the treatment of horses.” The dispensary would be “fitted up and conducted along the lines of dispensaries in London and Florence.” During World War I, she became a member of the Red Star, a sub-group of the WSPCA funding care for the sick and wounded among the “half a million horses and mules” used by the American army in Europe to transport “food, supplies, guns, and ammunition;” as well as for the many “war dogs” used to “search for wounded soldiers, carry messages, and keep vermin from the trenches.”

Today, the Women’s Humane Society continues its commitment to humane and compassionate treatment of animals, and it’s nice to discover our connections!

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Photo: Women’s Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Stuccoed Stars

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St. Francis de Sales 1954

The side walls of Saint Francis de Sales church might seem restfully plain when the rest of the church is ornate, but it’s deceptive! Parish history is thickly layered beneath the surface.

When our church was built, the side walls showed the same bricks that you see today on the walls of the Sanctuary. Early pictures reveal mosaic medallions — a star in an eternal circle, and a Trinity triangle  — decorating each of the six arches. Eight-pointed Nativity stars adorned the middle arches; and the side arches appear to have featured six-pointed stars representing the six days of creation and the House of David — earthly lineage of Jesus.

In the 1920s, each triangle had a large round lightbulb at its centre, and a row of  lightbulbs lined each arch. That changed in 1940, when Bishop Lamb replaced the exuberant celebration of electricity with more elegant and “practical” metal sconces, fastened to cross-shaped brackets in the mosaic triangles, their shaded lamps dangling from metal chains.

The church decor was slightly altered in the 1950s by Bishop McShea, then heavily renovated for the Parish 1965 Diamond Anniversary under Monsignor Sefton. A story says that Monsignor Sefton came home from a trip to Europe, inspired by the cool blue lighting of Mediterranean churches, and wished to replicate the effect with blue walls. His chosen shade of tile was very fashionable in the 1960s and prevailing tastes were for streamlined modern decor. Diocesan-approved changes at that time included new pews; new flooring; and an electrical update to remove wall lamps (leaving wall holes?) and replace ceiling lamps with chandeliers. Unapproved tile walls quietly slid in, with two casual notations: “The price listed for the terrazzo floor also includes setting tile in six arches of the church” and “Belfi Brothers. This amount also includes setting tile in 6 arches of church.”

Skip forward to the 1990s, when the “blue bathroom tiles” began to fall off the walls, revealing the patchy tile-prepped surface underneath. Father Janton remarked that the bald patch looked like the African  continent drawn on an ancient map. When  it expanded to resemble Pangaea, it was time to do something. The mustard-coloured resurfacing was a simple, attractive solution (look above the sacristy doorway for the remaining blue tiles)

The walls of our church are layered with stories. Symbols changed their meaning over time. Technologies advanced. A richly ceremonial era gave way to the sleek modernism of the 1960s and early Vatican II. Hard times improved. And today we should find meaning in graceful continuity.