Month: December 2017

Eyes on the Skies

DSCN4599 (2)Look up and you never know what you might find — like this artwork near the roofline on the Farragut Terrace side of Saint Francis de Sales School!

The January 1927 St. Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin explained its symbolism when the building addition (by Henry Dagit’s firm) was newly-constructed:

Image (82)“The cross…is the sign of our faith, and it is used on all Catholic Churches and Buildings…”

“The two large carved limestone panels on the front facade of the School are emblematic of the spirit of the School. The panel on the south side represents Saint Francis de Sales, the teacher, teaching the boys the arts and sciences as the foundation of learning. It also illustrates the life and virtue of the patron Saint of the Parish, Saint Francis de Sales. The panel on the north side…represents the modern nun, the symbol of virtue, the guide and foundation of our schools, teaching the girls the arts of domestic science and training. The girl holding the vase represents the perpetual truths of the faith.”

OK, perhaps that reads as a little sexist nowadays, though the basic message of sound academics and Catholic values still stands.

DSCN4585“The carved limestone symbols at the top of the buttresses are emblematic of Knowledge, Astronomy, and Science, signifying the use and purpose of the building. The shield…(with) the open book and the torch represents the symbol of Knowledge. The Torch of Learning must be used to give light in order to (access) the knowledge in the book, and also to give light to our understanding.”

DSCN4581 (3)“The lined sphere with the zodiac…resting on the books, and the instruments about it, represent the study of Astronomy, and the study of the Universe and Geography.”

school emblemThe Lamp of Science, with the sun in back of it, represents the light given…upon all subjects by the study of the sciences. The lamp, resting upon the books, signifies the attempt to equal the light of the sun by the study of the sciences.

Why so much science? People were excited about new discoveries in the 1920s. Study of the heavens especially interested the church, which described a special star at Christmas and used the equinox to calculate the date for Easter. Guy Consolmagno, Astronomer to current Pope Francis, notes that the Vatican Observatory was founded in the 1890s, in part “to show that science and religion were not opposed to one another,” and further observes that “the reigning Big Bang theory of cosmology was devised by a Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître” in 1927. So keep looking up!

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SFDS Christmas Tour

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Welcome to our blended parish of St. Francis de Sales United By The Most Blessed Sacrament. We hope you enjoy this Christmas Story, as told in the architectural decorations of our 1911 church (You can also find another more traditional tour in the Self-Guided Tour tab on this site).

De Sales Photos Binder 06 030 (2)Let’s start at the very beginning…at the high pulpit on the Mary side of the church. When the Mass was simplified after Vatican II, our pulpit survived as a part of the architecture, but it was not used for many years. Today, it is reserved for special occasions, as when the Nativity Proclamation is read just before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In the glittering light, the recitation of Jesus’ lineage connects us with all of the faithful down through the ages, while the eagle book rest – symbol of St. John’s Gospel – still reminds us that before everything, In the beginning was the word…”

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Lk 1:31)

A few yards to the right is the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Above her head, note the three entwined circles and triangle in the mosaic half-circle lunette. These represent the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The upside-down dove in the center of this lunette represents the Holy Spirit – especially significant for Mary, who was filled with the Holy Spirit when Jesus was conceived.

_MG_2621 (3)The first long window on the Saint Joseph side of the church commemorates The Annunciation, when Mary learned she would have a child. At the top of the window is Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): Behold, a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

(Crafted by D’Ascenzo Studios, the six long windows tell the story of the Life of Christ in the upper half, and that of our patron Saint Francis de Sales in the lower half. In the first window, young Francis is instructed in the catechism by his mother, Mme de Boisey in France in the 1570s, so both window sections highlight Motherhood and faith).

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Lk 2:8-11)

The middle window on the Saint Joseph side of the church shows the Adoration of the Shepherds. The quote at the top is Micah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): “From you, O Bethlehem…shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The artistic double cross designs in the bottom panel of each window on that side of the church symbolize Christ’s Divine and Human nature.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!” (Lk 2:13,14)

T006 At the back of the church, look for two angel sculptures above the holy water basins between the  doors. Henry Dagit, the architect who designed our church, had his daughters, Josephine Leonide and Anna, model for these exquisite pieces by Adolfo de Nesti back around 1910 (It is rumored that Josephine Leonide was also the model for the Blessed Mother).

lambA proper Nativity scene needs some animals. Step into the foyer, turn right, and look for the stairwell to the loft which the choir ascends to form a heavenly chorus.” The stairwell window features the image of a lamb – a perfect accompaniment to the shepherds, visiting the manger.

(Although this particular lamb, carrying a banner and perched on a book with seven seals, is a reference to the apocalypse – the end of the world — from the Book of Revelations).

Image (21)Whew! That was intense. Now go back to the middle of the church and look up at the decorations in the triangular pendentives that support the  Guastavino Dome. The four mystical creatures  ( also, incidentally, from Revelations) represent the four Evangelists – the saints who wrote the Gospels. Luke, who penned the story of Jesus’ birth, is the Ox – a traditional sacrificial animal and a very fitting addition to our Nativity story!

(Matthew, who related the story of the Three Wise Men,  is shown as an Angel, representing Christ’s human nature. Mark is the Lion who proclaims the dignity of Christ, since his Gospel begins with John the Baptist as a herald announcing the arrival of royalty.  John employs  the Eagle as the symbol of divinity because his Gospel begins in the heavens before Jesus came to earth..)

“And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9)

dome-starObserve the stars in the sky-like dome! The six-pointed star  symbolizes the six days of creation. From the 18th century, it gained new significance as the “Magen David,” or “Shield of David,” representing the House of David – the lineage of Jesus. Enclosed in an eternal circle, our star of earthly lineage has a cross at its center, representing the Easter story,  turned into an eight-pointed star — the Star of Bethlehem – of Jesus’ birth.

(Gershom Sholem, a Jewish scholar, suggests that, ironically, it was the infamous yellow badges of the Second World War – long decades after our church was built —  which turned the Star of David into a universal Jewish symbol).

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2;1,2)

DSCN4470 (2)Near the 47th Street door, find the Builder’s Compass of Saint Thomas, the Apostle. One of Jesus’ original followers, Thomas is thought to have gone on to become a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tradition says Gondophares was Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany.

harpiesAbove the Saint Thomas emblem, is a big round window showing Mary holding Baby Jesus in the middle, with Saint John the Evangelist on the right, and Saint Francis of Assisi on the left. Saint Francis of Assisi is remembered as the saint who loved animals. He is also  credited with organizing the first ever Nativity scene and pageant in the countryside of Assisi, so that everyone could experience the sense of wonder that came from interacting with the story.

(Our window is based on a long-ago painting by Andrea del Sarto commonly known as “The Madonna of the Harpies.” .  Why was the image chosen for our church? We don’t know for sure, but it is intriguing to note that the original painting was commissioned on May 14, 1515, and our parish was commissioned on May 14, 1890).

Finally, when you hear our eleven tower bells “on Christmas day, Their old  familiar carols play,” listen for the tune “I heard the Bells” based on an 1863 wartime poem of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — and join our prayers for peace on earth, goodwill to all this holiday season and always.

 

 

True Colors

dome paintingThe distinctive domes of St. Francis de Sales Church are a local landmark – and a work-in-progress.

The four small domes and one large one were constructed by the renowned Guastavino firm around 1910 – the only remaining Guastavino domes without exterior roofs in the U.S.

Their first renovation was in the 1950s. When Reverend (later Bishop) McShea became pastor in 1952, we are told that the domes were “in poor condition, and leaking into the church.” McShea, who “was proud…that the domes could be seen as part of the skyline from a distance  in the city…” specified that any fixes must “maintain the character”  of the domes. The chosen solution was to coat them with a layer of concrete to reinforce the structure, then cover them with new heavyweight glazed ceramic tiles in “artistic patterns similar to those in the existing dome.”

Fifty years later, the joint between the big dome and the lantern at the top let in water and the modern tiles were peeling off, so new repairs were needed. Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner and her team from Historic Building Architects studied the original Guastavino structure and the engineering complications created by the 1950s work, and determined that the best available option was to seal the concrete and paint it to match the original dome colors.

What were the original colors? Interesting question. The dome was resurfaced before the advent of color photography, so we don’t have that visual record. Guastavino archives yielded watercolour paintings from 1909 showing proposed decorations in green and gold. Then, core samples of original tiles, taken from under the concrete, provided solid evidence.

In 2011, Annabelle’s crew exactingly recreated the original colors and patterns of the domes using specially-formulated paint. It took about four weeks to prepare the surface and two weeks to paint,  and looked great when it was finished (with colors that differed somewhat from the more familiar 1950s tiles). But, over the next few years, the paint unexpectedly deteriorated, with greens turning yellow and flaking away like autumn leaves.

The paint, still under warranty, was re-evaluated exhaustively. A new test patch about four feet square was applied a year ago, and for now, we are “watching paint dry” – usually the definition of “unexciting,” but in this case, providing important data points, since we don’t know why the paint failed and it’s important to get it right. So in a hurried,  impatient age, our semi-painted dome, quietly waiting, is a reassuring reminder that there’s “a time for every purpose under heaven”!

O003.jpg 2011