Month: April 2018

Jacob’s Ladder

_MG_2559 (2)Have you ever noticed the odd ladder-like borders around some of our stained-glass windows?

The designs could be a nod to the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:10-15).

The story is a surprisingly important one around the world and across cultures. Exhausted Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, laid down by the roadside, pillowing his head on a stone. Falling asleep, “he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…”

The dream has been interpreted as foretelling Jewish exile, and as describing a bridge between heaven and earth. It is also thought to represent the Muslim “straight path” of a virtuous life. Some suggest that a three-rung ladder could represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity; while a seven-rung ladder could evoke seven moral virtues. An old legend claimed that the Stone of Scone, used in the ritual to crown British monarchs, was the very same stone on which Jacob rested his head!

Our patron, Saint Francis de Sales, offered his own perspective, directing readers of his Introduction to the Devout Life to “contemplate Jacob’s ladder, for it is the true emblem of the devout life. The two sides, between which we ascend, and in which the rounds (rungs) are fastened, represent prayer…and the sacraments…” The rungs of the ladder offer a route down to action, performing good deeds “to the help and support of our neighbour,” and up for meditation and “blessed union with God.” Both directions of action and thought are important to spiritual development.

Why do we think the ladder designs might be significant in our church?

The clue is right there in plain sight: the inscription on the back wall of the sanctuary — “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” (Genesis 28:16) — is what Jacob said upon awakening from that dream!

 

Dedication

DSCN4869 (2)What are those oddly-shaped dark stains to the left and right on the back wall of the sanctuary behind the old altar?

They mark the places where two “dedication” or “consecration crosses” used to be mounted. You’ll find six cross-shaped candle brackets still arranged at eye-level around the inside walls of our church, and four more empty spaces.

What do they mean?

The crosses, originally twelve in number, represent a very old tradition of blessing the walls of a church – usually after its construction debt is paid.

Our church was officially consecrated by on November 13, 1920. The Catholic Standard and Times reported Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Dougherty’s speech, describing the ceremony, at the official celebratory Mass the next day: “three times the consecrator encircled the outer walls with holy water and invoking the Most Blessed Trinity. The inner walls were also blessed with the triple blessing of holy water. Then, the floor of the church, from the main entrance to the chancel rail, was sanctified with holy water and prayer. The inside walls were anointed with sacred chrism at the twelve places where brackets have been set up to hold lighted candles. By this consecration, the church has been lifted up into a higher order. It has been set apart in perpetuity for the worship of God…”

What was the symbolism? Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the “triple sprinkling and circuit of the walls…symbolizes the triple immersion at holy baptism…” According to Father Edward McNamara of Regina Apostolorum University, “in keeping with liturgical tradition, there are twelve anointings…as a symbol that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem…The twelve candles stem from the symbolic use of this number in biblical tradition. The 12 stones used by Moses to build the altar of the covenant represented the 12 tribes of Israel. There are 12 gates of the New Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Revelation…Likewise, there are the 12 apostles…” The lighting of the church “reminds us that Christ is a ‘light to enlighten the nations’” and “the anointing of the church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship…”

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The symbolism would be meaningless in an empty church. At the 1920 Consecration, Archbishop Dougherty highlighted the role of parishioners: “that your church was ready for consecration within thirty years after the establishment of your parish, is a subject for wonder…and a sign that parishioners were fully-involved in parish life. Today, the ghosts of those missing candle brackets call out for our greater engagement and spiritual re-dedication.

Literary Women of de Sales

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God’s Alphabet (Angelus Press)

Our parish has been home to a surprising number of distinguished authors over the years!

First among them, was Eleanor Donnelly, who donated our Blessed Mother Altar and wrote a poem for the Parish Dedication in 1911. She published almost fifty books in her lifetime – including Lyrics and Legends of Ancient Youth in 1906, dedicated to our parish; and The Life of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace, a fascinating biography of the head nurse at the Satterlee Civil War Hospital (once located at the edge of Clark Park).

Another early author was Wilhelmina (Minnie) Ruane, Joe Ruane’s Grandmother, who penned a religious alphabet book for children in 1938, with charming period illustrations by artist Janet Robson. The book, which sold in the Parish Bookstore for many years, is now back in print as God’s Alphabet, from Angelus Press.

The IHM Sisters at St. Francis de Sales School wrote the early versions of several still-standard school textbooks. The first volumes of the Voyages in English series for Loyola Press were written at SFDS School in 1941. Sister Rose Anita and Sister Francis Borgia were its coordinators in the 1950s. Mother Paulita Campbell, who was principal of the Parish School in the 1950s, authored the Progress in Arithmetic series for Sadlier. Examples and study questions in both series included names and situations straight from our parish!  

 Philadelphia playwright and author Constance O’Hara was associated for many years with the Hedgerow Theatre, which produced several of her plays, including  “The Years of the Locust,” (1932) about “an  enclosed convent caught in war.” It was later staged in New York and England. O’Hara’s 1955 memoir, Heaven Was Not Enough, addressed her struggles with faith in and out of our parish (which she describes in a particularly low point as “a great, ugly, gray pile”), and her ultimate return.

Today, longtime parishioner Ann de Forest looks outward and “recently completed an 18-month project…documenting the lives of 12 immigrant and refugee families for Al Bustan: Seeds of Culture. Ann is a contributing writer for Hidden City Philadelphia, editor of Extant, the magazine of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and author of Healing on the Homefront, a book of photo essays about the bonds forged between home health care providers and their patients.” She also publishes short stories, teaches poetry to the elderly at L.I.F.E. senior daycare, and wonders if our association with the patron saint of journalists might be our parish inspiration!