Look around St. Francis de Sales Church and notice your fellow passengers. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the word nave — describing “the main space occupied by the congregation in a church.” — comes from the Latin word navis, for ship, “partly because the nave is not unlike an upside-down ship, but also because it is the ARK of salvation.”
Richard Stemp makes it even more clear in his book on “The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals:” The word nave comes from the Latin navis, meaning ‘ship,’ reminding us that the congregation is on a journey through life, during which the church will protect and guide them in the same way that a ship protects its passengers on the stormy seas. Maritime associations run deep in Christianity. Jesus carried out much of his teaching around the Sea of Galilee, and several apostles were fishermen.”
Our nave looks like a seaworthy, right-side-up ark, rather than an upside-down hull. That should be a good thing. Imagine the windows around the dome as the portholes around the cabin. We even have a window showing the “ascending dove” – with its wings outstretched and feet pressing against the glass, like the dove that returned to Noah during the great flood (and over the years, the dome has survived its share of watery leaks!).
Above those windows are the stars in the heavenly dome. The eight-pointed star of David – of Jesus’ earthly lineage — has a cross at its center, with four rays added to turn it into the Star of Jesus’ Birth – the star used by the Wise Visitors to navigate to Bethlehem – and the star of faith which guides us still today.
We look to the stars, but we are also moored to the earth. The “Adoration Chapel” in the back of the church, on the left, was once the “Baptistery,” where people received the sacrament of baptism – a sacrament of water. Embedded in the floor of the baptistery is a mosaic design of an anchor and dolphin. The anchor, used to keep a ship from drifting, can be “the hope set before us…a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:18-19).
Our church also has a hidden nautical reference. The original back-facing altar – elevated on steps like the bridge of a ship — was donated by a man named John Cooney. Cooney was an oyster fisherman on the Delaware Bay – a fisherman and a “fisher of men,” since he occasionally had to fish drunken sailors out of the water with a boathook. Very biblical!