Month: January 2019

The Story Between the Lines

mccarron kitchen (2)An apparently routine notation in the parish Baptismal register hides a sad neighborhood tale of long ago.

It began with a classic parenting dilemma of breastfeeding versus bottle. In the early 1900s, the advertisement of new easy-to-clean glass bottles with soft rubber nipples, coupled with ready access to dairy milk, made bottle feeding seem like the “modern” way. However, public health campaigns advised that fresh cow milk – unregulated, unprocessed, and potentially infected with tuberculosis  — could be unsafe: “a few bacteria in milk as it leaves the farm can become millions by the time it reaches the consumer in the city…“ so mothers were warned that milk must always be heated in order to “pasteurize it at home to kill the germs it contains.

On Monday, May 13, 1907, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “Mrs. William McCarron, 25 years old, was awakened by the cries of her baby early in the morning. The mother went herself to the kitchen of her home at 1424 Hanson Street (near 49th and Woodland), and made preparations to heat a bottle of milk. The fire on the stove was low, so she decided to expedite matters by using coal oil (kerosene!). Clinging to her skirts, her two-year-old son William heard a loud shriek and… he was pushed out of the way of the blaze. Mrs. McCarron…attempted to run to the front door, but she tripped over her skirt and fell in the kitchen doorway. Just at that moment, her husband who is a motorman (trolley driver), entered the house…He ran to a bedroom and filled his arms with quilts and blankets. These he threw over his wife, extinguishing the flames. She was hurried in a patrol of the Sixty-fifth Street and Woodland avenue station to the University Hospital, where she is in critical condition.

 During a temporary return of consciousness, she murmured to her husband, sitting anxiously at her bedside, ‘Have the baby christened today, for fear something should happen to him.’ This wish was accordingly carried out yesterday afternoon, (May 12), when the child received the name of David in the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church…” Before the age of antibiotics, there was little that doctors could do for the mother’s wounds. She died on May 21, 1907, and was buried from our parish a few months before the cornerstone was laid for the present church building.

The family appears to have moved elsewhere in the city after that, but a cross-reference, neatly penned below baby  David’s baptismal record, notes that he was back, living at 5140 Catherine Street, when he married Amelia Nigro of 1140 South Wilton Street at SFDS in 1938. Today, the house where the long-ago fire occurred, is an empty lot, and a family’s tragedy and resilience lie buried in a bland two-line Latin record in a dusty parish ledger. How many other stories does it contain?

The Cross at Annemasse

annemasse tek editWhy did stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo choose the image of St. Francis de Sales preaching at Annemasse for one of our long windows (nearest the Vatican flag)? Perhaps it spoke to him, because it is a story about how visual symbols — like the artwork he was creating – could inspire people.

In the 1500s — the time of our patron Saint Francis de Sales — the town of Annemasse, Duchy of Savoy (today part of France), was separated from the Republic of Geneva, (Swiss Confederacy) by a narrow river, and the wide gulf of the Protestant Reformation. On the Savoy side of the divide, the Forty Hours Devotion in 1597 aimed to reconnect people through words of gentle encouragement, preached in outdoor sermons by our patron Saint, and in celebrations through town and countryside, centered around visible emblems of faith.

Why is the crucifix shown in D’Ascenzo’s window? A stone cross in Annemasse — which was both a town landmark and a shrine — had been destroyed in religious conflicts. During that Forty Hours Devotion, Francis de Sales led a procession bringing a wooden replacement – invoking the past, restoring the landscape, and providing a symbol to inspire all who would pass along the road. It was a joyous homecoming. Andre Ravier, SJ, noted that “For two days this was the ‘festival’ at Annemasse, a festival above all religious, but the ceremonies, processions, sermons, and so forth were mixed with popular songs and music – even the detonations of arquebuses” (large guns).  And Jill Fehleison observes that “The cross was placed “so that it could be seen from the city of Geneva, fashioning both a symbol of triumph and a challenge” to the Protestant followers of John Calvin, who declared that every word in the Bible was a literal truth that came directly from God, and any other object or image was a distraction.

Centuries later and across an ocean, Christians still have their differences, but immersion in a modern consumer culture filled with secular landmarks, images, and advertising, provides fewer opportunities to connect with faith. Our historic 1911 church dome, Like the monument at the crossroads in Annemasse, is one prominent feature of the local skyline that offers a quiet reminder of God’s enduring presence to anyone who sees it. And if an old adage is true that each “picture is worth a thousand words,” our church is a walk-in encyclopedia of spiritual life and local history.