Month: April 2019

A Tale of Two Margarets

winthrop smith (2)On July 3, 1913, the Philadelphia Inquirer breathlessly reported: “Winthrop Smith Weds His Typist: Financier, 67, Makes Miss McMenamin His Second Wife. Information Concerning the Marriage is Refused by Sister of the Bride.” The New York Times also covered the story.

Why was it scandalous and what did it have to do with St. Francis de Sales Church?

Smith was a well-connected Philadelphia financier and member of the Union League, who, since his wife’s deathkellar_levitation_poster in 1911, had been living locally at the Covington Apartments. Miss Margaret McMenamin, of 4303 Baltimore Avenue, was reportedly 33 years old.  Their marriage was described as “culminating a friendship which originated in his office” – the banking firm of Winthrop Smith & Co.from which he had retired  in 1912, and where he was fondly remembered for once asking famous magician Harry Kellar, a bank customer, to entertain the staff.

They were married quietly, on a weekday,  at St. Francis de Sales. The Latin in the parish registry (coram me inierunt in matr.) translates “in my presence have entered into matrimony” – an unusual passive phrasing probably signifying a marriage in which one partner was not  Catholic — and no witnesses are listed, which is also odd. Reverend Maurice Cowl, a former Episcopalian priest, recently converted to Catholicism and assisting at de Sales, officiated. The Inquirer reported that after the ceremony, the couple left directly for New York, and a ship to Europe. The bride’s sister tersely commented that “they are married and that settles it.” His relatives remained silent.

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Margaret Smith (Monk) in 1935

When the couple returned from Europe, they settled at Smith’s estate in Glenside and St. Francis de Sales passes out of the story. Their daughter, Margaret, born around 1916, was introduced to society as a debutante in 1935. In 1942, she married Lt. Cmmdr. Charles T. Monk USNR (whose family lived, for a time, at 4402 Locust Street); he became an insurance executive after the war.

Winthrop Smith died at age 92 and is buried in their family plot at The Woodlands (40th and Woodland). A tall, proud obelisk, near the old stable, memorializes his father, another Winthrop Smith, publisher of the celebrated McGuffey Readers, on the front. Our Winthrop Smith is listed on the back, with his first wife, Florence Chapman Smith. The large square plot is full of Smiths. Lieutenant Cmmdr Monk is also buried there. But where are the two Margarets?

A mossy gravestone labeled “Winthrop Smith” in the family plot has no dates, and a space for a second name is left uncarved. Was that our Winthrop, forever waiting for his second wife? A fire at the Glenside home in 1946 is the final mention of Margaret Smith in the newspapers. The estate of her childless daughter, Margaret Monk, was auctioned in 1984. Today, the name Winthrop Smith continues only in a separate Connecticut branch of the family, associated with the firm of Merrill Lynch.

 

 

The Last Supper Altar

the_last_supper_-_leonardo_da_vinci_-_high_resolution_32x16Have you ever really studied the freestanding altar at St. Francis de Sales?

The frieze carved on the front is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 15th century painting of the Last Supper, which seems appropriate, though, curiously, the scene, as Leonardo painted it, was intended to represent the moment when Jesus told his apostles that one of them would betray him! It’s not an exact copy: our anonymous altar sculptor made some significant design choices where details were unclear, but it’s pretty close.

Leonardo’s ancient planning notes identify the first three people on the left in the scene as Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus (James the Less), and Andrew, all looking astonished at the betrayal. In Leonardo’s original plan, which he later changed, one of those apostles is so surprised, that he “blows his mouthful” — a very human, but possibly too distracting image!

Next comes Judas, the villain in the piece. A 19th century analysis of Leonardo’s artwork notes that Judas “is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone” in the scene. He is shown “clutching a small bag…He is also tipping over the salt cellar” – said to be a symbol of betrayal. Intriguingly, in Jewish religion, salt also signified God’s (Old-Testament) covenant.

A bread knife in a hand behind Judas has caused much speculation through the ages. Leonardo’s original notes describe a character later identified as Peter who “speaks into his neighbour’s (John’s) ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and in the other the loaf half cut through by the knife.” Carefully read, this convoluted sentence suggests that Leonardo originally intended John to hold the knife, although Peter is more usually credited, and our altar sculptor has chosen Peter.

Why is John a more interesting possibility? Here’s a thought: in Renaissance art, a “loaf with a knife in it” symbolized the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice. It seems like John, the beloved disciple, on hearing the news of betrayal, might instinctively try to yank the knife from the loaf and cast it away, to symbolically stop Jesus’ suffering. Peter, future head of the church, might grab his arm to stop him, knowing that Jesus must die as foretold. And Judas spills the salt.

Jesus, in the center, studiously ignores the drama, since he knows what must happen.

On his other side, Thomas points heavenward, while James the Greater gestures to Jesus and Philip points to himself, questioning. Matthew, Thaddeus (Jude) and Simon confer together at the far end of the table.

Our altar, by the way, has a story of its own. The ultramodern streamlined acrylic freestanding altar installed at SFDS to celebrate the new ideas of Vatican II and the 1960s proved to be too brittle, and it cracked. It was replaced several times by sturdier, less austere wooden substitutes (much like the adjustments to the New Mass). In 2007, the MBS altar was moved and installed here to commemorate the merging of the two parishes, symbolically gathering everyone around the same table. Its marble  was a perfect match — restoring the traditional look of the sanctuary and fitting in as though it has always been here!

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D’Ascenzo Stained Glass

d'ascenzo adA long-ago Pennsylvania guidebook highlighted the locally-crafted windows in our 1911 church, where “the leaded glass is particularly beautiful; windows are of the antique school and extremely rich in color. Have you ever wondered how they were made?

Nicola D’Acenzo, whose firm crafted the four round windows and six long windows, believed that “the architect is the maker of opportunities.”  Architect, Henry Dagit, would have planned the size, shape, and locations; and, after consulting with the Pastor, the general subjects for his windows. D’Ascenzo’s role was to assist the architect “in giving final expression to his buildings.”

The stained-glass workers brought their own expertise. A reporter visiting the D’Ascenzo studios downtown wrote: “Chat with a D’Ascenzo artist…and he will dwell on the importance of the window’s ultimate location.” Figures had to be scaled so that they would look good to the viewer, seeing them from below. “The supreme problem is color. The artist must know light. Glass made for the gray skies of France or England is apt to be an unintelligible blaze of color under the brilliant American sun.”

Walking through the workshop, the reporter described the process as he saw it: first, a small water-color sketch was painted. When that was “finished and approved, the cartoon must be made…That is simply a full-size, charcoal drawing of the window design. The place for each piece of glass is numbered, then the entire cartoon is cut up, jig-saw fashion, and affixed to a sheet of plain glass. The work-man, one eye on the little water-color sketch, selects the right-tinted glass, cuts it, then attaches it with beeswax to the plain glass in the spot vacated by his paper pattern. Soon the whole window is laid out on the glass easel. Decorative details and flesh tones are painted on with mineral pigments, which, when heated to a cherry-red – 1,1250 to 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit – fuse with the glass. Hydrofluoric acid is used to etch the surface for special effects. The bits of colored glass are now ready to be stuck together with the soldered lead strips. ‘Muck,” a waterproof cement, is ‘scrubbed’ into the crevices, and iron rods are worked into the decorative pattern to reinforce the whole.”

An earlier writer had noted that in reading a description  “one misses, of course, the cordial welcome of Mr. D’Ascenzo, the making of the full-size cartoons by his assistant designers, the snip of the scissors in the pattern room, the screech of the wheel as the glass is cut, the painting of the glass on the easels, the burning of the glass in the kilns and the hiss of the soldering iron.

What makes our church special?  Shut your eyes and imagine the distant echoes of earnest voices and clanging tools, carefully hand working each decorative detail.