Month: July 2019

Bartholomew Cuts the Cheese

_MG_2569Sometimes the symbolism and legends attached to a saint are more notable than the actual saint’s life! So it is with the Apostle Bartholomew (parking lot side of St. Francis de Sales Church), who was adopted as the patron saint of leather tanners and also of cheese sellers — associations that represent two sides of a cow, and two different ideas about faith.

Little is known for certain about Bartholomew’s life. The name is said to mean “Son of Tolmai,” and may have been a nickname; he may also be called “Nathaniel.” He is generally paired with Saint Philip (their two symbols appear side-by-side in our church), and he may have travelled, possibly, to India, Armenia, Persia, and Egypt. His remains are said to have wound up in Benevento and Rome, Italy, although his arm is supposed to have been given to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and his skull is said to be in Frankfurt, Germany.

How did he die? Nobody knows for sure. His symbol in our 1911 church is a “tanner’s knife,” used by leatherworkers to strip cow hides, and described as “the KNIFE with which his persecutors flayed him.” The knife story was chosen to provide an example of faith that was strong enough to withstand torture – an inspirational example in the somewhat anti-Catholic era when our church was built.

The cheese cutting interpretation of the symbol evolved separately in medieval Catholic Florence, Italy. To members of the local Oil, Salt, and Cheese Sellers Guild, looking for a patron saint, the curved blade shown with Saint Bartholomew resembled the familiar tool used for slicing cheese from a round – which is probably why they adopted Bartholomew and felt a cheerful sense of belonging and fraternity whenever they saw his emblem.

Bartholomew’s knife has also sometimes been associated with medicine, since one of his shrines, on an island in Rome, was built on the site of a temple and medical center associated with Asclepius, the ancient Roman god of healing; a medieval hospital was later built nearby. Bartholomew also played an important cameo role as a missionary in Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian fantasy, the New Atlantis, written in the early 1600s – in which Bacon envisioned a mythical island called Bensalem (!) off the coast of Peru, where scientific thought and Christian practice merged together in an imaginary ideal society.

So, depending who is looking at it and when, Bartholomew’s knife can symbolize horrific cruelty, steadfast faith, shared identity, professional expertise, tasty food, medical miracles, or cutting-edge utopian vision. Perhaps, today, it is best regarded as an example of how one symbol can mean vastly different things to different people depending on context – an important reminder in a modern age of instant mass- (and mis-) communication!


Halley’s Comet 1910


High in the tower on the East side of St. Francis de Sales church, is a hidden window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light. Why is it there and what does it mean?

One possibility is that it celebrates the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis:  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light…”

Alternatively, though not quite star-shaped, it could be intended to represent the Star in the East that heralded Christ’s birth.

Another thought is more topical. The appearance of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910, was much like Y2K in the year 2000. Though it came into view every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen.

The tabloids were inspired to predict all sorts of catastrophes: a belt of poison gas, disruption in electrical systems, and the end of civilization. The mainstream press consulted scientists, who suggested that there might be a beautiful light show – like the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights – either during the day, or around the moon at night. Pope Pius X, who had recently updated the scientific instruments in the Vatican Observatory, believed it would be neither spectacular nor dangerous, and scolded Italians for hoarding emergency oxygen cylinders “just in case.”

Our parish records are skimpy for that period, since our church was under construction (the cornerstone was laid on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907 and the building would not be officially completed until 1911). We do know that our three round and six long signed D’Ascenzo stained glass windows were crafted in 1910. We are not entirely certain who designed the others, but they were probably made that same year.

IMG_2477 (2)Halley’s Comet was supposed to be “at its closest, therefore its brightest, between May 14 and 22” 1910. Our parish celebrated its twentieth anniversary that year on May 14, 1910, so it’s possible that the ball of light shown in our eastern tower window celebrates the “sunrise” of the world, while at the same time offering a nod to the comet as an auspicious omen for our parish anniversary. The window exactly opposite appears to be a “burning bush” – another heavenly sign