Month: September 2019

Saint James Minor

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Why is Saint James called “Minor” and what is that strange lumpy object that is used as his emblem?

First, one might wonder what does it take to get ahead in this world! There were two saints named James among the apostles. The elder (Or taller? Or first-called?  Accounts vary) of the two is known as “Saint James Major,” or “Saint James the Greater.” The other one has gone down in history as “Saint James Minor” or “Saint James the Lesser,” even though he purportedly became the Bishop of Jerusalem!

James Minor is generally identified with Bible references to “James son of Alphaeus” and “James the brother of Jesus.” The brother of Jesus?!  The (not too reliable) medieval Golden Legend collection of saint stories suggested this was because they were similar in appearance. We don’t know. Catholic tradition says James was the son of Mary of Clopas, who was among the women who attended Jesus at the foot of the cross, and may have been related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. “For that reason, and given the fact that the Semitic word for brother is also used for other close relatives, James son of Alpheus is often held as a cousin to Jesus. He is also thought by some to be the brother of Matthew the Apostle, since the father of both was named Alphaeus 

We know very little about James Minor’s life. An early account from a fragment by Hegesippus around 170 AD, claims “He has been universally called the Just, from the days of the Lord down to the present time…” Hegesippus notes that James was not too sociable: he didn’t drink alcohol or eat meat. He didn’t shave or cut his hair. He didn’t bathe or annoint himself with perfumed oil, and “the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel’s, by reason of his constantly bending the knee in adoration to God, and begging forgiveness for the people”

Hegesippus also offers the account of his death: James was preaching about Jesus in the temple, when disbelievers attacked him. One of the priests tried to stop them, saying “’The just man is praying for us’ But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man. And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot…” The Golden Legend embellishes this a little: “a man in that company took a fuller’s staff and smote him on the head, that his brain fell all abroad and thus by martyrdom he finished his life…

In any case, James Minor’s martyrdom was not dignified or tidy. The fuller’s job was to clean cloth of impurities before dyeing it (at the Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothing is described as brighter than any fuller could make it). In Biblical times, fulling cloth is said to have involved soaking it in a tub of urine and churning it with feet or pounding it with a wooden stick or paddle, which probably remained  chronically moist and smelly. (By 1910, our parish artists had no reliable art references for such an implement, so James got a wicked cave-man club!).


Baltimore Avenue Amble

A short three-block stroll along Baltimore Avenue hints at how St. Francis de Sales Parish  is woven into the fabric of the neighbourhood.

cherry tree inn

Beginning at 46th Street, the Aksum Cafe at 4630 Baltimore stands on the site of the original yellow clapboard Cherry Tree Inn – a historic rest stop on the Baltimore Pike, named for an ancient cherry tree that once stood out front (a bar at 4540 — today’s Gojo — adopted the name as an homage in 1933, causing lasting confusion). Our first parish chapel/school building – now a wing of SFDS School — was built on the back section of the old inn’s property towards 47th Street in 1891.  Some records suggest that piece was once a lake – more likely, it was the water-accumulating “dip in the waffle” created by surrounding raised road construction. (Incidentally, the firm of James “Sunny Jim” McNichol, who donated our St. Joseph Altar, built and paved some of the larger roads in the city including Baltimore Ave., the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and Roosevelt Boulevard).

In the early 1900s, most of the 4700 block of Baltimore Ave over to Warrington was occupied by the Wilson farm which included a house, a barn, an orchard, and several cows. Our parish purchased the property in 1920, intending to build an annex to the school. Third grade and commercial classes were held at the farmhouse (approximately where the Warrington garden is today) for a couple of years, and several parish fairs were held on the grounds. In 1926, plans changed, and a wing was added to the school along Farragut Terrace, instead. The Wilson property was then sold to Brown & Sons Developers, who built the present block. This ad appeared in the Parish Monthly Bulletin:

47th & balt


Byrd Theatre 4720 Baltimore Ave.

Dream of popcorn in today’s municipal parking lot at 4720. Or huskies pulling sleds? The Byrd Theatre, named after famous polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, opened in 1928 and was torn down in the 1960s. It was, reportedly,  never profitable as a movie venue, but in 1933, during the Great Depression, it had a moment of glory when SFDS held its de Sales Night gala there one year, instead of the usual big showy “do” at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel downtown:

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SFDS De Sales Night at the Byrd Theatre 1933

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While you are there, take a little time to admire the beautiful murals in the parking lot painted by David Guinn in 2008. He’s included a number of local landmarks – can you find our church?


sfds bookstore 1948
The SFDS Parish Bookstore was located at 4726 Baltimore Avenue


Now continue on to 4726 Baltimore Ave. Today, it’s part of Vientiane Cafe. Some folks might remember that Mariposa Food Co-Op used to be here (before it moved to 4824). Long before that, from 1944 to 1954, it was home to the SFDS Parish Bookstore and Lending Library – offering blockbusters such as Communism and the Conscience of the West by Fulton Sheen and Of Flight and Life, by Charles Lindbergh. Imagine the walls lined with bookshelves, and earnest customers choosing uplifting reading material through the general haze of cigarette and pipe smoke characteristic of the era.


McHugh Realty was at 4800 Baltimore (where the Gold Standard now is) for over forty years. Gerald McHugh, Sr. represented the parish in many real estate matters, and went on to become the broker for the Archdiocese. The McHugh family has been in DeSales for four generations.

1955 mchugh realty

An old parish record notes that the IHM Sisters moved to a house at 4804 Baltimore Avenue for two months in 1915 while their original convent – a house at 47th and Windsor — was renovated (The present convent was built in 1926).

It’s an empty lot, today, behind a fence, but parishioner Henry Amlung’s fur store once stood at 4810 Baltimore Ave. His store made the news in 1919, when it was robbed by the “Motor Bandits” who were “terrorizing West Philadelphia” in a newfangled automobile. Under-equipped police eventually had to borrow a car to chase them! Here’s Amlung’s Parish Monthly Bulletin ad:

amlung furs

Last, but not least, number 4830 was the home of Ruane Electrical – started by current parishioner Joe Ruane’s Grandfather. Joe recalls delivering flyers and arranging the windows in the late 1940s, and he spotted a fire in the shared basement that once saved the block.1943 ruane baltimore ave

‘Nuff said for now: Parish stories are many, but time is short!

Find more stories of Baltimore Avenue on our sister website,