Month: February 2020

Woodland Avenue Roots

A002A story has been making the rounds that St. Francis de Sales Parish “was founded upstairs from a bar on Baltimore Avenue.”

It’s not true! And it’s just one of many casual pieces of misinformation that have been tossed into circulation about our church in recent times.

Where did our Parish actually begin? The Catholic Standard reported that the first Mass for the “New Mission Chapel” that would become our parish took place in a rented hall on the second floor of a commercial building on the “south east side of Woodland below Forty-ninth street” on February 16, 1890.

Woodland Avenue was one of the oldest, most well-known roads in the area. It began its life as part of the “King’s Highway” – a roughly 1,300-mile road laid out in the 1600s on the order of King Charles II of England, to link Boston, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina. The local section was eventually renamed “Darby Road,” then became known as the “Darby Plank Road” in the 1850s, when it was covered with wooden boards to provide a better surface  “for the sporting fraternity, who speeded their fast horses over it.” When the boards wore out, racing stopped, and the road was renamed yet again as “Woodland Avenue.” Through all its early history, it was a busy, well-established commercial corridor; so when nearby farms and fields gave way to the rows of houses that we know today, and a need developed for a new parish to serve them, it was natural that our first Masses would find a home there.

The Woodland Avenue building where our first services were held is now long gone. The only photos available are the two supposed versions taken in 1940 for the Parish Jubilee Book: one with signs edited out, and an un-retouched version which shows a dry cleaner and an Oyster House on the ground floor, with a photographer or dentist occupying the second floor. We have so far been unable to determine what businesses occupied the premises in 1890, and the 1940 photos may not actually show the correct address.

The first Masses for Most Blessed Sacrament Parish are reported to have been held in a rented house at 5550 Woodland Avenue starting in May 1901.

How did the “Bar on Baltimore Ave.” story come about? Perhaps it emerged when someone misunderstood or misremembered that the piece of land on which our first chapel was built in 1891 (today it’s the part of the school that contains  the auditorium) included a small portion of the back lot of the Cherry Tree Inn – an historic hotel and tavern on Baltimore Avenue. The assertion could have been made flippantly, on the “spur-of-the-moment,” in one place — and then developed a life of its own.

Truth still matters.  In a modern age, when rapidly moving information is quoted and requoted in multiple places and different situations, it’s unhelpful to circulate half-remembered information without checking it, or to improve upon the facts in order to suit an agenda or to make a better story. Every misstatement or misrepresentation becomes a new tangle to upset or confuse and further complicate the future. We’ve seen that happen around the world in multiple contexts, in matters big and small, sometimes with horrifying results. Honest mistakes will occur but let’s make the sincere effort to limit them where we can.

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Madonna of the Harpies

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D’Ascenzo Studios crafted four large round “rose” windows for our church between 1909 and 1910. Their archives confirm that the one behind the altar depicts the Trinity, and the window in the choir loft shows St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, but the other two are unrecorded.

The window on the Mary side of our church is a “sacra conversazione,” or “sacred conversation,” showing Mary standing on a pedestal, holding Baby Jesus, with a saint on either side.  It is based on an Andrea del Sarto painting known as the Madonna of the Harpies  because of the birdlike human monsters,  resembling characters from Greek mythology, on the original column base (changed to a cross on a shield in our window).

That painting has its own odd history. Hanging in the Uffizi today, it was created in 1517 for the Poor Clares  Convent of  San Francesco dei Macci in Florence, which also sheltered “unhappily married women.” (aka women separated from their husbands, and victims of domestic violence). The original commission specified that St. Bonaventure — a Franciscan who valued study, as well as simplicity, poverty, and work —  should be painted on the left, but their patron Saint Francis of Assisi was ultimately placed there instead. Saint John the Evangelist was always on the right. No one knows why the “harpies” were included.  Some interpret the painting as depicting Mary’s Assumption or Coronation; others, as “the Virgin triumphant over evil.”

The mystery continues in our church. We don’t know why the painting was chosen for our stained glass window.

One curiosity comes to light: the contract for Andrea de Sarto’s original painting was signed on May 14, 1515. Our parish was founded on May 14, 1890. Is the similarity in dates significant? It’s possible. Imagery in the opposite window could be consistent with Our Lady of the Rosary, on whose feast day (October 6, 1907) our cornerstone was laid.

We’re still working on this one. Perhaps the biggest mystery is why we know so little about such an important decorative element in our church!

A Sister Named Francis de Sales

The St. Francis de Sales Parish rectory often helps people trying to  research family history through parish birth, marriage, or death records, but every now and then, there’s an unusual request —  as when someone, last year, hoped to find out about a long-ago religious relative who simply shared the same name as our Parish.

Jeannie obligingly checked our books and found no record here of a Sister Francis de Sales. Monsignor Joe, who happened to be in the office, thought the address on her death certificate — 225 North Camac Street (near today’s Convention Center) – might be the historic home of the Visitation Sisters when they first came to Philadelphia. With that clue, we spent a pleasant morning pooling our knowledge and resources to uncover an interesting corner of Philadelphia history.

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St. Francis de Sales institutes the Order of the Vistiation with St. Jane Chantal in 1610 (detail of a window by Nicola D’ascenzo. St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia).

The Sisters of the Visitation were founded in Savoy (France), in 1610, by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Chantal, as shown in the middle long window on the 47th street side of our church. The order opened a monastery in the United States, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1833. In 1898, they were invited to start a monastery and school in Mexico, where they were joined by several Mexican Sisters – among them, a young Mexican-Italian woman named Sister Francis de Sales Bortoni.

Political unrest in Mexico in early 1926 endangered the American Sisters and they fled back to the United States, bringing the Mexican Sisters with them as part of the community. It was a difficult time for everyone, and a letter from one of the Sisters  reported “When our community was forced to leave Coyoacan under such painful circumstances our dear Sister Francis de Sales contracted a severe cold…from that time we noted a decline in her health…”

Sister Francis de Sales made her final vows later that year in the crowded Alabama convent, while the Mother Superior was “in Philadelphia preparing a home for our exiled family.” That October, the Sisters moved in to a property on Camac Street (where the order had run a mission and school from 1848 to 1852, which closed during a period of anti-Catholic riots), under the protection of Cardinal Dougherty, who headed the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The Cardinal decided that the nuns, who had been teachers, would not open a school in Philadelphia because the Mexican sisters did not speak English; instead, they would live in a cloister as contemplatives.

The letter offers clues about that life, noting that Sister Francis de Sales had special devotions for “our dear Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and for Our Lady of the Rosary.” Although she was aide “in the Sacristy and in the Dispensary for short periods, and also in the woolen wardrobery, our dear Sister did such exquisite embroidery that during the last years of her life, as long as she was able, she worked for the Service of the Tabernacle.” She never recovered, however, from that initial illness, and eventually, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis: “her heart action became very painful and her sufferings from asphyxia were heartrending” but she united “her sufferings to those of our Blessed Lord” and claimed her soul was “in perfect peace” when she died at age 35.

The Camac Street location was unhealthy, and around 1940, Cardinal Dougherty became concerned that many of the sisters were tubercular. This was a common, deadly, contagious illness in those days: antibiotics were not available to treat it until the late 1940s (Reverend William Canney, of SFDS, died of tuberculosis in 1936) and “fresh air” was the chief treatment. When the order shrunk from 44 to 28 members, the Cardinal found them a new, airier home next to his residence just outside the city at 5820 City Line Avenue – paid for in part with funds from his Jubilee — but by then, Sister Francis de Sales, was long dead from the disease. The Visitation Sisters remain at that address today, though the Cardinal’s residence was sold to St. Joe’s University in 2012.

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Color OUR Collections! From February 3 to 7, 2020, libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world are sharing free coloring sheets and books online based on materials in their collections. Last year, our SFDS parish history archives contributed a selection of stained-glass windows and other church details to color; this year, we feature 1920s parish bulletin advertising art to click and print. Check out all the offerings – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond — at ColorOurCollections.org