Month: March 2020

Remembering the Past: Influenza 1918

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Philadelphia Evening Bulletin October 5, 1918

A History Mystery column about the 1918 influenza pandemic published in July 2014, pondered: “Imagine not being allowed to go to church in a time of troubles…”

Well…now we know.

Influenza arrived in Philadelphia in September 1918, aboard a Navy ship coming from Boston. It spread quickly in the Navy Yard, then at a military parade in Center City attended by 200,000 people, promoting sales of Liberty Bonds to fund the war effort – a parade at which our parish was particularly well represented due to the school’s very successful Bond drive.

All public and parochial schools in Philadelphia closed for three weeks afterwards, to try to stem the epidemic. Medical personnel were still overseas aiding in the war effort, so IHM teaching sisters volunteered as nurses, tirelessly tending bedsides of many races, ethnicities, and religions, especially in the MBS boundaries.

Police closed places of worship citywide from October 6 through October 26, 1918, with few exceptions. Our church was one of these: the October 5, 1918 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that: “Placards have been posted within the confines of the Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, announcing that by permission of the Board of Health, masses will be celebrated tomorrow morning in front of St. Francis’ Church, 47th St. and Springfield Ave. at 7:30, 9:30 and 11 A.M.” The outdoor Mass on the front steps “did not meet with general approval,” however (curious phrasing!), and the practice ended after October 13. Catholics were exhorted to pray in their homes for a speedy end, both to the epidemic and to the war.

October 1918 was a rough month for SFDS. The parish Death Register recorded eight deaths in September; then jumped to 40 between October 6 and October 31, 1918. Fatalities tapered off again to five in November, nine in December, and a few more in January. In the end, parish losses from influenza probably totaled about 60 people; the names of the deceased are recorded in the parish ledger, but not all of the death certificates are available to confirm the cause.

Who were the victims? Geographically, most of the deaths in our parish occurred in the less-prosperous section south of Baltimore Avenue. Victims were married and single; many were in their 30s; a few were infants and children. Most had been born in Philadelphia, many to immigrant parents. The death certificates provide a snapshot of their employment: a stenographer; a policeman; a sheet metal worker; a number of housewives and several salesmen including a cigar salesman; a female Bolter at J.G. Brill’s trolley manufacturing co.; a telegraph operator; a young lady in the women’s Naval Reserve; several bartenders; a soldier; a watchman; and a motor inspector among others. Above Baltimore Avenue, victims included the Assistant Treasurer of Standard Steel Co. and the Treasurer of the Broad Street Theatre.

The epidemic slowed down considerably by November 11, when the First World War officially ended.  Catholic sisters (who tended bedsides), Catholic seminarians (who dug graves), and clergy in Philadelphia were especially commended by the city for their heroic efforts during the crisis.  Worldwide, more people died of influenza than died in World War I, and more people died of influenza in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the world – a dubious distinction for our fair city!


DSCN6422 (2)Coronavirus 2020

Rectory offices have been closed since March 13 and Masses are being celebrated privately. Find Morning Prayer livestreamed on the Matt Guckin Facebook page at 7 AM (Monday to Friday) and 9 AM (Saturday and Sunday); Night Prayer at 9 PM.  

HOLY WEEK AND EASTER SERVICES TO BE CELEBRATED PRIVATELY. On March 25, 2020, The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Decree in Time of Covid 19 (II) stating that “Given that the date of Easter cannot be transferred, in the countries which have been struck by the disease and where restrictions around the assembly and movement of people have been imposed, Bishops and priests may celebrate the rites of Holy Week without the presence of the people and in a suitable place, avoiding concelebration and omitting the sign of peace. The faithful should be informed of the beginning times of the celebrations so that they can prayerfully unite themselves in their homes. Means of live (not recorded) telematic broadcasts can be of help….”

SFDS Holy Week 2020 Services, celebrated privately,  will be available on Youtube and Facebook:

April 5 Palm Sunday Mass at 10:15 AM

Thursday April 9 Mass at 7:00 PM

Friday April 10 Passion at 3:00 PM

Sunday April 12 Easter Sunday Mass at 10:15 AM


Stations of the Cross at Saint Francis de Sales

First Station, from the Stations of the Cross at Saint Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia

Our church was completed in 1911, with this set of mosaic Stations of the Cross by Mayer & Co, — identical to those our second pastor Reverend Crane had installed at St. Malachy just a few years before!

They are accompanied here with a 1924 Key of Heaven text donated to the Parish archives by a parishioner. The writing is more formal than we expect today, and pre-Vatican II, but those who prayed using this text had recently survived the 1918 Influenza epidemic, providing a link to our history! (Click here for the PDF: stations of the cross. The link is also provided under the Self-Guided Tours tab). Incidentally, this particular volume of the Key of Heaven has a 1931 gift inscription in the front by Reverend William Canney who grew up in the parish, became a priest, assisted at the parish from 1924 to 1934 and died in 1937 (his story is posted here: Tuberculosis).

Thomas V. Lilly: Human Cork

DSCN6400 (2)SFDS has had its share of “quirky” personalities through the years, but, as far as we are aware, only one who was described as cork-like or “corky”!!

The story of parishioner and Knight of Columbus Thomas V. Lilly seems at first unremarkable: he was born and grew up in Philadelphia, left school after eighth grade, and started as a draftsman in a machine shop, according to the census – possibly employed by his brother-in-law, James Dunton, a Machine Shop Superintendent. In 1897, the two men shared a patent for a bicycle bell. At some point, Lilly joined the Dunton household and moved with his sister and brother-in-law to 920 South 50th Street, where he would spend most of the rest of his life – first with the Duntons and then on his own — until he transferred to a nursing home shortly before he died.

Lilly dreamed of escaping from machine shop work, though, so when Cedar Park opened at 50th and Baltimore in 1911, he took an appointment as its first Park Superintendent. Collier’s magazine reports this left him time for hobbies: “Lilly was an amateur boxer, professional tap dancer and amateur diver before he became a cork. It happened on his fifty-fifth birthday when skeptical friends bound his ankles, knees and wrists with sash cord and tossed him— fully clothed—into a swimming pool. Lilly shucked off the ropes, undressed (to his trunks), wrung out his wet clothes, stored them on his stomach, floated around for a bit, then dressed and swam to the pool ladder.”

Lilly kept escaping. In 1932, he made the news with an exhibition of floating and diving, as “the 65-year-old natator (swimmer) who is still able to show the youngsters a few tricks about the water sport.” Collier’s Magazine reported in 1948 that “Thomas Vincent Lilly of Philadelphia…recently celebrated his eighty-second birthday by asking his neighbors to throw him, bound and gagged, off a diving board. They obliged. Thomas Vincent wiggled out of the ropes in one minute and five seconds. Lilly, a pensioned city employee, modestly discounts any element of risk. “I can’t sink,” he explains. ‘I float all day without twitching a muscle. Doctors have examined me plenty of times but they can’t account for my corkiness.’

 In November 1950, Lilly’s obituary noted that he “was famous for his aquatic feats, and demonstrated his ‘Houdini’ rope escape trick in the West Branch YMCA pool two years ago.” Parishioner Joe Ruane, whose Dad had an Electrical shop at 4830 Baltimore Avenue, offers “I don’t know anything about Thomas Lilly, per se. I do recall the legend of a person who did Houdini escapes at the YMCA which in those days was on 52nd Street…The rumor was something I heard from someone in my Dad’s store when I was about 13 or 14.

Lilly was known for rope tricks in his lifetime, but he surprised with one final stunt as a magician at investments. In June, 1951, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “for 23 years Thomas V. Lilly…was Superintendent of Cedar Park, a public square at 50th St. and Baltimore Ave. Appointed to the post in 1911 by the Bureau of City Property at a per diem wage of $1.50, he never earned a wage more than $3.75 a day, which he was receiving when he retired in 1934. Yet, through profitable investments in securities and stocks, started with his small savings, he amassed a $50,000 fortune, the bulk of which he bequeathed to charity…” a sizeable amount at the time. Among his bequests was a large sum for St. Francis de Sales Church; in addition, the residue of his estate was willed to Bishop Lamb – then pastor of St. Francis de Sales – “to be used for charitable purposes as he sees fit.

lilly BikeBellPatent

A Little Bit of Ireland

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There’s a little bit of Ireland in the candlesticks that usually adorn our Altar – possibly the only bit of Ireland in our church!

When Reverend Crane hired architect Henry Dagit to remodel St. Malachy Church at 1429 north 11th St. “in the Byzantine style” in 1902 – their first project together — they created an exuberant  celebration of Irishness for a church named after an Irish patron saint, with an Irish congregation.

A few years later, in 1907, when the pair worked on plans for St. Francis de Sales Church, they envisioned something more cosmopolitan to reflect a different neighborhood and a different heritage. Our patron saint was from a European region once claimed by France and Italy, with part of his diocese in Switzerland. Early parishioners were a mix of Irish and German, among other nationalities (Henry Dagit was of German ancestry, and this was his home parish!). If you look around our church, you will find shields of Savoy; acanthus leaves and other European sculptural motifs; Byzantine-romanesque architectural inspiration from southern France; mosaics like Ravenna, Italy; and windows based on European paintings. Notably, there are no shamrocks, floridly Celtic crosses, or statues of Saint Patrick, though the color green – generally stylish for the era – is prominent in the molded tilework.

Our second Pastor, Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who built our church, was proud of his Irish family background, though, and there were many Irish parishioners, so Henry Dagit quietly incorporated Irish Connemara marble inlays to the design of his altar candlesticks. It’s a subtle but appropriate tribute: found only in Western Ireland, “many adherents claim that the rich green hues of Connemara marble imitate the sages, mosses, lichens, and grasses that flourish throughout Ireland.” The current owner of the Irish Connemara Marble Co notes that “Americans…like demonstrating their origins, but there are few quality products that are identifiably Irish with which they are able to do so…” and “Because of its scarcity, Connemara marble is also one of the rarest marbles still available.”  The marble has been used in many places in this country for its green accent color and also as a symbol of Irish heritage – perhaps most notably in our State Capitol building in Harrisburg.

Connemara marble is not just a piece of Ireland – the stone formed millions of years before St. Patrick, in the Precambrian age at the dawn of earth’s history. Created from “lime mud sediment deposited on a shallow sea floor around 650-750 million years ago, it was later subjected to high temperatures and pressures during a mountain building event” and ribboned with different minerals over time: “Connemara marble shows twisted and interlocking bands of serpentine in varying shades of green, sepia, and gray, punctuated with seams of crystalline and dolomite – each piece making its own statement.” The pretty stone is a piece of earth’s layered history. Its presence on the candlesticks which illuminate the altar, reminds us that the solidity of rock has been central to the Universal Church, since Jesus named Peter and announced “upon this rock I will build my church.”

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