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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