Month: May 2020

What’s in a Name

 

logoAsk any expectant parent, perusing a book of baby names, why the ritual is important: a name is the first gift that forms the heart of identity.

rev. francis o'neill
Rev. Francis O’Neill, Pastor of St. James

Why did Reverend Joseph O’Neill choose to name our new parish Saint Francis de Sales in 1890? The Centennial book for the Parish of Saint James the Greater: Mother Parish of West Philadelphia, suggests that Joseph may have chosen the name to honor his brother, the Reverend Francis O’Neill – the fifth pastor of St. James — who began to build the church at 38th and Chestnut (it became the combined parish of  St. Agatha-St. James in 1976) and who died suddenly in 1882, ostensibly worn-out by the effort.

A003 Joseph O'Neill
Rev. Joseph O’Neill, First Pastor of St. Francis de Sales

It seems plausible. The brothers were reportedly close, and Joseph assisted Francis at St. James, so a saint named “Francis” could have been a quiet tribute to a beloved brother, while the particular choice of Francis de Sales – a learned Doctor of the Church connected the new church with its university-bordered parent. The Bishop of Geneva, exiled to Savoy,  was also a good patron saint for a new parish whose early donors and pew-holders included those of German and Irish descent, as well as French and other Europeans. Our parish, though proud, never was a cathedral – any more than Saint Alice or Saint Malachy, also homes to assistant bishops in their day.

mbs burke
Reverend P.F. Burke, First Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament

Nearly a decade after SFDS was founded, Reverend Patrick Burke (who also came from St. James), looked out at the farmland of his newly assigned patch at the southwestern edge of St. Francis de Sales, and all the new row houses for immigrants churning up through the mud around it, and threatened, smilingly, to name his parish “Agony in the Garden,” after the first sorrowful mystery of the rosary; Bishop Ryan is said to have responded “ you have here a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come… Most Blessed Sacrament Parish was founded in May 1901, close to the feast of Corpus Christi. Reverend Burke “was known at the time as one of the clearest expounders of Catholic doctrine and had a large following of converts,” so his chosen focus on the “Real Presence” was a missionary banner for his “garden.”

Decades passed, and by the time both parishes celebrated their centennials, parish identities were distinct, congregations were small and circumstances were changing. In 2007, representatives from the two old rivals SFDS and MBS, sat down together to agree upon the name “Saint Francis de Sales Parish United By the Most Blessed Sacrament” for a new parish that would unite the remnants of two diverse communities in one building. Its emblem would include a monstrance and a dome, symbols of the two groups, with the name of the newly-formed parish – a careful combination of both old parish names — sheltered underneath.

Today’s combined parish contains all that is left of Most Blessed Sacrament and we are responsible for preserving its memory, alongside that of the old Saint Francis de Sales Parish. It is easier to identify with Saint Francis de Sales, since we worship in its building, where the layers of  history are embedded in the walls. Most Blessed Sacrament – with its strong social mission, and a school once heralded as the “largest parochial school in the world” – has left behind fewer written records.

The Third Eucharistic Prayer says “You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name...”  Our parish name contains an arc of history  – a perfect rainbow – that stretches all the way across the neighborhood, from our parent church of Saint James, at 38th and Chestnut, near the University of Pennsylvania, to the “garden” where MBS once cultivated a heritage of education and service at 56th and Chester, and where globally-focused Independence Charter School West stands today. Our full identity is encompassed in the spread – and in order to make that pure sacrifice, we need to draw sustenance from all of our traditions.

The Edge of History

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St. Francis de Sales historic Pew Rents book shows Ramspacher and Feeser in pew 31 in the West Transept of the 1911 Church.

Ordinary life often unfolds just outside bigger world events, and that is certainly true for early parishioner George Ramspacher.

Ramspacher’s death notice lists him as German, while census data describes him as French. In fact, he was born in 1842 in Alsace, a region claimed by both countries. Britannica notes that during the period, “from 1815 to 1870” Alsace was considered French; “at the end of the Franco-German War (1870–71), however …Alsace was detached from France and annexed to the German Empire….” remaining under German control until the end of World War I — so Ramspacher was, in his lifetime, both and neither.

Ramspacher arrived in the United States around 1864, during the American Civil War, “engaged in the baking business at 208 Delancey Street,” and married Miss Julia Kempton of Philadelphia in 1866, after the war ended. When he retired from the bakery in 1894, the couple moved out to our neighborhood with several adult children, including daughter Mary and her husband Theodore Feeser, all living in the same house at 510 South 48th street. The Ramspachers joined our parish just a few years after its 1890 founding, and when the new church was built in 1911, they rented pew 31 in the West transept (47th Street side) with the Feesers, who also donated a dome window.

In 1916, just a month before Woodrow Wilson was narrowly re-elected President with the soon-to-be-ironic campaign slogan “He kept us out of the War,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “With their eight children, sixteen grandchildren and six daughters and sons-in-law present, Mr. and Mrs. George Ramspacher…celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their wedding on October 1.” The paper casually noted that “the celebration was originally called for September 23, but because of the absence of some of their children at the seashore and the fear of infantile paralysis (polio) the event was postponed until last Sunday…

Daniel J. Wilson reports that “The 1916 polio epidemic was one of the largest in the United States and the largest in the world to that date…Pennsylvania’s 2,181 cases ranked third behind New York’s 13,223 and New Jersey’s 4,055…Polio typically struck during the warmer months of summer,” and in Pennsylvania, numbers escalated rapidly from three cases in May, to 120 by July, 747 in August, and 804 in September, before falling to 379 in October. “Polio was a new and frightening disease in 1916,” without a cure. Public health officials quarantined patients and their families. “In late August, the state health commissioner closed the schools until September 18. Some communities tried to prevent children from epidemic areas from entering their borders. However, since doctors in 1916 did not understand how the disease was transmitted, these measures were largely ineffective in preventing polio’s spread…” Fortunately, apart from the postponement of the party, the Ramspachers appear to have escaped its vengeance.

George Ramspacher had one more near-encounter with history, when he died on June 4, 1918, at age 76, due to “myocarditis/edema of the lungs” – heart failure and fluid in the lungs – shortly before the official September arrival of the deadly 1918 Influenza pandemic. His wife, Julia, passed in 1922. They were both buried from SFDS at New Cathedral Cemetery (2nd and Butler Streets).