Ask 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.
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.
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.
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.