Month: June 2020

Rootedness

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Stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s windows, crafted in 1910, remind us of our faith’s roots in the natural world.

The long windows on the St. Joseph side of our church show indoor formative scenes from the early life of Christ with hints of outdoors: the Annunciation, with symbolic  lilies; the Nativity in a stable; and young Jesus building a cross (wood of a tree!) in his father Joseph’s workshop. Across the aisle, episodes from the ministry of Christ show him as an adult, moving into the world outside to give his Sermon on the Mount; name Peter and establish the church; and endure his Agony in the Garden.

Have you ever noticed that all three of these scenes include olive trees in the design! Olives are ancient plants, common in the Holy Land, with deep symbolic associations, heavily referenced in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The dove in Genesis brought an olive branch to Noah to signal a new beginning after the flood. Bible Places notes that “The oil was used to anoint kings, prophets, priests, and Temple articles. Messiah, in fact, means ‘anointed one…’ ” Olive trees are known to have deep roots and live to a great age: the olive trees at Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed at the foot of the Mount of Olives, are said to be among the oldest on earth and D’Ascenzo’s windows remind us that trees are central to our religion.

_MG_2611 (2)The olive tree is especially prominent in D’Ascenzo’s final scene from the Life of Christ, which shows him in the Garden at Gethsemane, before he was crucified. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth observes that the window is arranged so that the “olive tree…forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, hand-crafted, close-to-nature worldview. D’Ascenzo admired his work. The world in 1910 was experiencing industrialization’s rapid change and D’Ascenzo, like Morris, worried about the dangers of becoming disconnected from the environment. Nature references in D’Ascenzo’s windows are thoughtful and deliberate: below the Agony in the Garden, is a scene showing the death of wise patron St. Francis de Sales – peacefully, in a gardener’s house, with a plant on the mantel. Below that, the original vent window (now below the middle window) showed a leafy wreath and snakes invoking the Tree of Knowledge and the lost Garden of Eden.

Today, a century-and-a-decade after our church was built, coronavirus has forced the dizzying pace of world development to slow down. Waiting in quarantine, people are noticing local wildlife and the budding trees (and their pollen). Scientists are encouraging us to be more mindful of our surroundings and a number of recent news articles have suggested that “Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International.” Pope Francis this year celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Laudato Si’ Encyclical “On Care for our Common Home” and encourages the faithful to participate in The Season of Creation, an annual ecumenical celebration of prayer and action to protect our common home (September 1 to October 4). It’s time to go outside, appreciate our parish flowering trees — won in Fairmount Park contests years ago by SFDS School children and planted along 47th Street — and plant more enduring good works in the neighborhood!

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Windows of the Souls

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Symbols in the 24 windows of our Guastavino dome tell the story of Christ’s Passion, but there’s a hidden human layer of meaning. Imagine early parishioners forming a prayer circle in the middle of our church, then floating up to hover in front of the windows they donated – twenty donors, each with a different prayer intention. Who were they and what were their needs? Here are just a few:

dagit familyHenry D. Dagit (4529 Pine), architect, designed our church as his family monument. He rented a family pew and his daughters modeled for the angel statues in the rear. Dagit’s youngest daughter, Jane, was born in 1907; and his father, Charles (Karl), and his brother Frederick both died in 1908, so many Dagit thoughts and prayers were woven into the fabric of our church while it was under construction from 1907 to 1911.

A007 (2)General St. Clair Mulholland (4202 Chester), another pewholder, was a Union veteran from the American Civil War, who became the first Irish Catholic Police Chief of Philadelphia in 1868.  He had retired by the time our parish was founded, but participated in its activities and made the Parish speech at our Second Pastor, Father Crane’s 1902 Silver Jubilee. He died in 1910, just before the new church was finished, so his window is his memorial.

thomas slatteryThomas Slattery (4710 Baltimore), pewholder, helped out with de Sales Nights fundraisers, and would become one of the sponsors at the Baptism of our Church Bells in 1916. Slattery, a coal wholesaler, ran the Philadelphia office of his family business. It was profitable, but there was a family tragedy, when his 34-year-old brother James, who operated the coal mine at Tuscarora with another brother Daniel, is said to have shot himself in a moment of melancholy. James was buried in Holy Family Cemetery, Schuylkill County, in 1907.

Herman Vetterlein‘s brother was pewholder Joseph Smallwood Vetterlein, who lived at 4212 Spruce. The pair ran a very successful family cigar business. Herman was also an officer of the American Catholic Historical Society. What was he commemorating when he donated a window in our church in 1910? Thankfulness, perhaps, after a long drama with an ex-wife, a custody battle, and a second marriage. In 1911 Herman became the legal guardian of his 10-year-old grandson. Business prospered that year, and perhaps uncomfortable family situations were finally resolving.

Mrs. Catherine Slane (4931 Catharine) was a pewholder with a three-year-old child, when her older husband Felix – a saloon keeper — died in 1911 after a long illness. The window she donated was probably in her late husband’s memory.

Herman Feeser (510 South Forty-eighth Street) lived with his in-laws, the Ramspachers, and the relatives shared a pew in the church. Herman was a poultry dealer at 3rd and Front Streets. He and his wife Mary were married in 1905. Perhaps their window memorialized their first child who died – or the new baby just born in 1910. Mingled sadness and joy.

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Adolpho de Nesti (studio at 3919 Irving), a sculptor from Florence, Italy, carved most of the statuary in our church and the friezes on its facade. Our church would be his biggest project and his proudest achievement; he would disappear a few years later in 1916, probably called back to Italy by his government in the First World War, leaving behind his American wife and child, never to return.

A church is made of brick and stone – and also thoughts and prayers, wishes, memories, and dreams. Imagine generations of souls, gathered around the beacon of our dome – their long-ago intentions joined in concert with all our prayers today. A powerful beam towards the heavens.

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Prayer for Journalists

Our church is named for Saint Francis de Sales, the Patron Saint of Journalists (1567-1622), who wrote:

We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear. Let us take breath, and go on afresh.

Let us be as precise and balanced as possible in our words.”

When you speak of your neighbour, look upon your tongue as a sharp razor in the surgeon’s hand, about to cut nerves and tendons; it should be used so carefully, as to insure that no particle more or less than the truth be said.

Above all, avoid false accusations and the distortion of truth regarding your neighbor.

“Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”

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St. Francis de Sales (1940 Parish Silver Jubilee Anniversary Book).

 

A modern Prayer for Journalists is shown on a plaque in St. Bride’s Episcopal Church in London, which ministers to the Fleet Street press:

Almighty God,
Strengthen and direct, we pray, the will of all whose work it is to write what many read,
and to speak where many listen. May we be bold to confront evil and injustice: understanding and compassionate of human weakness; rejecting alike the half-truth which deceives, and the slanted word which corrupts.

May the power which is ours, for good or ill, always be used with honesty and courage,
with respect and integrity, so that when all here has been written, said and done, we may, unashamed, meet Thee face to face,
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
Amen.

On World Communications Day, May 24, 2020, Pope Francis entreated: “May this event encourage us to tell and share constructive stories that help us to understand that we are all part of a story that is larger than ourselves, and can look forward to the future with hope if we truly care for one another as brothers and sisters.”