Month: July 2020

A Room With A View

DSCN6647Constance O’Hara’s 1955 biography Heaven was Not Enough, chronicled a personal crisis of faith in an eerily relatable setting.

Born near Rittenhouse Square in 1905, Constance came from a well-connected, well-to-do Philadelphia Irish Catholic family in an “age of immense security and serenity.” Her father was the physician for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and local convents; her great uncle was the first Bishop of Scranton. Her family were also linked, in some way, with Eleanor Donnelly – the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church” who contributed our Blessed Mother altar.

That solid world began to turn hollow in May 1914, when Constance made her First Holy Communion — two months before the start of World War I. Her father, rejected by every branch of the military due to his fragile health, then exhausted himself tending patients through the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Inspired by Blessed Thérèse, the “Little Flower,” who would be canonized in 1925, he quietly carried her relic and “offered up” his sufferings as his health slowly deteriorated.

Our neighborhood enters the story at this point: Constance writes that “my mother, with the realities of life swamping her, returned to the precepts of her ancestors – a belief in bricks and mortar. We bought a vast house on Baltimore Avenue (number 4331 per parish records), its front windows flooded with sunshine, its back rooms dark and damp. It faced Clark Park which seemed like the wilds of the country. The oak paneling was solid and magnificent, as my mother pointed out; the furnaces consumed tons of coal and we were never warm. Over this uneasy home was suspended a mortgage bearing a staggering interest rate...”

DSCN3138 (2)I still went to Sunday Mass with my father, often to the ornate Church of St. Francis de Sales where Bishop Michael Crane met us at the door, saying in a booming cheerful voice that maddened me: “It’s time you got a nice Irish Catholic boy to marry that one. I’ve just the lad in mind. I’ll send him over tonight...”

Constance was not receptive. She notes that the years after WWI and during Prohibition were “an ugly period in which to be young.…” Cynical youth like herself  “were going to be honest about everything, and as the old moral values were based on hypocrisy we would dispense with them” and “just get as much pleasure from money and our senses as possible before it all ended in the final defeat of death…” while an off-kilter world careened towards the Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII.

After an unfortunate visit to an unnamed confessor at SFDS when her father died in 1926 – she wanted comfort, but was scolded, instead, for “indulging in self-pity” — Constance rejected the Church for many years. Nonetheless, one day in 1933, when “the sun poured in the windows of my room, and the tall trees in Clark Park had never seemed so beautiful...” she wrote  a “profoundly Catholic play” called The Years of the Locusts, about an enclosed convent of Irish Benedictine nuns surviving in occupied Belgium during the First World War, based on real diaries. The play was performed locally at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Tree and was picked up for a run in London, but the beginning of World War II derailed those expansive plans.

1943 photo fr. flatley in uniformA long period of small achievement followed, punctuated with illness and depression, before Constance reconciled with the Church in the early 1950s. This was due, in part, to Reverend William Flatley, recently returned to SFDS from service in WWII, who gently encouraged her to offer up her personal suffering for American soldiers then fighting in Korea – and she wrote her healing memoir. She died in 1985, but her story remains like a leaded-glass window to another age, offering odd glimpses of a familiar,  unfamiliar landscape though its diamond panes.

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To Infinity and Beyond

B029 It might be hard to get away from the city this summer, so let’s check out some distant worlds inside St. Francis de Sales church at 47th and Springfield!

We think of our 1911 church as old and elegant, but it was futuristic when it was built, decorated with the state-of-the-art fireproof tilework designed to sheath modern skyscrapers, and fully-wired for newfangled electricity. A 1922 photo of the church interior shows dramatic movie theatre light bulbs around all of the arches. Look closely: those antique back-to-the-future light fixtures are still embedded in the clay tiles!

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From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Our church bells have some curious associations. An early American translation of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel of space travel,  From the Earth to the Moon, used the name of the Meneely Bell Foundry – the same company that made our bells – for the manufacturer of the bell-shaped metal spacecraft in which astronauts were catapulted to the moon. One of our bells is named Gervase, probably after Bishop Crane’s sibling, who became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM. But there was also a medieval English monk named Gervase who was famous for describing a strange phenomenon in 1178 AD, when the horn of the moon split in two and  “from the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals and sparks…” Scientists hypothesize that Gervase-the-monk could have observed the formation of a crater on the moon, or, more likely, an exploding meteor between the earth and the moon – an event to think about when our bells toll!

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Artistic rendering of Gervase of Canterbury’s moon observation
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Detail from Saint Francisde Sales Church window

High in the tower on the East side of our church, is a window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light with radiant beams – or a tail. It may represent the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis. It could also have marked the arrival of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910. Though it appeared every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen and tabloids predicted the end of civilization. Our window-designer may have commemorated that fortunate escape.

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Bishop’s Insignia of Saint Francis de Sales

Even the Bishop’s insignia of our patron Saint Francis de Sales has an other-worldly reference in the form of twin stars Castor and Pollux. These were added to the Sales family shield around 1310, after an ancestor, Pierre de Sales, observed “two flying lights appeared above the mast” during a fierce storm at sea. Other sailors were terrified, but Pierre correctly identified “Castor and Pollux” – a name used to describe a double jet of Saint Elmo’s Fire – an eerie sea-going weather phenomenon. He advised the ships to stay their course through the Mediterranean to aid the Knights of St. John at Rhodes, and as a result, was awarded the right to embellish his family shield. Francis de Sales incorporated the stars from his family emblem in his Bishop’s insignia in 1602, perhaps also thinking about St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, who sailed on an Alexandrian ship “whose sign was Castor and Pollux.”

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Detail from the cover of Atlantis: the Andtedilivian World

Finally, back to earth, our Blessed Mother altar was donated in by Eleanor Donnelly, the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” in memory of her deceased family members — including her brother, Ignatius Donnelly, who taught her to write poetry. Ignatius, who was a Minnesota senator, is celebrated today for his 1882 book  Atlantis: the Antediluvian Worlda cult classic of  undersea “Lost City of Atlantis” lore.

So, though you may have to take a “staycation” this summer due to covid; there’s plenty of room for your mind to wander, from outer space to the depths of the ocean, back at church!

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