Month: August 2020

Get Your Skates On

d009John Deady recalls Bishop McShea’s tales of roller skating around the basement of St. Francis de Sales church as a child in the early 1920s, when the McShea family owned the house that used to stand right behind the school at 928 Farragut Terrace, and before our basement became the Lower Church.

Roller skating became an official parish activity, briefly, during the Great Depression, at a time when a skating history notes that “Americans turned to roller-skating for an inexpensive form of entertainment. By the late 1930s, roller-skating ranked second only to bowling as the most popular participation sport….” A school auditorium could easily be multipurposed as a rink, so Catholic parishes across the country offered the diversion to their flocks. In some places, nuns in swirling habits had their own special skating hour after everyone else went home!

A 1936 notice in the Parish Monthly Bulletin explained how skating worked at Saint Francis de Sales:

 “We are gradually becoming a parish on wheels. The youngsters and the oldsters of the parish are ROLLER SKATING. Every Monday and Friday evening finds many of them cavorting and contorting in the Auditorium for their own enjoyment and the pleasure of the spectators. “The music goes around and around” and so do the skaters; it is surprising how few fall. The young boys and girls delight in circles, fancy figures, twists, turns, and waltzes, while their parents, dames and mesdames, graybeards and gallants, father and mothers circle and waltz after the manner of the pre-war days.” (that’s pre-World War I!)

“This parish activity should receive greater patronage from the boys and girls of the parish and greater encouragement from their parents. A splendid opportunity is afforded for the youth of the parish to meet with each other under favorable circumstances and to enjoy beneficial recreation. At the same time it need not be thought that it is only intended for the young. Doctors have recommended Roller Skating to cure and ward off the blues, arthritis, rheumatism, avoirdupois, high and low blood pressure, headaches, coughs, colds, and fever blisters. Its prophylactic value lies in the fact that, while roller skating, it is impossible to take ourselves too seriously in matters that are not important.”

 “We would enjoy seeing many more enjoy themselves. The parish has the best of new equipment for two hundred persons. Those attending are very sociable and the attendants, who are boys of the parish, see to it that good order is preserved and those who are learners or recapturing the spirit of childhood are helped and instructed.”       

“With the coming of colder weather, we hope that many will avail themselves of this parish activity. We would like it to be one of the social features of the parish. It is suggested that skating parties be formed and groups of friends come together to add to the enjoyment and pleasure of all concerned. Young and old are invited.”

Parish skating ended when the Auditorium was renovated in 1937 “at a considerable cost of money,” with a newly sanded, repaired, and painted floor. Entertainment changed to more sedate “Card and Radio” parties and dance “Socials.” The Catholic Bowling League started in Philadelphia in 1939 and our parish formed its own league in 1941.

Today, some find circular skating meditational. On the other side of the country, the pastime has an odd, lingering religious connection: in 2013, an abandoned Catholic church in San Francisco was turned into the “Church of 8 Wheels” roller disco “spreading rolligion around the world” — with signs at the entrance reminding that “many in the community still see this as a sacred place. Please be respectful.” It’s currently closed due to Covid, but outdoor roller skating is said to be making a comeback nationwide.

1936 roller skating 3

1936 roller skating 2

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Walk in The Woodlands

DSCN4406A walk around The Woodlands Cemetery (40th and Woodland) offers interesting glimpses into odd corners of our long parish story.  Click here for the St. Francis de Sales Woodlands tour map

winthrop smith (2)Turning right on the main path after you enter the gates, approaching the old carriage house, look for a tall obelisk with the name of Winthrop Smith, publisher of the celebrated McGuffey Readers, on the front. His son, also named Winthrop Smith, is listed on the back, with his first wife, who died in 1911. Our parish connection is with this Winthrop’s scandalous second wife: when the couple married in 1913, the well-connected protestant Philadelphia financier and member of the Union League, was aged 67 and Miss Margaret McMenamin, of 4303 Baltimore Avenue, was a 33 year old Catholic stenographer from his old banking firm. They were married quietly, on a weekday, at St. Francis de Sales by Reverend Maurice Cowl, a former Episcopalian priest, recently converted to Catholicism. The couple later had a daughter also named Margaret; her husband, Lieutenant Cmmdr Charles Monk, is buried beside the obelisk, but the two Margarets were not included in the family plot.

vetterleinContinuing around the outer asphalt drive, in section N, you’ll pass the family plot of Emma and Joseph Smallwood Vetterlein, who achieved the “American Dream.” They rented a prominent pew on the main aisle of our church in the early 1900s, had a house at 4212 Spruce Street, and an estate called Knollhurst, built in Radnor in 1898. Joseph was a partner in the Vetterlein & Co. family cigar business started by his father, Theodore Vetterlein, who emigrated from Germany, “poor, without friends or relatives,” took a job in a tobacco shop, and ultimately saved enough money to go into business for himself. By 1864 he was renowned as a “leading merchant of Philadelphia.” His sons Joseph and Herman eventually took over the family business. Herman, an officer of the American Catholic Historical Society, donated one of our dome windows.

dandurand refectory4Esther Poquet Dandurand and (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand– are buried opposite the enormous Thomas Evans obelisk on the VA side of Woodlands. Esther Poquet left France in 1838 as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Upon reaching New York, she left service to join her fate with young French adventurer and cook (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street. When Alexandre died in 1849, Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise. What’s their connection with our parish? They were the grandparents of our church architect, Henry Dagit, and it may have been this family heritage that sparked Henry’s awareness of French Byzantine Revival architecture and our patron saint.

DSCN6292Sheltered under a yew tree behind the Thomas Evans Obelisk, is a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother, marking the grave of Rose-Marie Simonis, a much-beloved Haitian teacher at SFDS school, who died of breast cancer in 2004. She lived at 4811 Windsor Ave., and her French husband, Eric, was the well-respected Sacristan of the church for several years under 12th Pastor, Father Roland; and 13th Pastor, Father Navit. SFDS School’s annual marathon used to wind through the cemetery to pay tribute at her gravesite. It’s still a good place for quiet contemplation!

Finally, back on the main path, working your way towards the exit, you’ll find a monument for Josephine Dandurand who fell in love with Charles (Karl) Dagit, the German tenant who lived above her family restaurant in the 1850s. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit, who would design our church as his family parish – he lived at 4529 Pine, rented a family pew, donated two dome windows, and his daughters are memorialized as angel statues in the back of our church.

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