Month: September 2020

Portal of Prayer

IMG_2318 sfds facade carving de nestiThe words and artwork above the doors of a church are intended to guide churchgoers as they move through the doorway, or portal, from the outdoor worldly world into sacred space.   At Saint Francis de Sales, that direction has long been hidden – and not just because it has been covered by scaffolding!

The message above the central door to our church is visible in photographs, but long misrepresented in writing. In almost every description of the church, since the beginning, only the first half of the inscribed verse is quoted: “My eyes will be open and my ears attentive.” Winding around a scene (carved by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti) usually described as “the Madonna and Christ Child” — an active toddler — this might easily be understood as a reminder to churchgoers of proper behavior as you enter the church: be still, be quiet; observe the magnificent decorations and the pageantry; listen carefully to the readings and the sermon.

This is only a partial quote, however. The actual phrase engraved above our doors is 2 Chronicles 7:15 “My eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of him that shall pray in this house,” which puts a different spin on things: these are the words that God the Father, spoke to Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, built to house the Ark of the Covenant. The verse in the Bible continues “For I have chosen, and have sanctified this place, that my name may be there for ever, and my eyes and my heart may remain there perpetually.” So instead of telling us how to behave in church, our church is likened to the fabled Holy Temple of King Solomon! This is reinforced in the image framed by the verse, which is not just the “Madonna and Christ Child,” but Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional French doorway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin…the Virgin being symbolic of the Church as well as being the Bride of Christ.”

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The association is not incidental. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that “A door is an obvious symbol of the way to salvation through the church, and for this reason the main door is usually directly opposite the altar.” In our church, the pose of the toddler Christ above the portal is echoed in the crucifixion mosaic above the altar and the doorway inscription theme continues up in the sanctuary, with two phrases threaded around the top of the walls. The first is from the 26th Psalm in which David – patriarch of Jesus’ lineage — says “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”  (note the Mary monogram above the words “beauty of thy house!”) The other quote, from Genesis 28:16, is part of what Jacob said upon awakening from his dream about angels climbing a ladder to heaven: “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” — in the Bible, the verse continues “and I knew it not….This is no other but the house of God and the gate of heaven.

Studying inscriptions in churches, and especially the words inscribed above ancient European church portals, Calvin B. Kendall noted that historically, “Inscriptions articulated the hopes and fears of monks and worshippers, spoke for them and to them, and in some cases may have functioned as talismans against lurking demons.” In 1911, our doorway inscription boldly identified our church as a holy place and acclaimed the benefits of prayer in that uncertain age leading up to the First World War.

For many years now, the front of our church has been wreathed in scaffolding that has concealed the portal decorations and offered a different message and symbolism. Scaffolding is human-built structure that provides support while keeping people safe. It’s also an emblem of “work in progress,” a very apt description of our parish! And, perhaps, there’s a warning: over time, is it possible to become so conditioned to rigid human framework, that we are in danger of letting it overwhelm the spiritual message of God’s love?

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Secret Garden Door

Door on East side of church as shown in architectural drawings

Have you ever noticed that there is no sculpture in the arch (tympanum) above the parking lot door outside Saint Francis de Sales Church? It looks a little bare, but that seems to have been intentional.

Henry Dagit’s original architectural plan for the church shows sculptures in the arches above the three front doors on Springfield Ave., and above the 47th Street door, but the Eastern Elevation drawing, showing the Rectory Side of the church, has an empty half-moon above the door, with no ornamentation planned for that side of the building.

                Why would that be?

SFDS shown on 1909 map

When our church was finished in 1911, that part of the building wasn’t a priority, since it wasn’t visible from the street! The eastern entrance to the church was tucked away in a “secret garden” courtyard, formed with the back of the  rectory on one side; the wall of the new church on another; the side of the school (with the alley space between the church and school, probably used for deliveries from 47th street) filling the third side; and the back fences of a row of houses along Farragut Terrace completing the enclosure. We have no record of whether the small, closed yard space was planted or paved, or how it was used. It was probably a laundry and utility area for the rectory, and/or a school playground; there was, as yet, no need for parking, since people didn’t have cars.

Needs and conditions changed over time and that side of the property became exposed in 1926, when the parish bought and demolished the two corner houses on Springfield Ave. (numbers 4615 and 4617) to create the corner rectory garden; and numbers 936 to 932 on Farragut Terrace to build the addition to the school. The church parking lot on Farragut Terrace was part of that development. The ramp to the church door was added in the late 1990s.

SFDS shown on 1927 map

Who owned the houses that were removed back in 1926? One familiar name is that of Roger A. McShea at 928 South Farragut Terrace – he was the father of future Bishop Joseph Mark McShea, who would grow up to become our Fifth pastor from 1952-1961. Number 932, incidentally, was owned by a gentleman named John Sanderson Trump – a terribly familiar last name, but, as far as we know, unrelated.

As to the “portal sculpture” — if a design had ever been proposed for that empty half-moon space above the eastern door, what could it have been? The scenes above the doors on the front of the church show the Annunciation, the Crowning of Mary, and the Pieta. The 47th street side of the church shows another Mary-related scene, the Nativity. The Assumption might have completed her story – and that would have been very suitable, since Bishop Crane, who built the church, had a special devotion to Mary and to the Rosary. He could even have placed a Mary garden in the courtyard — invoking the medieval idea of the hortus conclusis or enclosed garden representing Mary’s virginity and purity – looking much like today’s Rectory garden with the MBS statues.

Instead, it was left to imaginations (and perhaps to future parishioners) to complete the decorations on that side of the building. We are reminded yet again, that we, like our magnificent church, are all “unfinished business” – ever adapting to new circumstances, never complete on this earth, and never, ever perfect.

SFDS front doors as shown in architectural drawings

Father Flatley Enlists

1943 photo fr. flatley in uniformRev. William Flatley assisted at SFDS from May 1940 until he enlisted in June 1943. The Parish Monthly Bulletin reported: “While here, Father did grand work among the High School students, Ushers and the men of the Holy Name Society, also in various other projects which were assigned to him. We are certain that Father will make a good Chaplain and will be an asset to the Chaplains Corps of the United States Army” in World War II.

The Bulletin reported his progress: “At present Father Flatley is in the training school for Chaplains at Harvard University. He will remain there for a period of four weeks after which he will be assigned to some Army Camp…” A 1945 De Sales Night Program later added “On October 19, 1943, Captain Flatley embarked for England. In July, 1944, he reached France, Belgium, and probably elsewhere. His assignments included an Evacuation Hospital, an Anti-Aircraft Group, and a Tank Destroyer Outfit. We hear from Father Flatley regularly. In his travels abroad he has met many of our boys, among them PFS John C. Mundy, who is with the First Army. Christmas afforded him a most pleasant experience. After saying Mass, he came upon another boy of the Parish, Sgt. Francis C. Boyle.”

In March 1945, the St. Louis Register reported on one of his assignments: “The Stars and Stripes fly over the celebrated Abbey of Maria-Laach…” (German Rhineland) where “The 800-year-old abbey, a masterpiece of Romanesque, is intact. Abbot Ildefons Herwegen and the entire community were found well. The magnificent liturgical services continue, although the community is considerably reduced. Seven priests, three clerics, four postulants, and fourteen brothers drafted by the Nazis, are still in the army….The abbey buildings were used as a Nazi hospital. The U.S. Catholic Army Chaplain now stationed in Maria-Laach is the Rev. William H. Flatley, Philadelphia, who has Mass every afternoon in the famous abbey church.

It could have been an awkward posting and Flatley did well to focus on the abbey’s ancient heritage. In the early 1930s, the Maria-Laach Abbey reportedly became a center for “right-wing Catholics…The monks, politicians, businessmen, theologians and students who gathered there were strongly influenced by the idea of a coming ‘Reich’, hoping to build a third Holy Roman Empire…” and in 1933, Herwegen had proclaimed “Let us say a wholehearted yes to the new structure of the total state, which is thought to be entirely analogous to the structure of the church.” Nazism later proved hostile to Catholicism and the monks became “a regular target of state attacks. It was only the Nazi persecution of the churches… that forced Herwegen to see the regime in a new light…” Getting things back in order, Flatley may at times have had to channel our patron St. Francis de Sales, who advised “When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.

Father Flatley came home in 1946: the Parish Monthly Bulletin reports that “After three years in the service, Father William Flatley has been discharged and has been appointed to return to St. Francis de Sales…” He stayed here until 1955.  Fran Byers says: “I remember Father Flatley well and liked him (and all the other priests) very much.  To me, he was kind of a nice tough guy.  He could enforce discipline effectively.   For example, if two boys acted up at one of our Friday night dances, Father Flatley would come over to the auditorium, usher the offenders out the side door to the school yard and do whatever was needed to convince them to behave properly. I didn’t witness what his methods were.” Author Constance O’Hara wrote that he had “the gentleness of all strong people” with his “patience, kindness, and…the compassion of his Christ.” She credited him with a crucial role in her return to Catholicism, gently, persistently, urging her to focus outward and offer up her personal sufferings for faraway soldiers in Korea.

Monsignor William Flatley eventually became Pastor and then Pastor Emeritus of Immaculate Conception Parish, Jenkintown. He died May 23, 1992, one day after the 55th Anniversary of his ordination.


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flatley and chaplains

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