Month: November 2020

The Lesson of the Christ Child

Nativity scene shown in the December 1931 SFDS Parish Monthly Calendar

The Parish Monthly Calendar for Christmas 1929, probably printed early, made no mention of the October stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression, but it did urge parishioners “WE ASK YOU TO BE MORE GENEROUS THAN EVER IN YOUR CHRISTMAS OFFERING.”

A year later, the pastoral letter observed that “The world is in dire need of a spirit of optimism today…” and a small news item in the Parish Monthly Calendar mentioned that the Girls’ Corps (a Girl Scout-like parish organization) had gathered donations to put together “thirty-four well-filled baskets” of food for the poor of the parish, distributed in December 1930.

Another year passed and the Parish Monthly Calendar reported that on December 20, 1931, “members from the Girls’ Corps with girls from the Commercial Class (girls not planning to go  to High School) accepted donations at the door of the church” in the morning, then, held an afternoon Christ Child Party, in which “children and adults crowded the school auditorium and presented gifts of food and various articles of clothing for the poor in honor of the Christ-Child, the exemplar of poverty.” Ninety-six boxes of food thus gathered were then sent out to “the needy families of the parish” and “a consignment of clothing and shoes was distributed to the children whom the Sisters in school knew to be in need.

Troubles continued. The January 1933 Parish Monthly Calendar reported that De Sales Night – the much-anticipated annual church party at the luxurious Bellevue-Stratford Hotel – was canceled “because of the stress of the times” and a less costly entertainment would be held, instead, at the Byrd Movie Theatre, 47th and Baltimore. A full-page article praised the efforts of all who had helped with, or donated at, the 1932 charitable Christmas Christ-Child Party (run by the St. Vincent de Paul Conference). That year “The need was much greater: so much so that one fears to mention the number of families in our parish that had to be helped…

As the Great Depression settled in, through the 1930s, the threat of hunger and homelessness loomed very real for many parishioners.

What was in the charity boxes? They sound remarkably like Covid-era lockdown kits, consisting of bushels of potatoes; tins of vegetables and fruits; lots of dried beans (assorted kinds); onions; coffee; sugar; butter; milk (in tins); bread; jelly; and oatmeal. Scrapple and chicken were the meats. Oranges and a little hard candy were offered as a treat. No toys: gifts included stockings, underwear, blouses, shoes, and other items of clothing.

It doesn’t seem like a lot by today’s standards, but new underwear, shoes, or socks might have been welcomed by children in a large family, and potatoes with chicken could make a good Christmas dinner. People didn’t have as much, and they didn’t expect as much: outgrown clothing was “handed down” until it wore out; then the pieces were turned into quilts and other handcrafts. Moth-eaten sweaters could be unraveled and re-knitted into gloves. An old sock could be fashioned into a doll or stuffed animal, and a wooden grocery crate made a scooter or cart. Mothers were adept at turning unappetizing food scraps into satisfying meals; picky eaters went hungry.

Now, decades later, the wheel of fortune has turned again and some of those long-forgotten coping skills have been rediscovered as families learn to manage Covid lockdowns, unemployment, and shortages. We are more isolated because of contagion, but we do have internet and phones to connect, and snail-mail still works. And we are conscious that we need to be less wasteful in order to save our shared environment. Covid is a reminder, calling us back to core values. Looking at the Nativity scene, Pope Francis observed last year: “we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness….From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.

The December 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar explained the Christ Child Party
The January 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar reported on the December 1931 efforts

An Ornament to the City

When Reverend Joseph O’Neill tried to buy land to build our first SFDS chapel in 1891, local property owners expressed concerns about the incoming Irish and German Catholic immigrants. By the time the handsome new church was finished in 1911, the building had become a local fixture.

1911 dedication

The media may have helped to bridge gaps and ease some of the tensions of the changing neighborhood, by opening windows into Catholic culture. Newspapers of the period liked to publish lengthy, detailed word-pictures of interesting events – as when, on November 13, 1911, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported how “Archbishop Prendergast, assisted by two other prelates of equal rank and a number  of priests of the archdiocese of Philadelphia, with appropriate and impressive ceremonies yesterday dedicated the new Catholic Church of St. Francis de Sales, Forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue.”

The Inquirer carefully described the scene: “The interior of the edifice had been transformed into a bower of beauty and light. Hundreds of candles and electric bulbs shed their rays through the auditorium and sanctuary, while the best skill of the florist and decorator was in evidence with the mass of multicolored autumn flowers that banked the altars with side walls. The church was crowded with a notable representation of the laity, which had gathered long before the hour set for the beginning of the ceremonies. Many unable to gain admission to the edifice stood about outside the church to see the imposing procession of prelates and priests which proceeded to the services.”

Two church dignitaries who assisted Archbishop Prendergast at the dedicatory exercises were Bishop Fitzmaurice of Erie, and Bishop Carroll, of Nueva Segovia, Philippine Islands. Promptly at 10.30 A. M. the procession of clergy and acolytes moved from the chapel of the school building and proceeded along Forty-seventh street to the main entrance of the church on Springfield avenue. As the cross bearer entered the wide door of the edifice the choir, accompanied by a large orchestra, sang a joyous anthem. The procession moved up the centre aisle. Here it divided, part going to the right and part to the left, allowing Bishop Prendergast and the other prelates, clothed in full pontifical robes, to ascend the altar when the simple ceremony of dedication took place.

1911 dedication cst (2)

For Catholic readers, The Catholic Standard and Times newspaper peered behind the scenes to list all the important names, then summarize the sermons and speeches. Pastor Reverend Crane spoke of construction concerns in our developing neighborhood, and how, when the plans of the building were first submitted to the men of the parish (no women, of course!), “At first all thought the church would be too expensive, but when it was pointed out that the neighborhood was one of the best residential sections of the city; that the Catholic church is the true house of God, and that God’s permanent home should be second to none, they began with confidence…” The project was complicated, with the Guastavino dome to be built atop the Dagit structure, so “Solemn High Mass was offered at the start for the intention that the work should be successful, and that no accident should occur...” Archbishop Prendergast addressed “all those who watched the progress of the work from the foundation until the cross surmounted the graceful and majestic dome, to those who that day saw for the first time the beauties of which they have so often read...” and described the resulting — “magnificent new temple” as a landmark that “charms the eye and is an ornament to the city.” It was also a permanent territorial marker for Catholicism in the area, with an interior “well fitted to serve the needs of those who for generations to come will assemble within its walls…”

Nine years later, after the construction debt was paid, the building was officially consecrated on November 13, 1920. The building that the neighbors once rejected had become a cornerstone of the neighborhood