Month: December 2020

Mystery Box

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A dusty box of metal pieces in the back of the rectory basement tells a tale of long ago.

You probably don’t recognize the Addressograph Multigraph (AM) company name, even though The New York Times reported that “its embossed metal address plates were once as common as business cards in millions of offices.

Once upon a time, every organization that mailed things in bulk, used Addressograph or similar specialized equipment to print envelopes and address labels. AM also produced the chunky devices used to process credit card purchases and roll out their carbon copy receipts in stores and businesses worldwide.

What’s the connection with our parish?

For many years, the ledgers show steady monthly payments to the Cleveland Ohio company for the equipment used to address parish mailings. This was an important administrative function for a busy large parish, using heavy machines housed with the equally-important weekly-collection coin counting mechanisms in the Rectory basement (remember coins!). First, an Addressograph device stamped out a permanent raised-letter metal address plate for each parish family (the same technology used to create military dog tags). Color-coded tabs added to each plate indicated membership in different parish organizations. A group of plates could then be selected, slotted into a cartridge, and fed into a machine which pushed them, one by one, against an inked ribbon, to impress the addresses onto envelopes or pages that passed through the rollers – similar in principle to an old-fashioned typewriter’s operation. Lots of parish activities meant lots of outgoing mail.

Like our parish membership, AM’s business reached its peak in the expansive, optimistic, moon-landing 1960s, when anything seemed possible. When the Post Office introduced Zip Codes in 1963, efficiency improved, and mass mailing became ever more popular. Business opportunities seemed endless. Then came the uncertainties of Watergate, President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, the energy crisis, and an economic recession. AM’s mood turned conservative, focused on maintaining existing business, and new product development stalled – though elsewhere, technology continued to evolve. Suddenly noticing that it was behind, The New York Times reported that in 1979, AM “stumbled in a desperate effort to migrate from the mechanical to the electronic age,” and went bankrupt: “a classic case of the failure of a major office-products concern to cope with new technology...” Its employees painfully moved into other businesses, learned other trades, and started over in new careers – sometimes in other countries.

Meanwhile, our parish faced its own challenges, as city demographics changed. Parish membership dropped alarmingly through the 1970s, as longtime parishioners moved out to the suburbs.  Stacks of unused obsolete address plates piled up in a forgotten corner as the parish adapted to its new slim size and budget, while at the same time trying to embrace Vatican II renewal. The Vietnamese refugee ministry offered a new focus with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Information delivery sped up for a new era:  the stately monthly calendar became a weekly handout in church, eventually to be supplemented by websites and Facebook. The once-vital U.S. Postal Service became known as “snail mail.” We eventually became the combined parish of St. Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament.

What would the world have been like if things had stayed the same? Typewriters. Dictaphones. Mimeograph machines. Heard of those? Remember them? They’ve all been replaced and the companies that manufactured them either adapted to new conditions, developed new ideas, and revitalized — or became extinct – while the wheel of history rolled on. A cautionary tale for Parish life!

Coin counters in the Rectory basement circa 1962

The Nativity Portal: We Like Sheep

The Nativity scene is very weathered above the 47th Street door to our church, and today it’s hard to tell if the visitors to the Christ Child, are kings or shepherds!

Does it matter?

You might have expected that our “magnificent church” would have identified with the Three Kings, dressed in worldly finery, and offering splendid gifts to honor the Christ Child. And, indeed, the Adoration of the Magi is a traditional theme for doorway sculptures on many elaborate old churches.

Our church seems to have chosen a different route, though. A partial view of our sculpture, visible in several 1940 SFDS school photos, appears to confirm that the central visitor is a child shepherd with a sheep — and this is supported by the phrase around the scene, still readable as “The Word Was Made Flesh” rather than “They Offered Him Gifts…”

Why depict a shepherd?  Pope Francis observes that the arrival of the shepherds marks a critical moment in the story of Christ’s birth, since, after hearing from the angels, “the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation. It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation.”

Our doorway sculptures are part of an overall design theme in our church, based on John’s Gospel that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” This doctrine is central to faith: as the BBC concisely explains, “Through the incarnation of Jesus, humans were able to start repairing their damaged relationship with God. This relationship had been imperfect since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Through Jesus’ incarnation, God began the process of salvation from sin, making it possible for humans to have a full relationship with him and go to Heaven.

How does this appear in artwork? The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art states that “The Incarnation, i.e. God becoming man in the person of Christ, is…symbolized, either as the Annunciation (at Mary’s words ‘Let it be with me according to your word’), or as the Nativity.” So the Nativity depiction above the 47th street door represents the witness to God becoming human. On the front of the building, the Annunciation scene – another Incarnation –is shown above the left or “choir” door. The theme continues above the center door, with the Christ child shown standing with arms outstretched in the same pose as Christ on the crucifix above the altar inside – foreshadowing his future sacrifice. And on the right, the crucified Jesus is mourned by his mother – a human moment – with an inscription reminding that “Christ died for us” – emphasizing that God became human to save us.

The same theme is echoed inside, with the three Life of Christ windows on the parking lot side of the church. Like the first door on the front of our church, the first window shows the Annunciation. The middle window is another Nativity scene with humble shepherds as the human witnesses to the Incarnation. The third window shows young Jesus building a cross with his Dad – a family moment, parallel to the scene of his mother taking him down from the cross on the front of the church. Below all three windows are different artistic interpretations of double crosses — symbols of the dual nature of Christ, both human and divine.

Why are the outdoor scenes above the church doors important? The entryway, or “Portal,” frames the experience. Those who pass through the front doors into the church are reminded of the power of prayer and instructed to be aware that Christ died for our sins. At the side door, we are advised to approach with humility. If that “portal” includes a child shepherd, then the meaning is even more pointed, since Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And the sheep in the scene remind us that we are God’s flock, and he is both our shepherd and the sacrificial “Lamb of God.”

St. Francis de Sales School Sixth Grade, 1940