Month: March 2021

The Children’s Hour: First Communion 1911

The year 1911 was notable for the children of our parish – and not just because the newly-built church opened with great celebration and ceremony.

An old parish document states that “Nineteen hundred and eleven was a red letter year in the history of the school, for the children of St. Francis de Sales, shared with other children throughout the world the benefits of the new Decree of Pius X, making possible the reception of our dear Lord in Holy Communion at the early age of seven. Accordingly all the little ones who had reached that age received our Lord on the First Friday of May…

This was a big moment for the church. In October 1910, the Philadelphia Inquirer had reported Pope Pius X’s new decree that children should receive their first Communion at the “age of reason,” when they made their first Penance: “regarding the points of instruction, it will not be necessary for the child to know the whole catechism, as has been customary heretofore in the United States.” First Communion, which “completed” the sacraments of initiation, came after Confirmation in those days: Confirmation was regarded as a “strengthening sacrament,” rather than a “sacrament of maturity” (the order didn’t begin to change until 1932), and the Inquirer reported that before the 1910 ruling, “children making their first Communion were usually between the ages of ten and fourteen.

The 1911 ceremony – which may have been a combination Confirmation/First Communion — probably took place in the original chapel/school building, (the building that today contains the Parish Auditorium), since the new church would not be ready until November and we don’t know what “finishing touches” were still underway. Unfortunately, the Communion and Confirmation records for that year are unavailable, so we don’t know much about the actual ceremony, or the specific names of those receiving the sacraments — although we can guess that  the list might have included one of the Slattery boys — sons of the local coal wholesaler, who would help to “baptize” our bells in 1916; one of the Hasson girls — whose big brother Philip would be the first boy ordained from our parish; and perhaps one of the Dagits —  children of the architect, who may have modeled for our angel sculptures; among many others.

Reverend Crane chose a Friday for the 1911 First Communion, so that children could continue afterwards with “The Communion of Reparation, the receiving of Our Divine Savior, on the First Friday of every month for nine consecutive months….” A 1928 report noted that this “has ever been a devotion dear to the heart of the Pastor, and the children have responded joyously to the call of Christ, and the voice of their beloved shepherd…

Six years later, in 1917, when most of the children in the school were receiving Communion, they mobilized further with the entrance of the United States into World War I: “A Children’s Eucharistic League was formed, the principal duty of which was to receive our Lord frequently that He might bring peace to the war-ridden world….” This was part of a much larger movement, begun by Pope Pius X, who wanted everyone to take Communion more often, and promoted the special power of children’s eucharistic participation – especially in times of trouble.

Incidentally, our Father Eric wrote a thesis on the changed order of confirmation and First Communion, so we have our own “in-house expert” to take us full circle on this interesting historical subject!


Parish Report Card

An old folder recently yielded up a copy of our parish 2002 Self-Assessment of the Pastoral Plan – our parish self-written “report card” – put together under 12th pastor Father Roland Slobogin, almost twenty years ago, to mark the start of our “Second Hundred Years.” That surprisingly interesting time capsule included several pages from an earlier report, composed by Angie Coughlan and Maureen Tate in 1995 for 11th pastor Father Janton, offering some “reflections for consideration” that were still considered relevant in 2002. Do they seem familiar?

                “We have long sensed a need for collaborative decision-making at St. Francis de Sales. The need exists for the ministry team as well as the Parish and Finance Councils and parishioners. Great efforts are made in the areas of parish life but they are not coordinated or in communication with each other. There needs to be further development of the Parish Council so that it can be included in decision-making with the ministry team as well as solicit input from parishioners.

                “There has long been a great need for dialogue about liturgy. Because of our diverse community we have many views on liturgical music, symbol and ritual, and the spirit of worship that makes prayer possible...” (This was topical in 2002, since SFDS and MBS had recently been twinned; we became a combined parish in 2007)

                “We currently have no vehicle for addressing the social and spiritual needs of our teenagers. We need to find a way for them to be a more visible presence in the community and to enable them to make their own contribution.”

                “Our social action focus has been limited to direct service and referral. Parishioners who constitute the microcosm which is St. Francis de Sales face issues of race, class, economic injustice, violence and community disintegration on a daily basis in very real ways and we need the Church to provide some guidance or forum in which to address these major influences in our lives and community. For those who are working on these issues constantly, we feel that we should be making a Christian response and yet there is not a way to help one another discern what this might be.”

                “There have been very infrequent and limited opportunities for adult spiritual enrichment. We recognize that past efforts were not always well attended but we believe there needs to be a consistent effort to build this into our parish life. Many of our parishioners could be resource people for such programs.

                “When funds were available parishioners valued and benefited from the resources of a DRE (A Director of Religious Education to run the PREP. Now we have Sr. Alice!) Parents are willing and able to maintain the religious education program for children although administration, development and growth is very limited...”

                “Although our parish is well regarded by the community we have observed that there is no interaction with other churches in the immediate neighborhood. We do have some relationship with the other Catholic churches of West Philadelphia although this is also very limited. Because of the pressing social problems in our midst and because other church communities are trying to address these same immediate concerns we feel that the community and parishioners would benefit by collaboration with the other churches….”

                “We noted that our parish school is an important resource in the parish. There does exist, however, a significant separation between the school community and the parish...” (The school became independent in 2011)

The Hand of St. Joseph

Have you ever noticed that when sculptor Adolfo de Nesti carved our statue of St. Joseph, back around 1911, he depicted the saint with his eyes closed?

Perhaps that has protected St. Joseph from having to witness a lot of “indignities” heaped on our statues over the years.

In pre-Vatican II times, John Deady recalls “at least twice a year they used to hang a shrine around his neck. One was for the feast of Christ the King in October, another that occurred around this time of year was a portrait of St. Francis X for the annual Novena of Grace. These were drapes and pictures of the appropriate individual.” He notes that “The Blessed Mother was not spared this indignity: at Christmas she was hidden behind Christmas trees as a backdrop for the manger and again she held up the elaborate repository that was set up for Holy Thursday….The Holy Thursday repository was particularly elaborate…”

During Lent, before Vatican II, the statues in the church were draped in purple. This wrapping of statues entailed a certain amount of manhandling by the crew of boys who helped out at the time. The late Don McDermott recalled how the boys who assisted at the Holy Saturday Liturgy, would then “stand in assigned places around the packed church and at the Gloria they would in perfect unison using the long window poles from the school classrooms, uncover all the statues as the bells rang.” This provided a dramatic ritual, but the wielding of long poles with metal hooks in a crowded space might have offered its own perils.

The statues of the Sacred Heart and St. Francis de Sales both stood proudly up in the sanctuary for many years: the Sacred Heart, to the right of the Blessed Mother; and St. Francis de Sales, to the left of the St. Joseph altar. They were both banished – the Sacred Heart, unceremoniously shuffled to the side of the church, and St. Francis de Sales to the back — with the Vatican II “de-cluttering” of the sanctuary, probably during the Venturi neon lights renovation in the late 1960s.  

In modern times, Mary and Joseph were half-concealed behind the heavy metal scaffolding that filled the sanctuary from 2006 to 2013, during roof repairs. Saint Anne and Saint Anthony are still hidden in the lonely darkness behind the metal mesh on the sides of the church. For awhile, Saint Anthony sported a construction helmet to protect him from falling debris; today, the two statues are shielded under rough wooden shelters.

The custom seems to have been revived, recently, of mummifying statues in purple, in the last two weeks of Lent “at the discretion of the local pastor.” It is suggested that “The veiling of crosses and images is a sort of ‘fasting’ from sacred depictions which represent the paschal glory of our salvation.

One might wonder how meaningful is this veiling, if the statues are not appreciated the rest of the year: how is it that nobody noticed when St. Joseph’s index finger broke off, sometime in the past ten years or so! Our statues of St. Martin de Porres and the Sacred Heart also have damaged fingers. The Sacred Heart is ancient breakage, badly repaired; St. Martin’s cracked finger is more recent.

We’re not sure when or how the damage to our St. Joseph statue occurred, but it’s part of our story now. Perhaps we should take it as a symbol and caution: he used to raise his hand in blessing, pointing to the heavens; today, his hand curves down, his thumb pointing towards himself. Did our world turn inward when we weren’t watching? We need to point to the heavens once again! In the “Year of St. Joseph,” perhaps that should be our parish mandate.