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!