A lot of ideas came together – by chance or by providence – when the statue of our patron Saint Francis de Sales was mounted above the door of our Guastavino-domed Byzantine-Romanesque style church back in 1911.
Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia, explains that the Byzantine Revival movement originated in France in the late nineteenth century and our church owes “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with welcoming rounded arches and vaults — rather than stern, angular Gothic pointed arches and steeples — and with a heaven-like dome to complete the thought. The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Paris began construction in1875 and the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille was finished in 1896, so the energy was in the air with some striking new examples as guides.
Architect Henry Dagit, who lived in the parish at 4529 Pine St., had a deeply personal interest in the building, even memorializing some of his relatives in its decorations. The Dagit family were of French/German heritage, so Henry was naturally attracted to French and German design inspiration for his family church.
For an American twist, Dagit realized that a distinctive Guastavino Dome roof — an engineering marvel — could complete the design, and allow a generous open-space floor plan for the church. Spanish immigrant Rafael Guastavino was famous for his unique building system in which tiles were layered with special mortar to create a strong, lightweight dome structure which did not require interior bracing, or space-taking, view-obscuring rows of supporting columns. The magnificent dome is one of only three Guastavino projects in Philadelphia: Girard Bank (Ritz-Carlton Hotel today) was built in 1908, and the Penn Museum’s dome would be constructed in 1916.
The French-inspired architectural style, updated with the modern dome, offered an especially appropriate setting to honor our 17th century French patron saint, who acquired new visibility just as our church was being finished. France became a secular state in 1905. In 1911, when the French government took over the church where the saint was buried, journalists around the world reported on the procession of relics, as his remains were moved across town to a new shrine, and remarked on his then-unofficial title – dating back to the 1870s –as their patron saint.
Over time, our parish sense of identity – once so neatly linked to our building — has become obscured as our building has changed. Our patron saint’s statue was removed from his perch above our door in the 1980s for safety reasons, and stood in the parking lot for several years before disappearing. Our historically significant Guastavino dome – still intact inside the church — was covered with a cement shell on the outside in the 1950s. Our architecture and details of our history have been mischaracterized over time, contributing to a muddled sense of identity and purpose. What we are remains elegantly simple: a diverse, welcoming congregation in a historic, architecturally significant, neighborhood church, built by immigrants and named for a saint who was known for his kindness and his gentle persuasion in drawing people back to the faith – and whose efforts to write truth earned him the title “Patron Saint of Journalists.” Merged in 2007 with Most Blessed Sacrament Parish – named for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ — we have an added reminder of our core mission, to actively promote what is best and truest about our faith in our neighborhood and beyond.