Month: April 2021

French Heritage

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.

First Baptism

When William and Ellen Krapp baptized baby daughter Hannah, quietly, in a temporary new chapel above a Woodland Avenue store on October 19, 1890, they could have no idea that the brief record of their family event would be the opening line – the first recorded baptism — in the long history of our distinguished parish. Nor could they foresee their own family tragedy just ahead.

Census data suggests that William and Ellen (known also as Ella) may have married the same year that Hannah was born. The son of German immigrants, William was a barber by trade, and a widower with two children, age four and six. We don’t know anything about Ellen, except that her maiden name was McGettigan. They lived at 5210 Woodland Avenue.

         A son named William Jr., known as “Willie,” born a few years later, died at age fifteen months. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported his short sad story in a November 1895 court case: “The mother of the child testified that she took him to the Jefferson Hospital for treatment for teething. She was given a prescription which was put up at the dispensary attached to the hospital, and when she got home she gave the child a tablespoonful of the liquid. Shortly afterwards he began to cry and had difficulty in breathing. The child went into convulsions, and when she took him to the Presbyterian Hospital the doctors said he was suffering from carbolic acid poisoning. Mrs. Krapp also said that when she kissed the child her lips pained her as if they had been burned by poison.” The child died shortly afterwards.

  E. P. Stephens, the druggist at Jefferson, testified in court that the medicine he compounded for the child “was harmless, and was composed of one-half grain of carbolic acid diluted with one ounce of water, and one ounce of peppermint water.” He brought a similar sample of the formula to court, but Deputy Coroner Dugan thought the provided liquid was not “as strong as that which is supposed to have caused the child’s death. ‘You claim that the preparation is harmless,’ continued Mr. Dugan, ‘Wouldn’t you be afraid to drink it?’ ‘Not at all,’ replied Stephens,” swallowing theatrically from the little bottle without any harm.

After this display, the proceedings were put on hold until the baby could be autopsied. Dr. Graham, the physician in charge of the children’s ward at Jefferson, then tried to deflect blame to the mother for the child’s original condition, testifying that “the child had been affected with acute gastritis and catarrh of the stomach, brought on by improper feeding” when he was first brought in. However, Dr. Griggs, of Presbyterian Hospital, who attended the child when he was near death, testified that he “sampled the Jefferson Hospital prescription which had been administered to the little one…It was so strongly carbolic that his lips were burned by a portion, that accidentally ran down.”

On November 7, 1895, after reviewing the evidence, “the Jury rendered a verdict to the effect that the death was due to a mistake made by E. P. Stephens, a drug clerk at the Jefferson Hospital” who used too much carbolic acid in compounding the prescription (1 ounce instead of .5 grain). Stephens was not disciplined: “The jury and Coroner Ashbridge and Deputy Coroner Dugan were very lenient toward Stephens…not even, subjecting him to a censure, for it was shown that, ordinarily, he was very careful in his duties. ‘He has been compounding medicines for the past eighteen years, and it was the first mistake of the kind he has ever made.’”

The mother died three years later in 1898, age 43 years, and was buried from our church.

Whatever became of Baby Hannah, the first baby baptized in our church? Census data suggests she became an artist’s model, downtown, at age 19, before disappearing from the available records.