Month: May 2021

Captain Cousart, Prisoner of War

Capt. J.B. Cousart Prisoneer of Huns” blazed a headline in the Inquirer on August 12, 1918. The news was worrisome, but likely a relief to family and friends, who had previously been informed that he was missing in action.

James Burke Cousart

Captain James Burke Cousart was known in the neighborhood for helping to start the De Sales Boys’ Battalion — a military-style precursor to the Boy Scouts – at the parish in 1916. The paper reported that “The news that he has been made a prisoner of war was received almost solemnly among members of that parish. His wife, who., before her marriage four years ago, was Miss Marie Mauch, and two small children, live at 5034 Willows avenue (apparently staying with her parents while her husband was away). Captain Cousart made his home at 5030 Willows avenue.

The Inquirer later reported on the circumstances of his capture during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918: “It was four companies of the 100th who won distinguished honors at the Marne when they scientifically and coldly held up a superior German force, split it in two at terrible cost and made a way for advances which later turned the whole tide of battle in the American favor…Captain James B. Cousart of Philadelphia, was singled out in this engagement as one of the men who had fought with the greatest bravery against seemingly hopeless odds…

Research has turned up a treasure: a copy of Cousart’s WWI POW diary/letter to his wife, posted online twenty years ago by his grandson. The description of his life in captivity at Villingen, could be oddly relatable:

August 9/18: Trying hard to forget the fact that I am a prisoner and no more use to my country as a fighting man; I joined a class of men here and arose at 7:15 to go thru body exercises of a rather strenuous type for 15 minutes then a 1/2 mile run, all this in our pajamas, and to finish a cold shower and this followed by a rubbing given by onself to bring life to the skin and perhaps harden the outside coating a bit.”

At 8:30 a breakfast of coffee-black bread and a bit of salmon cooked into crackers.”

At 9 AM roll call where the forty Americans were this day joined by a new American, Lt. Vaughn who had been wounded in neck and shoulder by a bit of shrapnel.

At 9:30 Gave our word of honor not to attempt to escape and 21 Americans went for a walk of 8 kilometers (5 miles) and then returned to our prison camp, to wait 2 days for a similar treat.

At 12 noon a dinner of soup (barley) and sauerkraut& potatoes and some detestable style of meat or fish which spoiled the kraut and potatoes.

The morning was rainy and damp, but not as chilly as the three preceding days which were really too cool to be comfortable.

Some of the officers here find their pleasure, in bridge, some 8 or 9 in poker, some 3 or 5 in playing pinochle and the rest decide their time, between studying…”

At one point, he notes:

No chance to go to church today as for 3 sundays in succession however we look forward to the advent of Chaplains for all religions here soon.

Released after the Armistice, Cousart made his way home in May 1919, aboard a military ship full of Pennsylvanians that “bore her big keystone proudly. Three days ago, when the men learned they were coming straight home to Philadelphia, they got out a huge bolt of khaki and one of the ship’s quartermasters made them a yellow flag with a keystone on it which could be seen almost as far as the ship itself… There were many men on board we will learn to know as heroes,” but “they seemed to think more of comrades lost than of citations won.” Among them was Captain Cousart, whose “reward came when he saw Mrs. Cousart on a tug and was yelled at through a megaphone.

According to parish records, 379 young people from SFDS served in World War I, and of these, 14 never returned; more than 400 served from MBS. Sadly, the SFDS memorial plaque has gone missing.

Page from Captain Cousart’s scrapbook
The old Boys’ Battalion insignia can still be seen above an SFDS School door

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Different Perspectives

Double vision? Not quite! The work on the left, by Danish painter Carl Bloch; and the right-hand work — our Agony in the Garden window, by stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo – are strikingly similar, but their differences reveal the artists’ separate worldviews.

Artist Carl Bloch was born to a Danish merchant family, in Copenhagen, in 1834, and his father planned for his “respectable” future as an officer in the Danish Navy. In 1855, Bloch chose, instead, to enter the Royal Danish Academy of Art, for formal art training. He always traveled in good society: among his friends were playwright Henrik Ibsen and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (of Little Mermaid fame), who even wrote a cringeworthy poem in his honor. Today Bloch is best remembered for the much-reproduced series of 23 religious paintings he created for the King’s Chapel at Fredriksborg Palace in Denmark between 1865 and 1879 (Now the National History Museum run by the Carlsberg brewery foundation). Wikipedia notes that “For over 40 years The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made heavy use of Bloch’s paintings, mostly from the Frederiksborg Palace collection, in its church buildings and printed media. The Church has produced films depicting scriptural accounts of Christ’s public ministry, using Bloch’s paintings as models for the colour, light and overall set design as well as the movement of the actors in many of the films’ scenes.” 

                Our stained-glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s life followed a different path. He was born into a family of artists, metalworkers and armor makers, in Torricella Peligna, Italy, in 1871 – a region rich with romantic ancient legends, historic sites, and wild landscapes. His family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia in 1882. Some form of handcrafts was always in D’Ascenzo’s future: he initially apprenticed as a stonecutter and to a woodworker, studying painting in the evenings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now part of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts) and the New York School of Design. D’Ascenzo embraced the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, which reacted against industrialization and mass-production — setting up a medieval-style guild to create one-of-a-kind handcrafted artworks – such as our church windows, which were one of his early commissions. Among his other well-known works are stained glass in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge; on the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey; and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The two artists probably never crossed paths, though Carl Bloch lived in Italy from 1859 to 1866, and likely traveled back and forth afterwards. D’Ascenzo would have been nineteen when Bloch died of cancer in Denmark.

D’Ascenzo’s Agony in the Garden window is clearly inspired by Bloch’s work, but D’Ascenzo added his own layer of meaning. Bloch’s paintings are like stage sets, focused on the drama of the characters, while D’Ascenzo’s Arts-and-Crafts style designs also celebrate “our deep human need to connect with the natural world.”  The contrast in the Agony in the Garden images is especially outstanding: Bloch’s bleak landscape emphasizes Christ’s sorrow and loneliness, while D’Ascenzo changes a barren tree into a beautiful green tapestry and tucks several apostles into the lush foliage.  The tree is essential to his message – a reminder of Christ’s passion, and an emblem of our faith’s deep spiritual connection to the natural world. In the Old Testament, the olive tree was seen as a symbol of Hope: D’Ascenzo profoundly transforms Bloch’s “glass half empty;” to a “glass half full!”

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