Month: September 2021

A Tale of Two Altars

The brass donation plaque on the front of our altar hints at a tale of how two parishes once moved in opposite directions in order to come together.

The story began in 1969, a year of transformational world events, during which local churches were directed to install forward-facing altars for the New Mass of Vatican II.

At Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Monsignor Daly, who had been Pastor since 1940 and would retire in 1970, selected a monumental piece of marble to become a permanent part of his church – emblazoned with symbols of wheat and grapes, and carved with an image of the apostles at the Last Supper. The traditional design reflected both the purpose of the altar – as a table for the congregation to symbolically gather around, like the apostles – and the identity of the parish, focused on the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Reassuringly, in time-honored fashion, parishioners old and new were asked to help fund the addition. The MBS February 1969 Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “Miss Margaret Brooks, our organist for many years, has donated the new altar for the upper church. She wishes this, in memory of her beloved parents, Joseph and Margaret (sic. Joseph and Sarah Brooks, who had lived at 1812 South 56th St.). The cost of the new altar is $3,000. The installation and additional marble will cost an extra $4,500. Miss Ada Schraeder, our housekeeper for many years, has donated $100 towards the alterations in our sanctuary...” The following month, contributions were reported of “$22 for top altar cloth and $50 for help in installing new altar, in memory of P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from Mother and Dad – Mr. & Mrs. Austin H. Gaughan, 5318 Grays Avenue” and  “$22 altar cloth for new altar in memory of nephew P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from his Aunt & Uncle – Mr. & Mrs. Michael Hogan, 5348 Grays Avenue.“ (Austin Gaughan had died the year before, at age 19, in Vietnam). More contributions came, in months that followed, to cover the rest of the costs. Each one was individually acknowledged, since it represented a member of the parish, gathered for “supper” around the table. Those offerings and names became part of the MBS, and now our, parish heritage.

St. Francis de Sales, a few blocks away, took a different approach. There, under Monsignor Mitchell, a pastor focused on large social issues, idealistic young priests, recently assigned to the parish and filled with a sense of mission, embraced the new simplified English-language Mass, because it seemed accessible to all. With an evangelizing spirit, they invited world-renowned architect, Robert Venturi, to celebrate with a bold modern statement piece in the sanctuary – a plain, sleek plexiglass altar on a brightly-lit modern platform — symbolically highlighting the new order and thrusting the ornate high altar, and the “old-fashioned” ideas it represented, deep into the shadows. The renovation received a fair amount of press coverage, but parishioners, who did not understand the concept, and who were not involved in the planning or decision making, felt blindsided by the changes to their beloved church, which had been their haven in an age of upheaval. Hurt feelings were long lasting.

Jump ahead to 2007, when two small, diverse city parishes, weathered by time and circumstance, had to come together to survive. Like the neighborhood and the New Mass, the sanctuary of St. Francis de Sales had changed over time. The ultramodern Venturi altar eventually cracked and was quietly replaced by several temporary wooden altars under a succession of short-term pastors. When Saint Francis de Sales Parish became Saint Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, the sturdy marble altar from MBS, installed as a symbol of unity for the two churches, became a perfect fit for the space, looking as though it had always been there. Since its placement was a committee decision – agreed by the pastor and lay representatives of both parishes – it also offered a chance to come full circle at SFDS, heal an old wound, and open a way to a possible future of better communication between rectory and parishioners. It’s up to us, today, to move that forward!

The Society of Architectural Historians brought Fr. McNamee and Denise Scott Brown back to our church in 2015 to talk about the long-ago Venturi project.

The Eye of the Crane

A few years ago, an elegant, throne-like chair, moved from a sacristy side room, replaced the plainer presider’s chair in the sanctuary of our church. Much has been made of the fact that the replacement chair once belonged to a bishop, but today, the symbolism in its decorations offers a more important message.

The chair belonged to Reverend Michael J. Crane, our second pastor, who built our church. One hundred years ago, on September 19, 1921, when he was consecrated as a bishop, his new crest was carved into its back. The insignia was very personal at the time, with a bird, a sword, stars, and a motto chosen to represent his family name, his own first name, his mother’s ancestry, and his career. The elements also had another layer of meaning, though, and even when the chair was tucked away in the shadows for decades after he died, the totem remained a presence in our church.

The bird on the Bishop’s shield — a “crane ‘vigilant,’ that is, with a stone in one claw.” — represented his family name (ancestry websites suggest that the name Crane may actually have come from a tall, gawky bird-like long-ago Irish relative!). Worldbirds.org notes the bird’s religious significance: “In Christianity – especially in Christian Art, the crane is a symbol of vigilance, loyalty, good life and works, and good order in the monastic life.”  Signs and Symbols in Western Art, attributes this symbolism to a fable: “Legend recounts that cranes form a circle around their king at night, holding a stone in one foot while standing on the other. Should a crane fall asleep, the stone would fall and arouse him to renew his watch.” Worldbirds.org also finds that the bird has a special Irish symbolism: “Celts believed that birds like cranes were present in the Other World as well as this one. That is why they were viewed as Divine Messengers.”

Flanking the crane were two stars, taken from the Monaghan family shield of Bishop Crane’s mother. (Interestingly, the name Monaghan is supposed to have been derived from “monk,” suggesting a family spiritual tendency!) The Bishop’s 1928 Jubilee Book states that Two “Monaghan stars have been used – one symbolic of Our Lady Star of the Sea and the other of the Bishop’s mother in her own family symbol.” Respect for earthly heritage and spiritual guidance of the Blessed Mother are twin beacons.

Above the bird, Bishop Michael Crane’s first name was represented in “the angelic sword of St. Michael. An erect sword signifies a martial purpose, but in the horizontal position in which it appears in the new coat-of-arms, it indicates Protection and Guidance.

The shield was topped with the Catholic hierarchical “emblems common to all bishops – crozier, mitre, and hat with twelve tassles.”  At the bottom, Bishop Crane chose a little local historic continuity: “The Motto – Ut Sim Fidelus’ (That I may be Faithful) – is the same as that of the Most Rev. Edmond F. Prendergast, D.D., the late lamented Archbishop, who departed this life on February 26, 1918, and with whom Bishop Crane was associated for fourteen years at St. Malachy’s Church (1889-1903).”

Why is the chair important today? In recent years, we have been rediscovering our Parish story, charting where we’ve been to help guide our way forward. As we install our Seventeenth Pastor, the crane emblem on our chair peeks out above his head like an avatar, or “Divine Messenger” – ever vigilant, ever faithful; protecting and guiding, connecting our past and our future.

The Bishop’s Feast

 Our second pastor, Reverend Michael J. Crane, was consecrated as a bishop one hundred years ago on September 19, 1921. Afterwards, he and his fellow priests celebrated with a grand feast. Some dishes seem ordinary now, but were exotic at the time. Some were chosen to surprise and delight. Today, the menu offers a portal into another age.

Celery was a status vegetable in the early 1900s — luxurious enough to be served in first-class cabins on the Titanic — and it appeared twice on the bishop’s menu: in Cream of Celery Soup and as an appetizer, probably served in a special-purpose dish.

Other pre-meal crunchies included olives and salted nuts – typically served with alcoholic beverages — which could hint at off-menu refreshments during Prohibition.  Radishes, also, are supposed to aid in “detoxing” the liver.

Braised Sweetbread” is a mystifying first course. Was it a favorite dish, a reminder of mother’s home cooking, or a nod to Irish heritage?  “Sweetbread” is a polite term for thymus or pancreas of calf or lamb – much more popular in Britain and Ireland, than in the United States. (Unconsciously ironic, since Bishop Crane was afflicted with a malfunctioning pancreas that caused his diabetes. The following year, Cardinal Dougherty would pull some strings to get his new bishop enrolled in a clinical trial of insulin on humans in Toronto, which saved his life for a few more years).

Rashers of bacon” and “Saratoga Chips” were next — both shown on the same menu line. “Saratoga Chips” was a fancy name for potato chips! Listing pig and potatoes together could have been another nod to the Bishop’s Irish heritage. It could also have referenced something closer: Saratoga, NY appears to have been a popular vacation spot for clergy (Rev. Francis O’Neill, after whom our parish may have been named, died there of a heart attack in 1882). Curiously, a town in Saratoga called “Bacon Hill,” had formerly been known as “Pope’s Corners” – which, if commonly known, could have made a good inside joke around the table of a newly-consecrated Bishop.

It’s a fair guess that “Long Island Duckling” was the closest that the menu planner could get to putting a crane on the table. Long Island was a center for raising Peking Ducks, which first arrived in this country in 1873; and duck with applesauce was a luxury dish (also served on the Titanic!).

For vegetables, Candied Sweet Potatoes, now often served at Thanksgiving, were a novelty, reportedly dating back just to 1917! Succotash – a mixture of corn and lima beans – was a traditional Thanksgiving dish in New England and upstate Pennsylvania. Bishop Crane was from Ashland, PA, and the occasion being celebrated was certainly one of thanksgiving.

The beverage accompanying the entree was “Punch A L’Évêque,” or “Bishop’s Punch.” Was it alcoholic? Unclear! The French name made the punch sound elegant and affords a cloak of ambiguity during Prohibition. Online recipes suggest it could have been a mixture of orange juice, lemon juice, and port. Bishop Crane was not a teetotaler, but Cardinal Dougherty, who publicly advocated against alcohol, is listed as a toastmaster at the event.

 “Filet Mignon Saint Michel” (St. Michael’s steak) was the entree at Bishop Michael Crane’s feast, and the reference seems self-explanatory, though the cut could, in theory, refer to beef (American) or Pork (French)!

Russian dressing” on the salad was trendy in 1921.The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink describes it as “a salad dressing made from mayonnaise, pimiento, chile sauce, green pepper, and chives. It is so called possibly because the mixture was thought to resemble those found in Russian salads, but it is American in origin, first found in print in 19

Meringue Glacée” (Meringues with ice cream) is Swiss; “Petit Fours” cakes are French. Was this a nod to our Patron Saint Francis de Sales, who came from French Savoy and became Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland?

It’s easy to read too much into the menu today, but its long-ago planners also had reason to over-think! It is clear, in any case, that the spread was carefully devised with genuine affection for the new bishop. Speculation about its details recalls that energy and coaxes dusty history back to life.