Month: February 2022

A Snapshot in Time

SFDS HISTORY MYSTERIES – Snapshot in Time

A browse through the parish archives turned up an unlabeled  photo from a long-ago ceremony – back when the sanctuary was lighted with electric candles on a tall stand, the altar rail had brass gates, there was no front-facing altar, and the old dark pews were still in place.

Parishioner historians John and Ted Deady, who grew up in the parish, offered some observations about the elaborate pageantry they recall from pre-Vatican II ritual, and a few of the names:

Okay. Will start with this. The priest holding the book of the gospels is Father Sefton, later monsignor and pastor (at SFDS 1946-1947; pastor 1961-1967). The priest incensing the book is Father Flatley (at SFDS 1940-1943 and 1946-1955; WWII military chaplain in between). The two altar boys holding candles are the acolytes and the other altar boy is the thurifer (who carries the incense container, or thurible). The other priest in a surplice is the master of ceremonies. At a regular solemn high mass this would be an altar boy. Fr Sefton is the sub deacon and Fr. Flatley is the deacon. He will read the gospel in Latin. Then not sure if he or someone else will suddenly appear in the pulpit and read the gospel in English. Whoever is in the pulpit will then preach the sermon starting with ‘may it please your excellency’ or ‘eminence’ depending on who the celebrant is. That is a mystery.”

The bishop in the seat is presiding and the two monsignors are his chaplains. The two altar boys in white cassocks are part of a gang of six called flambeaus. When Fr Navit was pastor (2004-2009) he had a similar group. They hold the lanterns during the consecration. The ones in the picture are just better dressed. “

What the occasion is and who is celebrating the mass are mysteries. It was in the winter, fur coats. The sisters did not routinely attend the 11:00 o’clock (solemn) mass. The master of ceremonies is not a familiar face meaning he might have come with the celebrant in a package deal.”

Fran Byers, another from-the-cradle parish historian, replied to this  “Wow, John,   I am really impressed.   We girls were not privy to any of this,” which is, itself,  notable. Ted notes that “Women were not allowed in the Sanctuary except for their wedding (Vatican rule).” What did girls do Pre-Vatican-II? John recalls that all SFDS School children, except those boys who were scheduled to serve or sing at the weekly solemn Mass, were required to attend a separate Sunday children’s service, where attendance was taken – parents had to send a written excuse for absence. Girls couldn’t serve at Mass or sing in the choir. Twice a year, they were invited to follow the boys in a Eucharistic procession, strewing flower petals, and girls were selected to perform the crowning of the Mary statue in the annual May Procession (which was led by the boy “popes” and altar servers). Their mothers joined the Sodality, a ladies’ organization devoted to prayer and good works.

SFDS Boy Choir: Wheels of Change

Recently surfaced choir documents offer a glimpse back into the years when proudly magnificent SFDS Parish was pressed between the rollers of Vatican II, neighbourhood change, and the Baby Boom “youthquake” of the 1960s.

The first cracks showed in 1966, as English began to replace Latin in the Mass, and Peter La Manna, Director of the renowned Boy Choir, had trouble finding suitable new music. He wrote to Monsignor Mitchell: “My dilemma is that I can’t find Masses in English which can compare with those masterpieces…The men in the choir are so reluctant to making a complete switch to English because of the obviously lower compositional standards.”

Some of La Manna’s challenges seem odd today. In 1967, he wrote to Monsignor Mitchell: “One of the things which I have been begging for is the erection of two announcement boards for the numbers of the hymns. I think that it was feared that it would cheapen the architecture of the church. This is not necessarily true, and something in good taste could be placed on the two pillars along the front of the church. I have also asked for an announcement before Mass concerning the hymns at Solemn Mass and the fact that people should join in the singing of the Our Father and the responses. I have had no luck with that request.”

Money became tight as the parish shrunk and La Manna fought for funds to pay the Men’s choir: “For forty-five years the men of the choir have been paid…Bishop McShea…paid all of the men a uniform fee of $20 per month…to help pay for their carfare and gas expenses…” He also begged for new uniforms for the boys: “We have been asked to make a telecast on December 14 for KYW-TV. If we do this we will have to borrow cassocks from the altar boys again because ours are not fit for color TV.” Another time, he lamented that “For over a year I have asked for new cassocks. The ones which we have are in shreds...” and “these ragged vestments are not good for the morale of the group…” La Manna made the case that the choir was a critical “binding force within the parish. Many families have postponed moving out of the parish because their sons were members of the choir…” though he did admit that “the attendance at Solemn Mass is very poor...”

SFDS Boy Choir in 1965

As baroque pageantry gave way to 1960s streamlining, La Manna mourned the new simplicity. He felt that that people needed to “see evidence of their contributions…in the beauty of their church, in the flowers on the altar, etc. …I heard many remarks…that there had never been such a dull and unmarked feast of Christ the King at de Sales as there was this year. Also that there has never been a novena to Our Lady when her altar looked so bare. I know that these are small things, but when I came here Father Curran said to me, de Sales has won her reputation by making small things important, and by providing the parishioners with a liturgy which is edifying and beautiful.” La Manna felt some of this was due to a lack of continuity in the Rectory, where, until recently, “there were always curates here who were ‘trained’ under the programs and policy of the past.” He also gently suggested to Monsignor Mitchell that “when I first came here the homily was limited to seven minutes at Solemn Mass. Now it goes as long as twenty minutes. Our attendance has dropped drastically because we are sometimes in there an hour and twenty minutes, and it used to be slightly over an hour.” In La Manna’s view, shortening the processionals was not an option.

Changing priorities. In truth, the decorations, sermon length, and pageantry probably were of little consequence. Between 1963 and 1973 the number of parish families dropped from 4,233 to 1,232, and school students from 1,158 to 621, as the Catholic population citywide shifted to the suburbs. And there was also the famously divisive Venturi renovation!

Bruce Shultz arrived at SFDS as organist in 1969 and gradually, under choir director Dr. Michael Geheb, and then Rev. Hermann Behrens, an inclusive group of men and women (and choir babies!) built a tradition of excellence for a new era. Today’s choir family, under the direction of Isabel Boston, offers a diverse repertoire from Latin Chant to Spirituals, and welcomes new members.

Color OUR Collections: SFDS Coloring Book Goes Online Feb, 7-11

Every February, the NY Academy of Medicine invites archives around the world to share free coloring books online based on materials in their collections. This year’s SFDS Parish Coloring Book celebrates neighborhood businesses advertised in the parish bulletins of the 1940s and 1950s. Check out all the offerings – from SFDS, to Drexel University, to the Vatican Libraries, to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and beyond, starting February 7 at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/