Have you ever noticed how your experience of our church changes, depending where you sit? Areas with more light are more sociable, friendlier, and it’s easier to read the missalette. The darker corners are more meditative: the light shimmering on the Byzantine-style glass mosaics makes them come alive, promoting a sense of awe and timeless connection to a greater presence.
Lighting effects have been important in our church since the beginning. A newspaper description of the 1911 Dedication Mass, when the building officially opened, reported a careful mix of ancient and new lighting styles, signaling that our church was “top-of-the-line”: “The interior of the edifice had been transformed into a bower of beauty and light. Hundreds of candles and electric bulbs shed their rays through the auditorium and sanctuary, while the best skill of the florist and decorator was in evidence with the mass of multicolored autumn flowers….”
Electricity was a “hot topic” when our church was built: a history of PECO notes that “Of Philadelphia’s 850 churches, five hundred were customers of Philadelphia Electric in 1912.” The technology was promoted as a way to enhance sacred spaces: a 1913 issue of The Lighting Journal observed that “it is the aim of the engineer to bring out the sublimity of the altar and cause the emotion of the worshipper to feel those lofty conceptions and reverence for this holy place...” At the same time, a colloquium at Dumbarton Oaks a few years ago observed that “Nineteenth century scholarship right at the advent of photography and electricity was keenly aware how the…presence of Byzantine art could be drained by these new technologies,” muting the sense of mystery.
Did we always keep the delicate balance between too little and too much light? A 1922 interior photo of the church shows it dazzling with rows of “vanity” light bulbs lining the arches, topping columns, around windows, and above the confessionals; and two electroliers, or round metal “wedding cake” stands of electric candles, in the sanctuary. The effect is startling – until you realize that the photographer probably enhanced the lighting for this photo, which, rather than showing off the church, was intended to capture the faces of the many members of the Holy Name Society filling its pews. The 1911 newspaper photo of the church Dedication – too blurry to reproduce – shows a similar lighting setup, but the bulbs seem to highlight, rather than overwhelm the space, while flickering candles build atmosphere.
Church lighting was adjusted a few times over the years for different emphasis. A 1954 photo shows elegant sconces on the side walls, instead of bare bulbs, and plain lights hanging from the ceiling. Joe Ruane recalls his electrician father installing the two long rectangular hanging lamps at the front of the church under Bishop McShea – who also replaced a massive cross-shaped candle lamp in the middle of the sanctuary with the two smaller sanctuary lamps, one on each side. Those big round metal chandeliers, now suspended unevenly from the ceiling in the main body of the church, were installed by Monsignor Sefton in 1965, when the wall sconces were removed and the side walls of the church covered with blue “bathroom tiles.” Then came the famous Venturi renovation of the Sanctuary, under Monsignor Mitchell, with the short-lived “neon halo” shining boldly above the new front-facing altar of Vatican II – its brash intensity thrusting everything behind it into shadows, “erasing the past” in its glare, and causing sensory overload for parishioners used to a more contemplative experience.
Now, as we plan a new lighting system for a new century – more on that later – and our present congregation is poised to add its own careful signature to our historic church, let’s think about the power of light to guide our way forward, and how illumination can symbolize hope and renewal!