Month: August 2022

Drama on the Front Steps

Nearly a century ago, in the “good old days” of alcohol Prohibition and associated gangsterism, a dramatic movie-script-like news story unfolded in front of our church.

On April 21, 1923, the Inquirer reported that in the small hours of the previous morning, “Miss Mabel Hills, 21 years old, of 421 South Forty-ninth street…was left gagged and dazed on the steps of St. Francis de Sales Church, Forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue.”

“Miss Hills, with two other women and three men, was returning home from a café at Broad street and Girard avenue. At Forty-ninth and Spruce streets a big, crimson-colored car pushed in front of the taxicab, bringing it to a halt. Four white-masked men jumped out. Throwing open the door of the cab, the bandits thrust revolvers into the faces of the occupants and one of them demanded: ‘Which one of you is named Hills?’”

“‘That is my name,’ Miss Hills answered, according to the story she told police, and the men then proceeded to drag her roughly from the machine and hustle her into their car. ’One of them stuffed a handkerchief into my mouth,’ the girl said, ‘and another wrapped me in a blanket. Then it seemed as if they drove me all over the city at a break-neck pace. I fainted several times. When I finally came to I found myself on the church steps. ‘Where’s the rocks?’ one of the men asked me. ‘We don’t want to commit murder, but we’ll knock you off right here at the church if you don’t tell us where the jewelry is.’ So I told them I carried it in two chamois bags in my stocking. One of them slit open my stocking’ (presumably not at the ankle) ‘and took them.’ Her jewelry consisted of a diamond ring set with a five-karat diamond, two other rings with diamonds set in platinum, a diamond bracelet and a platinum and diamond studded wrist watch. “

“After the bandits had departed with their loot, Miss Hills, dazed and sick, staggered to the parish house and told her story. Meanwhile, her companions drove to the Fifty-fifth and Pine streets police station, where their chauffeur, John Halpin…was arrested…” Two other suspects –Thomas Alexander and Nathan Kessler — were also soon captured.

Inquiring minds might wonder how Miss Hills came to have $5,000 worth of jewelry – a magnificent sum in the 1920s — hidden on her person. The reporter carefully records the whole colorful incident using distancing words: “according to the story she told police…” Bishop Crane’s rectory also quietly stepped back from the odd occurrence on its church property.

One of the men arrested, Thomas Alexander, was already known to police for his connection with “the Columbia avenue gang.” He would go to trial for Miss Hill’s kidnapping, but “despite the strength of the evidence,” would escape a guilty verdict. (The other major suspect, Nathan Kessler, died in Moyamensing Prison due to a mysterious heroin overdose while awaiting trial). The story wasn’t over: soon “after his acquittal,” Alexander “appeared in Atlantic City. There he went to a boardwalk cabaret and seeing Miss Hill among the merrymakers gave her a severe beating. He pulled his revolver, knocked her unconscious and then literally shot his way out. The cabaret proprietor…was hit by one of the flying bullets” and spent some time in hospital.

Two years later, in November 1925, The Inquirer reported that Thomas Alexander was again arrested, along with a man named Samuel Martin and “two well-dressed women,” in a house at Park Avenue and Dauphin Street for a different crime: “the killing of a policeman and another man during the attempted hold-up of the Freihofer Baking Company loading station...” Over 800 postal money orders and many other stolen items were found at the scene of the arrest, along with a “peculiar shaped mask” like that used in the murders, and “enough dynamite and nitro-glycerin to blow up a house.”

In a dramatic finale, the four Park Avenue suspects were captured when “detectives…trailed a weeping woman from a cabaret” near Broad and Columbia, “to the rendezvous of the alleged bandit gang…The identity of the girl whose tears led to the capture was not revealed by detectives, as she is not under arrest. According to police, she is a member of a respectable family who left home to seek adventure and found only disappointment, sordidness and sorrow…   THE END!

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Little Sisters of the Poor

In 1869 Archbishop Wood of Philadelphia invited the Little Sisters of the Poor from France to come and assist in caring for the vast numbers of elderly poor in the city regardless of race or religious beliefs. The Charism of the Foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, serving the poorest in simplicity, humility, and trust in Divine Providence (begging), imbued them with the gift of fortitude for over 150 years in Philadelphia through faithfully observing their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and hospitality, while personally assisting the dying with the firm belief that, as St. Jeanne said – “It is Jesus Himself whom you are serving in the Poor.”

Philadelphia Inquirer January 23, 1905

Did you know the Little Sisters of the Poor have been quietly serving the needs of the poor and the elderly in our neighborhood for 120 years? They’ve been here almost as long as SFDS (1890) and MBS (1901). And now, in a new age of need, our combined parish has a chance to renew connections with the Little Sisters that make us all stronger together.

The story of the Little Sisters of the Poor in this part of the city began in July 1902, when five Sisters “opened a non-sectarian house for the aged, southwest corner of Forty-second street and Baltimore avenue” in what appears to have been a four-story house (today an apartment building stands on the site), within the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales Parish. A mendicant order, relying entirely on charitable donations, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “the Sisters in their new quarters commenced with literally nothing. Now twenty feeble old persons are under their care, and there are moments when the next meal is a serious problem. The only support derived by the home is that secured by personal solicitation from door to door…

Many neighbors and others did want to be a part of the worthy effort, so that the following year, on November 2, 1903, Bishop Prendergast was able to lay the cornerstone for the “new house of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Fifty-fourth and Chester avenue,” within the boundaries of the recently established (1901) Most Blessed Sacrament Parish. The Inquirer noted that “The ceremony, solemn in itself, was rendered all the more effective by a procession of the children of the parish of the (Most) Blessed Sacrament, carrying silk banners of various hues, representing the sodalities of the church.” When the finished building was dedicated in 1905, Bishop Prendergast was “assisted by Rev. M.J. Crane, of the Church of St. Frances De Sales (sic!)…The altar boys were from the Church of the Gesu, (Most) Blessed Sacrament, and St. Francis de Sales,” so the local parishes continued to affirm their support.

Since it was just a few blocks away, Most Blessed Sacrament Parish School, at 56th and Chester, would develop a particularly positive relationship with the Sisters over the years, and some youthful helpers even returned later to serve as adults. Jim Dengler, a volunteer and former Advisory Board Member, recalls how, in his youth, fellow MBS students “would volunteer in the home’s kitchen or laundry room, or help assist the Little Sisters in taking care of the Residents, and some of the boys would serve as altar boys at Mass. But I would bet none of them left without something good to eat, for the Little Sisters’ hospitality is the best.” Don Carter, retired Director of Plant Operations & Maintenance at the home, also recalls that “My first experience with the Little Sisters was when I was in first or second grade at Most Blessed Sacrament School.  The school was having a canned good drive for the Little Sisters Home down the street.  I wondered how the Sisters could live off tomato soup because that was all that mom would part with.  Little did I know that one day I would be helping stack all the canned goods that would be coming in on food drives!”

Through good times and bad, the Little Sisters welcomed the “poor elderly” at Sacred Heart and two other facilities in the city until the Sacred Heart building closed in 1969 “to make way for a more modern facility.” A new building, combining all three Philadelphia homes (St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s and Sacred Heart) in one place, “opened on the same location on April 13, 1973, and was dedicated to the Holy Family.” Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it continued to change. MBS School would close its doors in 2002. MBS Parish combined with SFDS in 2007, and, with a dizzying succession of pastors, the combined parish lost track of some of its old neighborhood connections.

Today, still focused on their mission, the Little Sisters recognize that “Material deprivation is only one form of poverty. Others that weigh heavily upon a person are: isolation, insecurity, the anguish of feeling that one is a burden on others, or being unwanted, seeing one’s self become weaker and weaker, and in some cases, being abandoned…” They still rely upon volunteers and charitable donations for their work, so that “with the help of a dedicated staff, the Sisters care for Residents in Independent Apartments and Skilled Nursing Units.” The Sisters have started a capital campaign to upgrade yet again on the same site. Here’s an opportunity to see what we can do to help!

Wheat

In 1911, the interior of our church was decorated with an intricate arrangement of Catholic symbols — but something important was missing, which would only be fittingly supplied when SFDS joined with MBS in 2007. What could it be?

The answer, surprisingly, is the wheat in one of the mosaic medallions on the front of the MBS altar. Wheat has been an enduring symbol of abundance and rebirth, redemption and freedom, across cultures and through time. Wheat and grapes seem an obvious reference to the Eucharist, and our church is filled with grape designs and Eucharist motifs, but there was only the faintest suggestion of a wheat-like pattern in a few short decorative borders, until the altar from Most Blessed Sacrament — a church named for the Real Presence in the Eucharist — was incorporated into our building.

The “forgotten” plant symbolism is perhaps understandable since Catholicism tends to be more focused on the host’s transformation into the Real Presence of Christ. We know that bread for the Eucharist must be made of wheat – missionaries cultivated wheat around the world for the purpose, and the gluten-sensitive in modern times have been informed that wheat gluten is essential to the makeup of the host. But there is little to tell us why a wheat host is so important – there is no entry for “wheat” in the Catholic Encyclopedia!

The wheat shown on our MBS altar is a kind of “bearded wheat” (with bristles), like the wheat grown in Biblical times, which Jesus would have recognized. He would have known Exodus and the grain-related Jewish religious traditions that were part of the Passover. Wheat is one of the “Seven Species” listed in the Book of Deuteronomy as native to Israel (“a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey”) and thought to contain “special holiness.” Wheat is also among the “Five Grains” (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt) which have special status for a number of Jewish rituals. Challah and Matzah can only be made from these grains and only bread made with these grains requires the blessing before and after eating,

Myjewishlearning.com offers insight into the special importance of Jewish bread and blessing: “Jewish meals begin with the blessing over bread and then the sharing of bread together…” The words of the prayer: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” surprisingly, do not refer “to the actual bread that we hold in our hands at the time when the blessing is said…” One reading “is that our daily bread reminds us of time past, when bread trees grew from Eden’s soil… Official Jewish wisdom…identifies the bread of the blessing as the bread of a messianic future, constituting “a statement of faith in a time to come when all will have enough to eat, free of the backbreaking work that is now required by most of the world’s population just to put food on the table.” The traditional blessing of the bread at the Last Supper invoked centuries of heritage and yearning. Then Jesus offered himself as the “Bread of Life” for its fulfillment, changing the wheat bread and grape wine, by the miracle of transubstantiation, into his Divine Presence – the true “daily bread” for which we pray in the Our Father, and which refers both to the daily necessities of life and even more to Christ himself.

Wheat has been a critical dietary staple worldwide for many centuries, but the wheat we consume today is very different from that of ancient times. Varieties have emerged and changed to suit different conditions. Wheat is now bleached and separated; doused with poisons to control pests and weeds; and engineered and hybridized to alter specific characteristics and increase yields. A bread baker, writing in The Jerusalem Post, mused that “Wheat bread…is no longer regarded by many nutritionists to be a healthy food, perhaps because of all the shenanigans we have been getting up to with it in the last century or two…” Traveling too far from its origins, a once dependable staple has transformed into something that a growing number of people find difficult to digest. Perhaps there is a Catholic parallel here, highlighting a need to reclaim our spiritual roots, along with a recognition of our special responsibility to preserve and protect the natural resources important to survival in what Pope Francis calls “our common home”   —  so that those who come after us will have wholesome food to sustain life, and can continue to partake of the special gifts of the Eucharist.