Month: February 2023

Lost Links

The church and school buildings of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish (56th and Chester Ave.) were sold after the parish merged with Saint Francis de Sales in 2007, but they are still a part of the landscape — now finding a new life as Independence Charter School West, a “community-based public charter school” of the School District of Philadelphia, chartered in 2016. Other significant spots, once important to MBS parish, are long gone, though – their presence faded behind the visible layers of local history:

Today a row of houses along 55th Street replaces the lone little house that used to stand at the corner

5500 Woodland Avenue

When Reverend Patrick F. Burke was named first pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in June 1901, a 1917 history reports “his first home was the house 5500 Woodland Avenue, and in its upper room, the first Mass was offered, and the first congregation of this Parish listened to his stirring appeal.” A 1907 account by Monsignor Bernard McKenna, describes the property less romantically as “an old dilapidated house which had not been occupied for seventeen years.”  Whatever its condition, it was the first home of MBS Parish, and Father Burke continued to live there after the MBS chapel was erected at 56th and Chester in December 1901. It was not an easy commute: a 1917 history reports “Father Burke’s health had been failing for some time and he had to suffer many privations in those days. For instance, Gray’s Lane was at times almost a trough of yellow mud and he had to walk from 55th and Woodland Ave to the Chapel. Some of the most public spirited among the parishioners, at their own expense, had a part of the lane filled in and a cinder path laid. Once in a while, a good soul would provide a carriage to convey the delicate priest to Mass…. The archdiocese gave him several Assistants to help him in his duties, and he lived at the Woodland address until 1906.

5406 Chester Ave. is now a parking lot.

5406 Chester Avenue

MBS First Pastor “Father Burke’s Silver Jubilee occurred in June 1906, and the parishioners presented him with a purse. The old residence on Woodland Ave was abandoned and a new home at 5406 Chester Ave rented. In the following Autumn, October 9, 1906, on Tuesday evening after a lingering illness the first pastor died. His remains were escorted from the rectory to the Chapel (wooden building at 56th and Chester) by a number of the clergy.”

5548 Chester Ave. was rebuilt at some point in the distant past as a commercial establishment.

5548 Chester Avenue

The head of the IHM order promised Third Pastor Rev. James T. Higgins that she would send four sisters to open MBS school in September 1908.Since the parish lacked a convent. It was decided that the sisters would live nearby at Saint Francis de Sales and St Clements convents. However, before they arrived the following September, the priests of the parish gave up the comforts of the rectory at 5406 Chester Ave and took up residence in the combination church and school building (new stone building by Henry Dagit finished in 1908. The MBS Rectory would not be built until 1918). This cut down a major parish expense and enabled the pastor to use the money saved to obtain a home at 5548 Chester Ave to be used as a convent.” The school would open on September 5, 1908, and “When the sisters arrived, they found the convent prepared and furnished in a simple but comfortable way.”  (Permission to build a permanent convent at MBS was granted in 1919, and the Sisters moved into it in 1921). 

1901 MBS wooden Chapel with 1908 stone Chapel behind. MBS First Pastor Reverend Patrick Burke inset

56th and Chester Ave. Magical Moving Chapel

The Most Blessed Sacrament chapel – a small wooden frame building donated by St. Thomas Aquinas Church – was erected on the southern end of the lot at 56th and Chester Avenue and dedicated on December 22, 1901. A 1917 parish history provides a poetic description of those early MBS days: “Memory calls up the little wooden Chapel among the trees in all the glory of its rustic setting on a Sunday morning in Spring. Over the fields, up the lane and through the main thoroughfare, came these worshippers…” The neighborhood grew quickly, and the church expanded with it. A stone chapel/school building was dedicated in 1908, and the cornerstone was laid for the church in 1922. Meanwhile, the little wooden building – repurposed as the MBS Parish Assembly Hall and school gym — clung bravely to its spot until it was needed by the newly-established Good Shepherd Parish (67th and Chester Ave.), and moved there in 1925. Find its further adventures here:

Father Daniel Gatens, writing the MBS Parish 1976 Jubilee Book, observed that “the history of any parish…is the story of people and the story of buildings.” The buildings connect us to the people and the neighbourhood and give us roots. Even when they are gone, an awareness that they were once there brings  a small jolt of recognition in passing and perhaps a smile and a feeling that we are all connected.

Original MBS wooden chapel and new 1908 chapel/church shown in 1976 MBS Parish Diamond Jubilee Book

An Artist’s Troubles

Between 1907 and 1911, renowned Philadelphia stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo was busy creating the four round and six long stained-glass windows for our church, but his life direction could have been very different!

Thirteen years earlier, at age 23, before he became a stained-glass specialist, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “Nicola D’Ascenzo, a Philadelphia artist, accompanied by his wife who is also an artist, sailed from New York on June 12, 1894, as passengers on the North German Lloyd steamship Neckar, bound for a two years’ residence in Mr. D’Ascenzo’s native home, Italy.” Having come to this country “when only 11 years of age,” D’Ascenzo had been granted his citizenship papers in 1893. His wife was American-born. He later told the Inquirer:

“‘When we landed at Naples…my uncle told me that I was in danger of arrest by the Italian Government. I was wanted for military duty and also for desertion. Although I was only a boy and not yet subject to military duty when I left my home in the province of Chieti, the little village of Torricella Peligna, my name had been carried upon the rolls and I was liable to conscription for 18 months military duty in the Italian army. Because I had not reported myself to the proper officials, upon reaching the age of 18 years, I was liable, in addition, to two years’ service as a deserter. Confident in the ability of the United States Government to protect me, I and my wife went on with our art studies, intending to remain in Italy until next summer…When we reached Rome, I learned that I was about to be arrested, and I sought and obtained an interview with our Minister, Mr. MacVeagh. When I stated my case, he advised me to flee the country. ‘We cannot protect you,’ said he…Accordingly…my wife and I hurriedly and secretly left Rome. Neither of us breathed free until we got beyond the Italian border…”

The paper then interviewed the acting Italian consul in Philadelphia, who clarified that the day before he left, “Nicola D’Ascenzo had appeared before him and taken out a paper which called for his appearance before the sub prefect of Lanciano, Italy, inside of 25 days to straighten out his military standing with the Italian government…There must, however, either have been some mistake or else D’Ascenzo was unwilling to serve the time which it was necessary, according to the Italian law, for him to serve…Every town or district is compelled o send a certain allotment of men to the army each year. All the physically fit young men who are just 20 years old are compelled to draw numbers,” and those drawing the low numbers “are compelled to serve nearly two years in the army…” If a man doesn’t turn up for the drawing, “the mayor of the city draws a number for him. According to the Law of Italy, if a boy is born of Italian parents, citizens of Italy, no matter whether he is naturalized in another country or not, he is an Italian and holds the same position in regard to the army as any other Italians. Consequently, D’Ascenzo would be compelled to serve whatever time had fallen to him and cannot be released from citizenship in Italy until he has fulfilled the military requirements. Then, with the consent of the government, he can give up his citizenship in Italy and become a citizen of any country he chooses.”

“Mr. Slaviz said that he had many such cases occurring all the time. All these men are classed as deserters, but during the past four years, and at present, the Italian King has granted an amnesty allowing all the privilege of returning to Italy and serving their time without receiving any punishment. The present amnesty, dating from last September, is in honour of the silver anniversary of the King’s wedding. The only way to escape doing service in the army was to leave the country.” The problem was, apparently, sorted satisfactorily for D’Ascenzo, in the end, since he and wife returned to Italy for another, happier visit two years later.              

Perhaps this incident could provide a clue to what happened to our other Italian immigrant artisan, Adolfo de Nesti, who sculpted most of our statuary and the friezes on the church façade, before disappearing mysteriously in 1916, with only a brief reference to a “family tragedy” in his American wife’s family records; she would file for a divorce in 1921 to marry an American-born dentist.

Got the winter blues? Every year around this time, libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world share free coloring sheets and books online based on materials in their collections, in a NY Academy of Medicine-sponsored event. We’ve participated for five years. This year’s parish history archives coloring book features advertising art from MBS and SFDS from the 1950s and 1960s and a few other items. Check out all the offerings, from a diversity of institutions, with new collections posted each day.