Click here for a printable PDF version of the self-guided tour: sfds-tour
SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES
UNITED BY THE MOST BLESSED SACRAMENT
We are a diverse urban Catholic parish centered at 47th St. and Springfield Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, near the University of the Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania.
Our parish was founded in 1890, and the church, with its colorful Guastavino tile dome, has been a neighborhood landmark since 1911. Early parishioners were Irish and German immigrants, and in its history, our parish has been the seat of three Bishops.
The Vietnamese community became a part of the parish in 1975. In 2007 we combined with Most Blessed Sacrament Church (formerly located at 56th and Chester). A Hispanic community joined us in 2013.
Music is an important part of our worship: the 10:15 Sunday Mass features a traditional choir open to all who “share an interest in the performance of quality sacred and liturgical music”
A BRIEF TOUR OF THE CHURCH
Architect and parishioner Henry D. Dagit designed our church with its distinctive Byzantine domes and Romanesque arches. Construction began in 1907 and finished in 1911.
The domes were crafted by Rafael Guastavino, who perfected a traditional Spanish technique for interlocking layers of tiles with thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without interior framework and bracing.
Guastavino arches and domes are featured on over 600 prominent buildings in 36 states nationwide, including Ellis Island Registry Hall, the U.S. Supreme Court building, and the Penn Museum. Our 62-foot diameter main dome is unique among them because it is the only one without exterior copper or other roofing above it. A long-term church restoration project is currently underway.
Our church interior is inspired by Byzantine art (from the Greek-speaking part of the Eastern Roman Empire 500 to 1450 AD). Following that tradition, the dome symbolizes the heavenly realm, with the Eye of God in the central oculus window.
The six-pointed star in the celestial dome is a complex symbol, representing the six days of creation and also the House of David – the lineage of Jesus. The cross at its center recalls the Easter story. Four rays extending from the cross form the eight-pointed Star of Bethlehem that heralded Jesus’ birth — traditionally signifying redemption and baptism. So, all together, the star emblems symbolize creation and salvation; Old Testament and New; in the unending circle of eternity.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four Gospel-writing Evangelists, are represented in the round mosaics at the tops of the columns supporting the dome.
Threaded around the top of the Sanctuary walls is a quote from the 26th Psalm: “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth.” The quotation behind the altar, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” (Genesis 28:16), is Jacob’s exclamation after dreaming of angels on a ladder to heaven. Both inscriptions remind us that we are in sacred space.
Above the Saint Joseph altar is a Christogram (the overlapped first three letters of IHSOUS, the Greek name for Jesus) centered in a triple-entwined vine representing the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The mosaic above the Mary altar features another Trinity-entwined vine, with a dove and triangle at its center representing the Holy Spirit. The rose window in the arch of the sanctuary offers a third representation, to create a trinity of Trinities across the sanctuary.
The Venetian-style glass mosaic crucifixion scene above the altar was designed by Frederick Dimble Henwood (a.k.a. de Henwood), who also painted Stations of the Cross and a series of murals at Most Blessed Sacrament.
The forward-facing marble altar, featuring a relief of the Last Supper, was moved here from Most Blessed Sacrament when the two parishes merged.
Sculptor Adolfo de Nesti carved many of the marble sculptures in our church, as well as the friezes on the facade.
D’Ascenzo Studios crafted four large round “rose” windows for our church. Their archives at the Athenaeum confirm that the one behind the altar depicts the Trinity, and the window in the choir loft shows St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, but the other two are unrecorded.
The Saint Cecilia window is based on an altarpiece by Raphael. The other figures shown are Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Mary Magdalen.
The window on the Mary side of our church is based on a painting by Andrea del Sarto, interpreted as Mary’s Assumption; Coronation; or as “the Virgin triumphant over evil.” It shows Mary on a pedestal, holding Baby Jesus, with Saint Francis of Assisi on one side, and Saint John the Evangelist on the other. The opposite window features Mary with Baby Jesus in heaven, surrounded by angels.
The long stained glass windows in our church tell two stories: The life of Jesus in the upper half of the windows; and the story of St. Francis de Sales in the lower half.
On the Saint Joseph side of the church, the story of Jesus begins with the Annunciation, followed by the Adoration of the Shepherds, and a scene of life at Nazareth. On the Mary side of the church, the Sermon on the Mount is followed by the appointment of Peter (“thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”), and the Agony in the Garden. The top of each window features a related Old-Testament prophecy.
Life of St. Francis de Sales in Stained Glass
Saint Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists and the deaf. He was known in his lifetime as an inspirational preacher; a friend of the poor; and a saint who, like his model, Saint Francis of Assisi, believed in the simple and devout life.
On the St. Joseph side of the church, starting at the left, the lower half of each window tells a piece of his story. Francis was born in 1567. According to D’Ascenzo’s descriptions, the first image shows young Francis “receiving instruction in the catechism from his mother, Madame de Boisey.” The middle window shows him “receiving, in the Dominican church of Annecy, his First Communion from the renowned Angelo Justinian, Bishop of Geneva;” And the window on the right shows him “receiving his father’s blessing” when he took Holy Orders in 1593.
Across the aisle, on the Saint Mary side of the church, near the Vatican flag, is Saint Francis de Sales as a priest, “preaching a mission at Annemasae” The middle window shows him as a Bishop, instituting the order of the Visitation, an order of cloistered nuns, “giving St. Jeanne de Chantal and her first two companions the rules of visitation.” The right-hand window shows his deathbed in 1622.