Saint Francis de Sales Parish United by the Most Blessed Sacrament is a Catholic Church located at 47th St. and Springfield Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not too far from the University of the Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania. It was founded as Saint Francis de Sales Parish in 1890. The church was constructed between 1907 and 1911, in Byzantine Romanesque style, with an imposing multicolour Guastavino dome, which makes it a neighbourhood landmark. In 2007, Saint Francis de Sales Parish merged with Most Blessed Sacrament Parish (founded 1901, formerly at 56th and Chester), to form the present parish of the very long name, combining a long history of traditions from two great old city parishes.
A BRIEF PARISH HISTORY
In the late 1800s, when Southwest Philadelphia was mostly farmland with a few big houses, parish legend says that an Irish servant girl named Mary Bryan wrote to Archbishop Ryan. She begged him for a temporary church at this end of the neighborhood for the Winter, when unpaved roads made it impossible to get to St. James Church (today St. Agatha St. James) at 38th and Chestnut.
The Archbishop is said to have obliged, and the pastor of St. James began to say weekly Mass in a rented hall above a store at 49th and Woodland in February, 1890. The new parish of St. Francis de Sales became official on May 14, with Reverend Joseph O’Neill, former assistant at St. James, as its first pastor. The first parish building, a combination chapel and school (today the wing of the school containing the auditorium), was built on 47th Street, near Springfield Ave., in 1891.
In 1907, Archbishop Prendergast laid the cornerstone for a new church in which Pastor Reverend Crane hoped “the soul would be lifted up to exaltation.” Architect and parishioner Henry Dagit designed the monumental Byzantine Romanesque-style structure, and the Rafael Guastavino Company, created its iconic domes. The finished building was dedicated on November 12, 1911.
Today, this neighborhood landmark has a 72-foot long marble ashlar main facade fronting on Springfield Ave., with corner towers rising to a height of 97 feet. The center dome is 62 feet wide with its springline ninety feet above the nave floor.
The building has changed surprisingly little, on balance, over the decades. In 1953, the Dagit firm refurbished the basement chapel to accommodate the massive congregation of the era; from 1975 until 2018, the space was used primarily by the Vietnamese congregation. The domes were covered with shiny colored tiles in 1956, in an effort to stop chronic roof leaks; the tiles were recently removed and the concrete shells sealed and painted to match the original colors without water-seeping cracks. For the 1965 Diamond Jubilee, the interior was modernized with small blue ceramic tiles coating the walls of the nave, and modern blonde wood pews replacing the dark quartered oak. In the 1990s, the peeling tiles were removed and the walls neatly stuccoed; the water-damaged blonde pews are currently being re-finished.
The most notable renovation has left the smallest footprint: in 1969, renowned architect Robert Venturi modernized the sanctuary for the New Mass of Vatican II. His neon lights were quickly taken down, and the sleek plexiglas furnishings were gradually removed so that today, little remains but memory — but we have recently revived that memory and given the story its proper place in our history.
Parish social ministries have flexed with the neighborhood. Today, the parish offers a thriving PREP (Parish Religious Education Program) for children who attend noncatholic schools, and RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) for adults who wish to learn more about the faith. Sister Alice Marie Daly, IHM is in charge of Thanksgiving and Christmas Parish Outreach programs.The Religious of the Assumption offer prayer and scripture groups from their convent at 47th and Springfield.
SFDS Parish School, which reached a high of 1,378 students in 1953, is now independent of the parish, though still run by IHM Sisters, and sharing a close relationship. Across the street on Farragut Terrrace, St. Lucy School for the Blind was established at our parish in 1955 in response to archdiocesan needs, and shared a close bond with the Parish School for many years; today, the IHM Literacy Center, for teaching English as a second language, occupies the former St. Lucy property. Star Harbor senior center, established by the parish in 1967, now operates under the authority of the archdiocese.
Our parish continues in its diversity. A Vietnamese congregation was part of our parish from 1975 to 2018. In 2007 Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, at 56th and Chester, merged with de Sales to form SFDS United by the Most Blessed Sacrament (our present freestanding altar was brought from MBS when the building closed). From 2013 to 2020, a Spanish Mass was added to the weekly schedule, bringing a vibrant new group to our parish.
Music has always been important to de Sales. The first all-male choir was established in 1911. From 1921 through the mid-1960s, a Boy Choir of over 100 choristers sang a large repertoire of classical music at High Mass, and made several recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The choir disbanded in the late 1960s during the folk music era. Organist Bruce Shultz arrived in 1969 to renew the music program. The present mixed and diverse choir, with its eclectic repertoire, has sung at the White House, as well as at Bartram’s Garden, Phillies games, and other venues. The Philadelphia Orchestra recorded Saint Saens Symphony No. 3 in the church, using the historic Haskell organ, in 1980.
The parish celebrated its 125th Anniversary in 2015. Reverned Eric Banecker was installed as our Seventeenth Pastor on September 19, 2021.
The Parish History Committee was commissioned in 2014 to write the SFDS 125th Anniversary Book. We quickly discovered an ongoing challenge: with six pastors (plus one pro tem pastor) since 1990, a lot of records had disappeared and our sense of historic continuity was lost. Our parish had a “Magnificent Building” but knew little about it, or about the people who built it. Our committee sensed that parish history was central to parish identity, and without it, our parish was unlikely to survive.
Today. our small band of researchers continues to delve into resources at the CHRC (Catholic Historical Research Center) archives, the Free Library, Villanova Library, the Athenaeum, Penn Architectural Library, and historical and museum archives across the city. We burrow through historic newspapers and census records. We interview longtime parishioners, parish school alumni, priests and religious. We connect with other parishes near and far, with shared elements of history. We consult architects; architectural and art historians; religious scholars; stonemasons; geologists; maritime specialists; campanologists; musicians; stained glass restorers; Guastavino experts; and many others. The more we look, the more questions we have. Our list of contacts now stretches across the country and around the world and continues to grow.
Our discoveries are published in the parish bulletin, and we archive them here as our investigations continue. There are still many stories to tell! And we keep improving and augmenting our records here as new facts come to light. Sometimes a long-cherished myth turns out to be false, but its correction brings new insight and layers of depth to our parish story. We are fascinated by the long, rich history of this local landmark, and hope you will be too.