Author: sfdshistory

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.

Mary Alice McLaughlin

An historic marker at The Woodlands Cemetery (40th and Woodland) celebrates achievements of Alice Fisher and S. Lillian Clayton, two prominent historic figures in the field of Nursing, but tucked into a quiet corner nearby (N190-192 on the VA side of the cemetery) is another nursing figure with an SFDS connection and local roots who also deserves some recognition.

A 1978 history of the Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH) School of Nursing describes Mary Alice McLaughlin as “a tall woman, stately and immaculate in uniform…she possessed a combination of dignity, strength of purpose and total professionalism blended with patience, fairness, and compassion.” Today, she should be remembered for her efforts to improve nursing education in a time when few universities were interested, and hospitals – including PGH — operated nursing schools, mostly just to take advantage of the student labor.Dedicated to her vocation, it was said that Mary “never lost interest in her students’ welfare despite the terrible physical ordeals she suffered” in a long, ultimately fatal bout with breast cancer.

Mary received her diploma from Pennsylvania General Hospital in 1930 (the city’s public hospital, once part of Blockley Almshouse, which operated until 1977 on property now shared by HUP, CHOP, and the VA). A firm believer in continuing education for nurses, she became “the first student to register in the newly formed Department of Nursing Education at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in 1940.” For sixteen years, she worked as Assistant Director of Nursing Service at PGH, then Assistant Director in charge of Nursing Education, before becoming Director of the School of Nursing and Nursing Service from 1949 until her death at age 44.

Throughout her professional life, Mary labored to get nursing recognized as a serious career: “It was at her instigation that the first program in Pennsylvania to train Licensed Practical Nurses was begun.” In 1950, she pushed through a rigorous evaluation, so that the PGH School of Nursing achieved full academic accreditation with a curriculum centered around training nurses in effective patient care,teaching disease prevention and health education, and developing students’ “ability to adjust to all nursing situations.” In pediatric wards, student nurses learned ordinary child behavior expectations, as well as how to deal with “blindness and other specialized problems…” (the children’s department at PGH was equipped with top-of-the-line Isolettes – incubators piping pure oxygen to aid premature babies’ breathing. The archdiocesan St. Lucy School for the Blind would be founded across the street from SFDS in 1955 to fill an important need after it was realized that pure oxygen saved babies but had become a prime cause of childhood blindness!). Professional training also opened new horizons: a course on Professional Adjustments, “once intended to teach only professional courtesies,” was “redesigned to help seniors adjust to a career that could take them far away from friends and advisors.”

In addition to improving nursing education, Mary worked to make studying at PGH more attractive: for years, she advocated with the hospital board so that “finally, in 1950, students again received a stipend of $15 monthly from the city – a practice that had been discontinued during the Depression years” and more scholarships were made available.  She also “boosted student morale greatly by allowing seniors to go into white shoes and stockings. They must have felt they were almost full-fledged nurses!” and “interns and student nurses all joined in the fun of burning black shoes and stockings, or else draping them in rather surprising places around the hospital grounds, as soon as the intermediate year ended.” Seniors received special curfew privileges. As a sign of changing times, students were also “permitted a moderate amount of makeup and were allowed to wear shorts on the tennis court.”

Sadly, nursed through her last days “by those who loved and respected her.” Mary finally succumbed to her disease. She had attended All Saints Chapel at PGH, (which, incidentally, had its rectory at 3951 Baltimore Ave.), and also St. Francis de Sales with her mother, Mrs. Catherine McLaughlin, who lived at 4619 Chester Ave. She was buried at the Woodlands from St. Francis de Sales in 1954.

Priest Bails Out of Falling Jet

 “Priest Bails Out of Falling Jet, Lands in Tree – Gets to Wedding.” Was it the sensational news headline that distracted from the original research subject on the same page, or was it the oddly familiar name of the adventurous priest, Captain Cornelius F. McLaughlin?

Rev. McLaughlin   tells his tale to the newlyweds

It took a minute to place that distinctive name, then memory clicked with a smile on a small boy in a whimsical 1928 Parish Monthly Bulletin account of a children’s movie outing https://sfdshistory.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/a-trip-to-the-movies/ quoted in a history column a few years ago. “Bad Boy Brady…in the Third Grade at SFDS School,” had reported that “We all met at the school…and marched over to the Belmont Theatre on Fifty-second and Market Street…Me and Joe Rody and Cornelius McLaughlin (then about 11 years old) walked over together, and talked about marbles and baseball players. Joe said he wants to be an outfielder like Al Simmons, but Cornelius said he wants to help his father on the Ice Cream truck...” Cornelius popped up a few other times in other 1920s bulletins – in lists of altar boys, and school awards, and writing his own thank you for another movie treat

If he could have looked forward in time, young Cornelius might have been surprised by his future career and amazed by his calamitous adventure – a real-life caper as exciting as any of the movies he enjoyed!

On June 3, 1956, the Inquirer reported that Air Force chaplain Captain Cornelius McLaughlin (then age 39) was on his way from Sioux Falls IA, where he was stationed, to officiate at his cousin Barbara Coyle’s marriage to Edward Norbert Dooling in St. Alice’s Church, Upper Darby, PA, when his pilot realized that their T-33 jet trainer was running out of fuel. “Shortly thereafter, the pilot bailed out, having satisfied himself that his passenger had done likewise.” The jet crashed near Pine Bush, NY just before midnight, and “no-one knew what had happened to Father McLaughlin. It was 5:30 AM when police finally got a telephone call from the missing priest” who “had spent the intervening hours up a tree – trying to extricate himself from the harness of his parachute. Then came the breakneck race to get to Philadelphia in time for the 10 AM ceremony.” Would he make it? The Inquirer noted the first hurdle: “When New York State police picked up Father McLaughlin he was clad only in coveralls, the normal ‘uniform’ for jet flight…” so “he would have to obtain proper vestments, and quickly…After a few inquiries, the Rev. James Dalsey, of the Epiphany College in Newburgh, was willing and able to supply them…” Others helped as the race continued: “Police took him to Stewart Air Force Base at Newburgh, NY. There an obliging operations officer got Father McLaughlin a seat on a (C-47) transport plane just about to take off on a training flight. The transport landed at the International Airport here just four minutes after 10 AM. Father McLaughlin’s brother, Patrolman Martin M. McLaughlin, of the Upper Darby Police, met him there and sped him to St. Alice’s Church.”

But, as the Inquirer sadly noted, “yesterday was the first Saturday in June. At St. Alice’s, there was a wedding scheduled for 10 AM, another scheduled for 11 AM and still another scheduled for noon. Fifteen minutes was the maximum delay permissible under the circumstances. So the ceremony was already under way…when the McLaughlin brothers arrived at the church. Father McLaughlin entered the sanctuary and quietly took a seat there while Father Nolan, assistant rector of the church, performed in his stead.” All was forgiven, though, when Father McLaughlin attended the Wedding Breakfast and told his story!

Who was Cornelius McLaughlin? Baptized at SFDS in 1917, one of five children of William and Margaret McLaughlin, his family lived at 5028 Beaumont Street. He graduated from SFDS School and West Catholic High School, before entering St. Charles Seminary. McLaughlin was ordained at the Cathedral in 1945 by Bishop Hugh Lamb (who was, at the time, pastor of SFDS) and served at several parishes in the archdiocese before becoming a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force in 1952. Father McLaughlin served in the Air Force during the Korean War and remained on active duty for 20 years, earning several awards. He retired to San Diego, died in 1995, and is buried back here in PA, at Holy Cross Cemetery.

The Big Picture

This history column usually focuses on the single “planet” that is our parish, showing how it fits into the “solar system” of our immediate neighborhood. Every now and then, though, it’s good to step back and look beyond our single point of light, to the whole sky and the many galaxies beyond our view that form our universe – and the many cultures and communities that form the wider Catholic Church, of which we are such a small part. And in that, Sister Gertrude Borres is our key!

Sister Gertrude, of the Religious of the Assumption – in the convent across the street from the church – was named Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees in 2019 – just before the Covid pandemic hit — and has been working steadily ever since, through crisis after crisis, with different waves of immigrants and migrants. Her mission is two-fold: working with Catholic Social Services to connect people with resources to take care of their physical needs (loss of jobs, healthcare during covid, documentation, etc.), and, also, to help people feel welcomed by recognizing that “language, culture, and customs are important” and it’s vital to “nurture faith as lived.” Her office currently supports chaplains saying Mass in seventeen different languages other than English or Spanish – and embraces the rich diversity of customs and traditions that anchor and enrich Catholic experiences around the world – from Asia and the South Pacific to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

How has our parish intersected with Sister Gertrude’s work?

As the Afghan crisis unfolded, Sister Gertrude says, when Catholic Social Services welcomed about fifty Afghans arriving in Philadelphia, her role was to support and help with resettlement. When a family who moved to our neighborhood wanted to send their children to St. Francis de Sales School, she went to Father Eric, who went to Sister Mary McNulty, and among them, they arranged for this to happen. Parishioners contributed to help cover tuition. The parents then needed to learn English, so Sister Kathy Benham, IHM, was also looped in, and the parents began to attend English as a Second Language classes at the IHM Literacy Center.

Ukraine is currently immersed in an ongoing war and conflict. The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy is Orthodox Catholic and has its own support organization, so Sister Gertrude’s efforts have focused on spiritual solidarity and the understanding that there is little we can do physically to help, but “it strengthens them to know that people are praying for them.” The Zoom Novena Pilgrimage that just ended – a joint effort with the local Ukrainian Church, in which, each night, participants learned the story of one city and the impact of war – cultivated empathy for people in Ukraine who, she notes, in their suffering, “are experiencing the passion of Christ.” The Taizé Prayer Service at our parish, at the end of the novena, strengthened the newly-forged bonds with the Ukrainian community and the sense of sharing in the same mission.

On World Communications Day, Pope Francis compared the church to a choir, in which “unity does not require uniformity, monotony, but the plurality and variety of voices…” He hopes to “rediscover a symphonic Church, in which each person is able to sing with his or her own voice, welcoming the voices of others as a gift to manifest the harmony of the whole that the Holy Spirit composes.” Sister Gertrude who is herself a migrant, born and raised in the Philippines, feels that the role of her office is to “make the big church closer to the migrants and refugees.” Here at SFDS, she would like to “open us to not only our little world but to the universality of the church and our parish mission expressed right there in our title, as ‘United by the Most Blessed Sacrament’!” Let the dialogue begin!

Gender Bender

71. St. Francis de Sales

We come to thee, O happy Saint

To claim thy care and love,

To beg thy guidance through this life,

To endless bliss above.

Chorus

Oh, pray for us, St. Francis,

For dangers hover near;

Oh pray for us, St. Francis,

To conquer every fear.

While in the rosy bloom of youth,

To God thy soul was given,

And true, through life, thy spotless soul

‘Mid suffering soared to heaven.

Thy purity has won for thee

A crown of fadeless light;

Oh, may its beauty shine on us

And cheer the gloom of night.

              The verses above are from a hymnal printed for SFDS by the Catholic Standard in 1926, under the direction of Rev. Charles McGinley who was the Director of the women’s BVM Sodality organization at the time.

              The words to the hymn are somewhat peculiar for our Patron Saint – particularly the second verse, about “the rosy bloom of youth” and the suffering of a spotless soul. Saint Francis de Sales wasn’t tortured or martyred; he became the Bishop of Geneva in 1602 and died peacefully of a heart ailment at what was then a respectable age of 55. It seems odd that the hymn doesn’t reference his patient efforts to keep the faith alive during the Protestant Reformation; his advice on the Devout Life or his other inspirational writings (“We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear. Let us take breath, and go on afresh“); or his designation as patron saint of journalists and the deaf (a role Pope Francis is now highlighting).

              Curiously, an internet search finds the same song used to honor Saint Charles Borromeo in Monterrey, CA in 1914: “…then all the people form a long procession. In the center is carried the statue of San Carlos, and, while the choir sings the Hymn to San Carlos, they march slowly around the church… ‘We come to thee, O happy Saint/ To claim thy care and love,/ To beg thy guidance through this life,/To endless bliss above…’” Here, too, the words don’t fit the life of that 16th century Bishop known for founding seminaries.

              Hymnary.org, which tracks different versions of hymns printed over time, provides an answer. Its first recorded instance of the verses, is as a Hymn to St. Agatha, “dedicated to St. Agatha’s Sodality by a member” in 1872 and popular from 1872 to 1935. Ah, now it all fits! St. Agatha made a vow of virginity in rosy youth; kept her purity, through the suffering of torture and imprisonment; and soared to heaven to claim a martyr’s crown, around the year 251 AD.

              So why was the hymn repurposed? Since saintly feast days fall once a year, usually on a weekday, there hasn’t been much call for special songs – surprisingly, even for use in the annual Forty Hours or for institutions named for saints. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, now working on a new English language breviary, notes that music has existed for a number of saints but “Many of the nearly 300 Latin hymns, some dating back to the early centuries of the Church, have never had an official English translation…” If a need arose for an anthem, churches improvised. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has now approved the Green Book of the hymns of the Proper of Saints, so more official songs could eventually be available in English, but here’s a challenge and an opportunity for our own parish tribute to our patron St. Francis de Sales!

A Moving Story

MBS Chapel shown circa 1917

Usually, we expect an old building to stay solidly, reliably, fixed in one place, but the ever-adaptable MBS chapel has kept on moving with the times!

Its story began in 1885, when Reverend M.J. Lawler of newly established St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, in the rapidly growing Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, received city planning permission to build a “temporary frame chapel” at 17th and Morris Street to serve the then mostly Irish immigrant population. Completed and dedicated in November 1889, the wooden structure was used until December 1901, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “…Father Lawler started to build a church which, when finished, will be one of the largest in the city.”

The chapel had to be removed in order to make space for the new construction, so “it was carefully taken apart by workmen, and…presented to Father Burke” of the newly established Most Blessed Sacrament Parish at 56th and Chester. Father Burke then invited Father Lawler, who had said the first Mass in the chapel when it was dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, to say the first Mass at the dedication of the same chapel as Most Blessed Sacrament on December 22, 1901 (Incidentally, Reverend Joseph O’Neill of St. Francis de Sales was the Deacon for the dedication Mass, and the St. Francis de Sales Choir provided the music, so, fittingly, MBS and SFDS — destined to be combined as one in 2007 — celebrated their connection from the very beginning!).

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…” A forest of row houses quickly replaced the trees, though, as that corner of the city grew, and a bigger worship space was soon needed to accommodate the mostly immigrant laborers spreading out from South Philadelphia. A stone chapel/school building was dedicated in 1908, and the cornerstone was laid for the church in 1922. Meanwhile, the little wooden building clung bravely to its corner, becoming the MBS Parish Assembly Hall.

In 1925, as the neighborhood continued to expand, Good Shepherd Parish formed at 67th and Chester Ave. The “small frame structure” from MBS found a new purpose: dismantled, moved, reconstructed, and repaired, it became the temporary new chapel, where, “on Sunday, July 26, 1925, the first Mass at Good Shepherd Parish was celebrated at 6:00 AM on the feast of St. Anne…” The little building happily served that Parish until their new church was consecrated in 1951 (Good Shepherd was consolidated into Divine Mercy Parish in 2004).

Chapel at Good Shepherd 1925-1951

The sturdy little chapel’s travels weren’t over! In 1951, Rev. Christopher Purcell, of the newly-formed St. Christopher Parish in Somerton, wrote to Cardinal Dougherty, that “Through the kindness of Father Hammill, Pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Phila., (who had, incidentally, assisted at SFDS 1934-1939) we have been given the temporary chapel at Good Shepherd Parish and its equipment which he no longer needs.” The St. Christopher’s Parish website notes that the chapel was used until the present church was built in 1978,then “The original church was converted to a hall, and re-named as Trainer Hall.” It’s still there on the St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) parish grounds as they work on a capital campaign to expand their 1978 church!

Trainer Hall at St. Christopher Parish 1951-Present

John Deady likes to call this column “Have Chapel, Will Travel,” referencing a long-ago TV series about a man who moved around the American frontier, forever finding new adventures. Maybe he’s right about this plucky little chapel: next stop “Space, the final frontier”??!

The End of the Honeymoon

The 1930s are mostly remembered for the dreary slog of the Great Depression, the end of the national alcohol Prohibition experiment, and the dangerous rise of fascism around the world. But many personal milestones were also marked during the era – some with joy, some with sadness, and some in now-forgotten news headlines.

On September 1, 1934, our parish records show Reverend Toye officiating at the wedding of Joseph A. Drummond (of 3450 “F” Street) and Madeline Claire Finn (of 4618 Chester Ave.) M. Claire’s twin sister Marian was among the witnesses. A few hours later, following a wedding breakfast at the Hotel Normandie (366h and Chestnut), the couple went by train to New York City, to board a fateful honeymoon cruise.

The Morro Castle cruise ship was one of many “party boats” which had originated during the 1920s, to get around the Prohibition laws. The cruises sailed from New York City to Havana, Cuba, in two and a half days, spent two days there, then returned. It must have seemed like a perfect honeymoon: exotic travel with a hint of danger; cocktails, dining, and entertainment; ocean, tropics, moonlight, and a touch of luxury – all in one short jewel-like week.

The Drummonds enjoyed the first part of their trip, sending postcards home from Havana saying they were having a “swell time.” Cuba was an interesting place: historians note that “The period from 1933 to 1937 was a time of ‘virtually unremitting social and political warfare’” but the travelers were largely cocooned from the troubles.

A first hint of disturbance came when the ship’s Captain Willmott, who had seemed preoccupied, complained of indigestion after dinner on the last night of the cruise. Shortly afterwards, he died of an apparent heart attack. The evening dance was canceled out of respect. Then, somewhere near the coast of Asbury Park NJ, fire erupted, possibly in two separate places onboard, and the acting captain and his crew discovered that the mechanisms on half of the attractively-decorated lifeboats were clogged with dried paint, and couldn’t be lowered.

Gale force winds whipped up an inferno. The Catholic Standard related a survivor’s terrifying tale: “All the passengers were huddled together near the stern…There must have been 200 or more of us there. Most of them were half crazy with fear…Then…we saw Father Egan. He stood there outlined in flames…He raised his hands…and then he began to pray, while the passengers fell to their knees…Father Egan gave general absolution and then the fire got so close we all had to jump…” The NY priest would be among those rescued, but at least 134 people died, and many others were injured.

The Drummonds gave a short interview from a hospital in NY, recalling that “as the flames crept upon them they jumped hand-in-hand into the water. The impact of the water knocked Drummond unconscious” but he retained a bruising grip on his wife’s wrist. They stayed together, and when a Cuban woman drifted up, crying for her children, “they undertook to hold her above water” for six hours until they became exhausted, and she flailed and drifted away to her death. A lifeboat picked them up an hour later.

Joseph Drummond had puzzled over one odd incident before they sailed from Cuba, when a young black boy tried to board and the captain “seemed very excited. After the boy was searched he was put off the boat.”  Disgruntled sailors sometimes tried to supplement poor pay by smuggling goods and stowaways. Passengers were unaware of labor problems making the captain particularly jittery on this trip; the chief radio operator’s police record of theft, terrorist threats, arson, and murder has since come under scrutiny.

A handful of melted rosary beads, later recovered from the Drummond cabin, were the couple’s honeymoon memento, as they settled near the church at 4516 Springfield Ave. — baptizing two children, Joseph Kevin Drummond in July 1935, and Brian “Cresson” Drummond in April 1939 – before disappearing into the mists of parish history.

Border Mission: Sister Kathy’s Tale

Sister Kathy delivers supplies

Sister Kathy Benham, of the IHM Literacy Center, was among the first to volunteer for the IHM Border Mission last year – a combined operation of the three separate Monroe, Scranton, and Philadelphia branches of IHM sisters, offering humanitarian assistance during the refugee surge at the U.S. southern border after President Biden’s inauguration. That she was among those first IHMs to go for three weeks starting in April 2021, was due to chance or the Holy Spirit: when Catholic Relief Services asked for women religious volunteers, many of her Literacy Center pupils were observing the month-long Muslim season of Ramadan — a time when class attendance tends to be erratic — so it seemed a reasonable time to be away!

Sister Kathy was actually on the committee that chose the relatively remote site of El Centro CA, diocese of San Diego, for the mission. She went down with Sister Mary Elaine Anderson of the Scranton IHM Sisters – a nice reunion, since they had met years before – to set up. There, the two sisters employed their special skills as religious – with a heritage of hospitality and a talent for organization — to build an efficient operation. Sister Mary Elaine, who was able to stay for the full three months of the mission, even found use for her art therapy training to help anxious children!

Sister Kathy reports that immigrants to El Centro did not stream in, steadily, in long processions, as in some other areas. Instead, they crept across the border quietly, one family at a time. Many were desperately poor. Most, at the time, were Brasilians, fleeing the repressive Bolsonaro regime, hoping to find humble jobs to feed their families.  They went west to California because they hoped it would be easier to get in. Picked up there by the U.S. Border Patrol, they had no idea what to expect, and, since the Brasilians often spoke only Portuguese – no Spanish or English – language was an extra challenge.

Immigrant families were split up just inside the U.S. border, with men sent to one facility, and women and children to another, for covid testing and paperwork. Those with covid were then moved into quarantine in a large motel at Holtzville. Those who tested negative were taken to El Centro. Boys over 18 years old were considered independent adults and generally sent back across the border to Mexico, which was an incomprehensible and unexpected tragedy to those accustomed to living together in big multigenerational families; most had no phones and no way to keep in touch. The rest had no idea what would happen next, so they were surprised, and sometimes moved to tears, when they were reunited on a bus, enroute to a motel room in El Centro, to be met with the relief of a welcoming smile, clean beds and a bathroom, and meals. Once there, they had 48 hours to contact relatives in the United States who could pay for their plane tickets, and to get to the airport. Sister Kathy and her fellow volunteers organized a clothing room to provide clothing (since shoelaces had been confiscated at the border, these were especially prized!); distributed meals; and, muddling along in a mixture of Spanish and google translate, helped their charges to work through the English-language airport bureaucracy. The airport was an hour away from El Centro, so the nuns and volunteers drove families there in vans supplied by Catholic Charities. A knowledgeable former border patrol officer wisely advised them to explain to the families that the long bumpy ride would take them to the faraway airport, since they were in unfamiliar remote territory, with people they didn’t know, who spoke a different language, and the families were stressed, terrified, and confused about everything happening outside their control.

Sister Kathy highlights the amazing efforts of Catholic Relief Services to make a real difference, and feels humbled by her experience.  Now, the IHMs hope to return to the border! They are in the planning stages for a combined mission of all three IHM groups and the related Sisters of Providence. The hope is to set up a permanent “unretreat” center – a place where volunteers can come, not for solitary soulful meditation, but to offer their time and energy to help others. They have also received funding from SOAR – the funding for retired IHM religious – which hopes to involve retired sisters who still want to contribute.

Illumination

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!

2021 Border Mission: Pod 23A

Sisters Constance and Jeannette in San Antonio, TX, May 2021

When two thousand anxious immigrant children were separated from their families at the U.S. southern border in early 2021, Catholic Charities summoned its unique superpower — nuns from orders across the country – to help in the crisis. Among those IHM sisters who answered the call, were several familiar names: Sister Kathy Benham of the IHM Ctr for Literacy, who worked with families in CA; and Sisters Constance and Jeannette, formerly of SFDS School. Snippets from Sister Jeannette’s San Antonio TX diary hint at the size of the task there:

This morning we reported at 6:45, police, security everywhere….Covid test…Dept Homeland Security lanyard and ID, then… Catholic Charities…took pix, got ID there…gave us Catholic Charities vests and gave us instructions…We were given total charge of a pod ourselves!! 23A.   The place took our breath away. A Huge coliseum with maybe 1,000 cots in it!!!!!  And 1,000 boys to match the cots…They gave us a map and a list of names and information and told to go watch them, that the overnight person had just left…23A was Only 21 boys ages 13 to 17… We couldn’t see the end of our cots and the beginning of the cots on the pods around us…Some were sitting on their cots and a few tried to talk to us…They were scheduled for ‘indoor activity’…Our pod is scheduled to go outside to a small yard tomorrow. Around lunch time we were told to line up our pod for lunch. They are really good at getting in line and waiting to be told when to go…It’s amazing Totally organized…We picked up boxes on the way in and ate with them: sausage, beans and salsa, potatoes and a roll. It was hot and good. The minute you’re finished they move your pod out and more are coming in all the time. After lunch they are supposed to ‘rest’ and they did. Lots were reading paperback Bibles in Spanish, of course, or playing UNO. But Most of All, they were using pieces of yarn and had beads and they were making beautiful bracelets.  They were so earnest about this…The boys are so gentle and thoughtful…Three different times there was clapping, whistling, cheering and it meant that a boy from some pod was being taken out because they were reuniting him with his family…they were happy for the lucky boy and really showed it…”

Day 2 was exciting:the boys “each got to make a telephone call!!… They were arranged in a line according to bed #, then seated in chairs….The boys were called to the tables and the volunteer called the number on the paper and asked for the person to verify the info. Then they gave the cell phone to the boy and he talked. We heard one to a mother and another to a priest. They talked for 12 minutes (there was a stopwatch), then they came over to us and the next boys were called to the table. It’s like musical chairs here….”

As days went by, some boys were released to relatives, and the rest waited patiently for their turn. Indoors, “along the side aisles there were soccer ball games going on all over. It reminded me of the schoolyard (small) at St. Francis de Sales…” The sisters bought craft supplies and games at Walmart. The boys studied basic English phrases and looked at a map to see the states where they would someday live. They had haircuts and figured out how to make elaborate folded paper swans. “The shrine on the table to Our Lady of Guadeloupe has been cleaned, straightened and added to. It looks very nice.  A picture of St. Martin de Porres has been placed there, also.”

The Sisters ound out that “All the boys here are from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua…The US is allowing these in as a safe haven” because “their lives are in danger. If they stayed in their countries “they would be forced into gangs for drug running or sex or killed for refusing.”

At the end of their two exhausting weeks, Sister Constance called together the remaining boys in their Pod 23A “family” to tell them “this will be our last day.  We are going back to our school…” (St. Matthew’s). Explanation was important so the boys wouldn’t feel abandoned: “We learned that lesson… at De Sales. When Sisters were changed, the kids often thought that they didn’t like…them and that’s why they went away…Because we can’t touch them, we fist-bumped each one. It brought tears to us and them. They presented each of us with a RECUERDOS bracelet – remember, regards, memories.”