A pair of evocative photos turned up recently in the Archdiocesan CHRC Archives, capturing our church in solemn and celebratory moods long ago.
The first is labeled on the reverse “The altar at St. Francis de Sales’ Church arranged for Solemn Pontifical Mass November 12th, 1916. Presented by Father Lallouto A.C.H.S.” (American Catholic Historical Soc.) The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the dedication of the Church, and Father Lallou, of St. John the Evangelist Church, gave the sermon. Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, D.D., rector of the Catholic University, presided, assisted by Rev. James T. Higgins, pastor of MBS. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted at the time that “All the officers of the mass are alumni of the Catholic University.” Our Pastor, Rev. Michael J. Crane, and Rev. Higgins – both now memorialized on our rectory lawn – had graduated together, among its first alumni. The exuberant electric lighting (imagine climbing up to replace those burnt-out bulbs!) is a reminder of how much clean, bright electricity – the new light of knowledge — was prized in 1916.
The second photo, showing the rear of the church, is unlabeled but also very early, and captures the magnificent serenity of the church at rest.
Look around you and compare these photos with our church today — eerily the same and different. Check out the old full altar rail, the big hanging cross-shaped sanctuary lamp, the “cake stand” electric candle stands, and the early view of the organ. The old church was both darker, with the ornate dark pews and old flooring, and brighter with its multitude of light stands and bare bulbs.
Pope Francis quotes composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future,” adding “It is not a museum piece. It is what gives us life, as long as it makes you grow.” Our parish treasures its past, while continuing to move ahead: trying new ideas to engage families, planning updates to facilities for modern energy awareness, and looking at feasibility of adding wheelchair cuts to our 1960s pews to make the church more accessible. The shared sacrament of the Eucharist is what anchors us, connecting our past, present, and future.
The 1970s were not kind to our parish. Families left for the suburbs as part of a national trend, and the controversial Venturi modernization of the sanctuary – needed for the equally controversial New Mass of Vatican II – became a source of division among those that remained. Monsignor Mitchell was unwell. Then world events piled on one more challenge. The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed Parish Administrator Father Fitzmaurice, (who would officially be named 8th pastor in 1976) in March 1974, during the October 1973- March 1974 Oil Embargo (Arab states ban on oil trade) – shining a cautionary light into long-reaching shadows of global politics:
“Escalation of fuel oil prices is making life tougher for inner city pastors and congregations…At Saint Francis de Sales, 47th St and Springfield Ave. in West Philadelphia, oil prices have more than doubled in the last year and are still climbing. As a result, classrooms in this school have become cooler, hallways in the rectory have become darker, and crowds at mass sometimes shiver as they listen to the homily (not because of its content!). Although no programs have been cut back yet, the pastor and parishioners are engaged in a ‘backbreaking struggle to make ends meet,’ the pastor, the Rev. Francis J.Fitzmaurice admitted…”
The paper reported “Some pastors turned bitter, castigating oil company executives and the government in their resentment over the shortage of oil, which they contend was a conspiracy to drive prices up. They said it was ‘theft.’ Many of them got together to form CHOPP – Clergy and Householders Opposed to Petroleum Profiteering – last month to get a rollback of oil prices to November 1973 levels. Monsignor Frederick J Moors, pastor of Saint Cecilia’s at 535 Rhawn St, said the clergyman were angry because the ‘basic issue is a moral one.’ It is wrong for oil companies to make ‘excessive profits’ from the sale of ‘necessities like oil…Besides, it impedes the charitable work of the church.’”
“But for clergymen like Father Fitzmaurice, the soft spoken priest in his mid 50s who became pastor at Saint Francis last September, oil prices are just another worry on a list of insolvable difficulties associated with changing neighborhoods — declining church attendance and contributions, rising crime statistics, fear, deficits. A rollback of oil prices would have been welcome, he admitted, but it wouldn’t have put the budget in the black. The deficit last year, Father Fitzmaurice said, was $65,000 and to balance the budget, $48,000 had to come out of parish savings. If the deficit continues this year, there is not enough left in the treasury to cover it. Last winter, the parish spent $14,024 for 100,834 gallons of oil to heat the church, school, rectory and convent. This winter, the church has so far spent $16,647, and it has used only 58,524 gallons of fuel. By April, it may have to come up with another $4000 for heat, the priest said. Even before the winter began, the tuition for the Parish School increased and the pastor said he had gone begging, asking friends and parishioners to give more. It is a great strain, he said.”
“The parish, formed in 1890, was once affluent, with Catholics from 5,000 households contributing more than the church needed to balance the budget. But the makeup of the parish has slowly changed. Now there are fewer than 1,300 families left in the parish and the school built for 1,500 children, has only 619, the lowest number in 50 years, Father Fitzmaurice said.”
The Inquirer noted “The problems, compounded by fuel costs at Saint Francis, could be told over and over throughout the city” and not just for Catholics: “For example, eleven of the 22 churches in the Center City, Lutheran parish, are supported by mission funds from the Lutheran Church in America. The LCA reduced that support by $40,000…this year…” And Catholic News Service reported interfaith CHOPP groups of churches and synagogues forming across the country, uniting in concern over crippling energy costs.
President Nixon would resign just a few months later due to Watergate. President Ford would take on a thankless task of trying to stabilize the country – in an age that Charles Dickens might have characterized “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…in short, the period was so far like the present period…” And our parish? Philadelphia loves an underdog. At the end of the Vietnam War, an influx of refugees galvanized a new sense of purpose and we pulled through.
When Rick Curry (classmate of John Deady and cousin of Adrienne Chapman) graduated from SFDS Parish School in 1957, the IHM sisters cautioned him that his career choices would be limited. The popular student took this as a challenge, graduating from West Catholic HS, earning a BA from St. Joe’s, MA from Villanova, and a PhD in Educational Theatre from New York University. He became a professor of Catholic Studies and Theatre, as well as director of the Academy for Veterans at Georgetown University; advocated for actors with disabilities; and worked with the Veteran’s Administration on healthcare and rehabilitation for wounded veterans. As a Jesuit lay brother, he trained as a baker. With special Vatican dispensation, he was ordained a priest, and kept so busy that you might barely notice his single arm.
Dog Tag Bakery, a “thriving bakery and an immersive classroom,” named for military ID tags, was one of his most important projects. Father Curry, who lived with his condition from birth, wanted to inspire and empower those coping with life changes – especially those injured while serving their country. The bakery, which he co-founded with Constance Milstein in 2014, provided a unique way to use all of his talents, training, and experience to help others.
Tales of Father Curry from Dog Tag Bakery:
St. Joseph Story
Before the construction of the bakery building in Georgetown, DC, it was taking an awfully long time to get the building permits. Father Curry recommended the tradition of burying a statue of St. Joseph to help move things along. While other members of the team were skeptical, they figured it wouldn’t hurt. They got a small statue of St. Joseph and buried it upside down on the lot. 3 days later, the permits were approved and the team received the green light to begin building.
Stage in the Bakery Story
Because of his background, Father Curry strongly believed in the power of theater to heal and transform. In 1977, he founded the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped (NTWH) in New York City, and eventually expanded the program to a residential theatre school in Belfast, Maine, that grew to include a bakery program where Father Curry and his students baked and sold breads as part of an annual fundraiser.
When he started the program for veterans with service-connected disabilities, military spouses, and military caregivers at Dog Tag in 2014, he knew he wanted the performing arts to be part of the experience. His vision included a stage area within the bakery building, and as part of the program, a storytelling course called “Finding Your Voice.” To this day, at the end of the program, each Dog Tag Fellow performs their story on the stage (or the virtual stage, during COVID), as part of the culmination of their 5-month journey. Many fellows and alumni have pointed to this event as one of the most transformative parts of their experience.
Father Curry died in 2015, but his legacy lives on. Visit Dog Tag Bakery if you’re ever in Georgetown, DC, and check them out here at their website: https://www.dogtaginc.org/ His two cookbooks – on bread and soup — are also highly recommended. And if you ever watch the old TV detective show Monk, look out for the episode with the “asymmetrical” psychologist – that’s him!
Saint Joseph’s University recently opened a West Philadelphia extension at the old University of the Sciences campus, 43rd and Woodland. They may be new neighbors, but an archival photo reveals our historic connection!
On October 15, 1925, at the original City Ave. campus, Catholic News Services reported that our second pastor: “The Right Rev. Michael J. Crane. Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia. officiated at the breaking of ground for the first building of the new St. Joseph’s College on the site where the imposing group of buildings for the Jesuit Institution will soon stand. The first building will house the College of Liberal Arts and serve as a faculty building. Bishop Crane used a shovel which was used when ground was broken for old St. Joseph’s Church here in 1733 and which has been a treasured relic among the Jesuits since that time.”
Saint Joe’s University still has the original photo, and the plaque that was affixed to the shovel, though the location of the actual shovel is not known.
News coverage of the groundbreaking was scant. A few years later, in 1927, the dedication of the building – on the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the college in 1853 — would be a much larger event, with the famously flawed aviation hero Charles Lindbergh (first to fly solo across the Atlantic) as a special guest. He would be awarded an honorary degree of Master of Aeronautics – even though the university did not have a program in the subject! It was claimed that 10,000 people attended that event, including a number of international dignitaries. Cardinal Dougherty officiated.
How did St. Joe’s come to build on City Ave back in 1925? Their history reports “The Jesuit charism, or mission, coincided perfectly with a grand plan envisioned by a group of wealthy Catholics from Overbrook and Bala Cynwyd in 1922 to develop City Line into an uber-Catholic community — a Catholic Main Line” with two wealthy parishes (Our Lady of Lourdes in Overbrook and St. Matthias in Bala Cynwyd); and plans for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, St. Joseph’s Jesuit college, and the Cardinal’s residence, among others. Priorities change. Now, the university observes that the new “Saint Joseph’s University City campus is located in Philadelphia’s innovation district — home to health science start-ups, established biotech firms and influential higher education institutions that work together toward solving societies’ most pressing problems.” And we are here too. With a lot of young people and families bringing new energy. Shall we also be innovators?! 😊
Does it seem as though roads are becoming more hazardous? In the early days of our church, when cars were still a novelty, our second Pastor, Reverend Crane, thought so. And vehicles moved a lot slower back then!
As the number of motorcars began to increase in the city — intermingling with horse carts, carriages, trolleys, bicycles, and others sharing the roads – officials took some odd advice in the struggle to keep everyone safe. In June 1912 – a year after our church building was finished – The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that our Reverend Crane was asked by the coroner to serve on a jury “composed of clergymen” ruling on an “automobile fatality” case, in which a man driving a “motor truck” ran down and killed a woman pedestrian. Six clergymen of different (Christian) faiths “were asked to serve on the jury as a result of a recommendation made a few months ago at the national convention of coroners, the object being to give the clergy an opportunity to impress upon members of their congregation, as well as upon chauffeurs and the owners of automobile and other vehicles, the dangers from the careless driving of motorcars” (The driver in the case was held responsible for the death and remanded for trial).
January 1916 brought traffic issues a little closer to home when the Inquirer ran a short news item headed “Auto Runs Down Aged Man.” In that incident, an SFDS parishioner, John F. Wholey, of 4822 Windsor Ave. (whose father Timothy Wholey would donate our St. Francis de Sales statue in 1920) “was taking a party of friends in an automobile to a wedding in Merchantville” when a man “stepped in front of the machine” at Day and Federal Streets, Camden; was knocked over; and suffered a “probable fracture of the skull.”
Not all automotive troubles were accident related. A different danger made the news in February 1919, with the headline “Motor Bandits Get Furs Worth $5000; Terrorize W. Phila.” The Inquirer reported that a woman who lived next door to the fur store of SFDS parishioner Henry T. Amlung, at 4810 Baltimore Avenue (today, an empty lot behind a wooden fence), heard a noise one evening, looked out from an upstairs window, and “was struck speechless by witnessing one man tossing furs out of the window, and into the arms of an accomplice, who was putting them into a limousine automobile.”
Fast-moving motor bandits quickly became a significant class of criminals, so police – still on foot – had to invest in vehicles and equipment in order to keep up. On December 23, 1920, the Inquirer reported that “Philadelphia’s Christmas presents for motor bandits are ready. Here they are: One hundred and fifty armed motorcycles, most of them with sidecars. Six fast automobiles for bandit-chasing owned by the city and a fleet of privately owned automobiles at the call of the police. A stack of short-range sawed-off shotguns, each pumping six shells of buck shot in rapid succession…” (The shotguns were thought to be a kinder and gentler approach to crimefighting than the submachine guns proposed in New York City to deal with a similar automotive crime wave). Speedy police vehicles might have discouraged automotive crime, but were unlikely to improve safety for pedestrians or other traffic!
As to Reverend (by then Bishop) Crane, the hazards of the new automobile age soon became very personal. On Nov. 11, 1922, Catholic News Service reported that “Rev. Cornelius X. Leahy, pastor of the Church of SS. Peter and Paul at Tower City, died last Sunday as a result of a fracture of the skull sustained in an automobile accident. This accident occurred when Father Leahy was driving with a party, including Bishop Crane, of this city, from Tower City to Tremont, where Bishop Crane was to administer Confirmation.” Curiously, there is no further information on what caused the accident or whether any of the other passengers were injured. We know only that the funeral took place in “St. Canicus’ Church, Mahanoy City” and began “with Divine Office at 10 o’clock. The Right Rev. Bishop Crane presided.”
The world keeps moving. A century later, cars are old news, but the car troubles are still familiar – and now we face challenges Bishop Crane never could have imagined, as we navigate hazards of life online in the new age of the internet!
Before digital media and modern tech, when the world moved at a more stately pace, an overseas trip was a major undertaking – especially if an honor would be received at the other end. Accounts of Archbishop Dougherty’s journey to Rome in 1921, to be installed as a cardinal, focused largely on getting there and back!
The Philadelphia Inquirer recorded the expedition’s start: “Entering an automobile” (still somewhat exotic transport) at 7:30 AM sharp on February 19, 1921, Archbishop Dougherty “was accompanied to Broad Street Station by Monsignors Nevin S. Fisher and Michael J. Crane(our second Pastor, also travelling). In the line of march which escorted him to the station was a bodyguard of mounted policemen, a detail of Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus, representatives from other Catholic orders, a band, and color guard. The guard carried the papal colors of gold and white and the American flag. Two cadets from the school of St. Francis de Sales Church, Edward Lipp and Edward Walsh, bore the colors.” And that was only the beginning.
A Catholic News Service reported that, including our Msgr. Crane, “Four hundred clergymen and laymen of Philadelphia accompanied Archbishop Dougherty to New York… Seven special (train) cars were required to bring the big delegation to Hoboken…” where “Thousands of men and women who awaited his arrival at the pier knelt as he passed through their midst to the vessel and when he reached the decks hundreds of others greeted him and filed up to congratulate him and kiss the episcopal ring…” It noted “When the visitors had gone ashore Archbishop Dougherty stood on the starboard side of the liner amidships… Just before the liner pulled cut, at a given signal, came the parting salute of flowers. The red carnations worn by the Philadelphia party, roses, violets and orchids were thrown in the air and showered down on the smiling prelate as the Niew Amsterdam moved out into the river.”
As to accommodations for the week-long voyage, the Inquirer noted that “An altar has been set up on board the vessel and His Grace will read mass each morning. A private dining salon has been set aside for the use of the party. According to the Catholic Standard and Times, “While the vessel was crossing the Atlantic, the Archbishop delivered an address on Washington’s birthday, eulogizing the ‘Father of Our Country.’” Upon arrival in France on February 28, “the party was greeted at Boulogne by a delegation of Knights of Columbus… and a group of prominent French Catholics, who escorted the Archbishop to Paris.” The Philadelphia group then continued to Rome on a special train, where, finally, “amid ceremonies of stirring solemnity and grandeur, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty received from Pope Benedict XV on Thursday. March 10, 1921. the full insignia of his exalted rank as a Prince of the Catholic Church.”
Coming home, the new Cardinal sailed from Paris on April 6, aboard the RMS Olympic (a sister ship to the Titanic, reportedly just as luxurious, but less moist), “accompanied by his party of clergy and laity who had escorted him to Rome…” Arriving in New York, April 13, he was greeted onboard by dignitaries. Then, “During his passage up New York Harbor…the Cardinal was cheered by thousands…hundreds were congregated around Pier A, where the boats docked, and the street along which the automobile procession was to pass was dense with people for several blocks…The Cardinal and his party left Pennsylvania Station in two special trains the following evening at 6 o’clock… The train bearing His Eminence arrived at North Philadelphia Station at 8.05 o’clock” where he was greeted by “Bishop Rhinelander, of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and Rabbi Krauskopf. of Keneseth Israel Synagogue. Clad in the robes of his high office, the Cardinal rode down Broad st. on which, for almost 10 miles, from Logan to extreme South Philadelphia, more than half a million citizens of all races and creeds greeted him with hymns of thanksgiving, deafening cheers, pealing bells and the stirring strains of music. Through this long human lane, amid sputtering red torches and spotlights, under triumphal arches, proceeded 150 automobiles carrying silk-hatted dignitaries of the city, the Church, and the professions in the special escort to the Cardinal…” And he hadn’t even won a Superbowl!
Arrival back in New York, April 1921 (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
Have you ever wondered how our story—and our neighbourhood — might have been different if our church had been built in a different place?
So many spots were considered in the early days of our parish that it’s hard to keep track of what was real! The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in July 1890 that a site had been “secured” for first pastor Rev. Joseph O’Neill’s new church at “Forty-Seventh street near Chestnut.” Then, on October 31, it reported that “last week” Rev. Joseph O’Neill “purchased” a large lot “at Forty-seventh street and Chester avenue.” Were these two different plots or was the paper confused? A 1928 parish history affirms that Rev. O’Neill “secured a site at Forty-seventh Street and Chester Avenue, 250 feet by 150 feet, for the price of $15,000. But then, just to complicate things, a memo has surfaced referencing a “deed from Anthony A. Hirst to Most Reverend Patrick John Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia, recorded…July 1st, 1890, for the property at the intersection of 47th Street and Warrington Avenue and running through to Baltimore Avenue.” (the corner now occupied by the 801 S. 47th St. Cedar Park Place apartment building. The southern property line was actually closer to Windsor).
The 1894 First Annual Report of the Parish Debt Association – the closest document to the time – described the challenge of consolidating enough land to build since “the holders of certain lots would not sell, offering as an objection that they were opposed to the school which Catholics made the accompaniment of the church and parochial house. Other ground was reported swampy, and would not be accepted.” It confirmed the Forty-seventh and Warrington Avenuepurchase and observed “It was not the place most desired, but it was hoped that the Baptists, who had bought the property at the North-east corner of Forty-Seventh and Springfield Avenue, might eventually sell to them.”
Father O’Neill went to Europe July 1 and returned October 8, but negotiations continued while he was away, with Rev. P.J. Garvey (pastor of St. James at 38th and Chestnut — the “Mother Parish” of St. Francis de Sales) and lawyer Anthony A. Hirst working on his behalf. At some point, Rev. O’Neill was notified that the “property at the North-east corner of Forty-seventh and Springfield Avenue was secured through his attorney, Anthony A. Hirst, Esquire.” A September 29 memo from Rev. P.J. Garvey to Archbishop Patrick John Ryan noted that “this property referred to by Mr. Hirst and located at the South east (oopsie) corner of 47th St. and Springfield Avenue is in my judgement a much better and more suitable site for a church than that secured by Father O’Neill before his departure. I feel sure Father O’Neill will be well pleased at the change because this SE Cor. of 47th & Springfield Avenue was the place he wished to purchase in the first instance…While favoring this new site in preference to the old one, I must say that I think the new church should be nearer to Woodland Avenue and somewhat further West; but if 47th & Springfield suits Father O’Neill and the new congregation I shall be satisfied. Your obedient child in Christ, P.J. Garvey.” The Springfield Ave. deed was signed over on October 15, 1890.
According to the 1894 report, once the Springfield Ave. lot was purchased, “the former lot was then offered for sale. A small portion of it was retained to make ample room for the new buildings.” This has to refer to the Warrington/Baltimore Ave. site, which bordered the Springfield lot: the report continues “The lot held by Father O’Neill had a frontage of one hundred and forty feet and a depth of two hundred and sixty-five feet,” which matches the dimensions on the Springfield Ave. deed plus an extra fifteen-foot strip.
Oddly, the 1928 history, 34 years later, forgot Warrington and mentioned only the Chester Ave. plot, noting that “Father O’Neill returned in October (1890), and finding the site he had earlier purchased unsuitable, he disposed of it.” Assuming we are not dealing with multiple realities in alternate universes, this suggests that Father O’Neill could have purchased two properties to sell once he decided on 47th and Springfield Ave. Now, 132 years later, here we are, in a neighbourhood landmark under a Guastavino dome. Good choices?!
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!
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.”
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!
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.