Category: building/architecture

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”??!

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!

The View from the Belltower

SFDS Belltower

One afternoon a few weeks ago, the perilous hatch up into the belfry creaked open and the pigeons were astonished by a rare human visitor. Who was it? Not Quasimodo the Hunchback, but Tim Verdin, President of the Verdin Company of Cincinnati OH – the sixth-generation family-owned company that inherited the mantle – and the records — of the Old Meneely Bell Foundry of West Troy, NY, which made our bells back in 1916 (not to be confused with the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, NY – a different family branch and a separate competing company. Verdin notes that the Meneely vs Meneely trademark case of 1875 actually set a precedent, establishing “the legal right to use one’s surname commercially, even if a business using the same name already existed”).

In any case, Verdin, who was in town to work on the 58-bell Meneely carillon at Valley Forge (one of the world’s largest carillons), was especially interested in seeing our bells because he knew that there was something special about them: “Starting just before 1900, Meneely began experimenting with tuning their bells. What they do is cast the bells slightly thicker than they thought they should be and then they would remove metal from the outside of the bell to flatten the tone. Meneely is the only bell company to have tuned their bells on the outside; in Europe at the time all bell foundries tuned their bells by removing metal from the inside of the bell. Meneely would put the bell on a large metal lathe and then use a cutting tool to remove the appropriate bronze.” Eventually, the firm developed a new method of tuning to all “five different partials or frequencies that make up the note the bell is perceived to be” rather than just the middle three, and bell shaving became obsolete.

 Verdin observed that “Meneely cast some of the finest bells of any of the early American bell founders.” Our “chime consists of a total of (11) bronze bells..The largest bell weighs about 2,300 Lbs. and rings the note E1 in the middle octave. All of the bells except the largest are stationary which means they hang from the wooden frame…and don’t move.” Verdin notes that   they are “cast of bronze which is a mixture of approx. 80% copper and 20% tin. They are showing a nice greenish/blue patina which is perfectly normal for this age of bell in the environment they are in…These bells were not tuned before they were installed, but sound very nice. This is very typical of early American bell founders…The largest bell which sit on top of the wooden frame is designed to be a swinging bell, although it looks like it’s been a long time since it actually did swing.” He further notes that “The chime is a wonderful example of preserved history. It is still very much original and is basically using all of the same components as it did one the first day it was installed 104 years ago,.” which is, apparently, unusual!

Verdin located the original 1916 records for our bells in his archive. In addition to the technical specifications, labor costs, and stated fifteen-year warranty(!), there is an historic notation that “the bells to be arranged for blessing ceremonies after which they are to be placed in chiming order in the tower…Less allowance towards installation concert programs. Mr. C. to receive gratis about 250 copies.” That’s a lot of copies of our 1916 Parish Bell-Blessing ceremony program potentially floating around. What was the first music played on our bells? Can we dare hope that one of those programs may someday turn up in somebody’s attic?!

Incidentally…

Tim Verdin commented: “My Great-Great-Great Grandfather was Francis de Sales Verdin. He and several of his brothers are the ones that brought their families to America, from Marlenhiem, France, in the early 1830’s (and started the company). I am unsure…how he came to be named Francis de Sales. We actually have a Francis de Sales Catholic Church here in Cincinnati which I always thought was kind of cool because of his name. in fact, the Francis de Sales Catholic Church here in Cincinnati has the largest bell that has ever been cast in America in the tower. The bell was cast right here in Cincinnati in 1896 by the Buckeye Bell Foundry. It weighs almost 35,000 Lbs. and is called ‘Big Joe.’

Here is a picture of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather Francis de Sales Verdin; and here’s ‘Big Joe’ – Largest bell ever cast in America.

French Heritage

A lot of ideas came together – by chance or by providence – when the statue of our patron Saint Francis de Sales was mounted above the door of our Guastavino-domed Byzantine-Romanesque style church back in 1911.

                Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia, explains that the Byzantine Revival movement originated in France in the late nineteenth century and our church owes “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with welcoming rounded arches and vaults — rather than stern, angular Gothic pointed arches and steeples — and with a heaven-like dome to complete the thought.  The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Paris began construction in1875 and the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille was finished in 1896, so the energy was in the air with some striking new examples as guides.

                Architect Henry Dagit, who lived in the parish at 4529 Pine St., had a deeply personal interest in the building, even memorializing some of his relatives in its decorations. The Dagit family were of French/German heritage, so Henry was naturally attracted to French and German design inspiration for his family church.

                For an American twist, Dagit realized that a distinctive Guastavino Dome roof — an engineering marvel — could complete the design, and allow a generous open-space floor plan for the church. Spanish immigrant Rafael Guastavino was famous for his unique building system in which tiles were layered with special mortar to create a strong, lightweight dome structure which did not require interior bracing, or space-taking, view-obscuring rows of supporting columns. The magnificent dome is one of only three Guastavino projects in Philadelphia: Girard Bank (Ritz-Carlton Hotel today) was built in 1908, and the Penn Museum’s dome would be constructed in 1916.

                The French-inspired architectural style, updated with the modern dome, offered an especially appropriate setting to honor our 17th century French patron saint, who acquired new visibility just as our church was being finished. France became a secular state in 1905. In 1911, when the French government took over the church where the saint was buried, journalists around the world reported on the procession of relics, as his remains were moved across town to a new shrine, and remarked on his then-unofficial title – dating back to the 1870s –as their patron saint.

Over time, our parish sense of identity – once so neatly linked to our building — has become obscured as our building has changed. Our patron saint’s statue was removed from his perch above our door in the 1980s for safety reasons, and stood in the parking lot for several years before disappearing. Our historically significant Guastavino dome – still intact inside the church — was covered with a cement shell on the outside in the 1950s. Our architecture and details of our history have been mischaracterized over time, contributing to a muddled sense of identity and purpose. What we are  remains elegantly simple: a diverse, welcoming congregation in a historic, architecturally significant, neighborhood church, built by immigrants and named for a saint who was known for his kindness and his gentle persuasion in drawing people back to the faith – and whose efforts to write truth earned him the title “Patron Saint of Journalists.” Merged in 2007 with Most Blessed Sacrament Parish – named for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ — we have an added reminder of our core mission, to actively promote what is best and truest about our faith in our neighborhood and beyond.

Portal of Prayer

IMG_2318 sfds facade carving de nestiThe words and artwork above the doors of a church are intended to guide churchgoers as they move through the doorway, or portal, from the outdoor worldly world into sacred space.   At Saint Francis de Sales, that direction has long been hidden – and not just because it has been covered by scaffolding!

The message above the central door to our church is visible in photographs, but long misrepresented in writing. In almost every description of the church, since the beginning, only the first half of the inscribed verse is quoted: “My eyes will be open and my ears attentive.” Winding around a scene (carved by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti) usually described as “the Madonna and Christ Child” — an active toddler — this might easily be understood as a reminder to churchgoers of proper behavior as you enter the church: be still, be quiet; observe the magnificent decorations and the pageantry; listen carefully to the readings and the sermon.

This is only a partial quote, however. The actual phrase engraved above our doors is 2 Chronicles 7:15 “My eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of him that shall pray in this house,” which puts a different spin on things: these are the words that God the Father, spoke to Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, built to house the Ark of the Covenant. The verse in the Bible continues “For I have chosen, and have sanctified this place, that my name may be there for ever, and my eyes and my heart may remain there perpetually.” So instead of telling us how to behave in church, our church is likened to the fabled Holy Temple of King Solomon! This is reinforced in the image framed by the verse, which is not just the “Madonna and Christ Child,” but Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional French doorway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin…the Virgin being symbolic of the Church as well as being the Bride of Christ.”

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The association is not incidental. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that “A door is an obvious symbol of the way to salvation through the church, and for this reason the main door is usually directly opposite the altar.” In our church, the pose of the toddler Christ above the portal is echoed in the crucifixion mosaic above the altar and the doorway inscription theme continues up in the sanctuary, with two phrases threaded around the top of the walls. The first is from the 26th Psalm in which David – patriarch of Jesus’ lineage — says “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”  (note the Mary monogram above the words “beauty of thy house!”) The other quote, from Genesis 28:16, is part of what Jacob said upon awakening from his dream about angels climbing a ladder to heaven: “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” — in the Bible, the verse continues “and I knew it not….This is no other but the house of God and the gate of heaven.

Studying inscriptions in churches, and especially the words inscribed above ancient European church portals, Calvin B. Kendall noted that historically, “Inscriptions articulated the hopes and fears of monks and worshippers, spoke for them and to them, and in some cases may have functioned as talismans against lurking demons.” In 1911, our doorway inscription boldly identified our church as a holy place and acclaimed the benefits of prayer in that uncertain age leading up to the First World War.

For many years now, the front of our church has been wreathed in scaffolding that has concealed the portal decorations and offered a different message and symbolism. Scaffolding is human-built structure that provides support while keeping people safe. It’s also an emblem of “work in progress,” a very apt description of our parish! And, perhaps, there’s a warning: over time, is it possible to become so conditioned to rigid human framework, that we are in danger of letting it overwhelm the spiritual message of God’s love?

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Secret Garden Door

Door on East side of church as shown in architectural drawings

Have you ever noticed that there is no sculpture in the arch (tympanum) above the parking lot door outside Saint Francis de Sales Church? It looks a little bare, but that seems to have been intentional.

Henry Dagit’s original architectural plan for the church shows sculptures in the arches above the three front doors on Springfield Ave., and above the 47th Street door, but the Eastern Elevation drawing, showing the Rectory Side of the church, has an empty half-moon above the door, with no ornamentation planned for that side of the building.

                Why would that be?

SFDS shown on 1909 map

When our church was finished in 1911, that part of the building wasn’t a priority, since it wasn’t visible from the street! The eastern entrance to the church was tucked away in a “secret garden” courtyard, formed with the back of the  rectory on one side; the wall of the new church on another; the side of the school (with the alley space between the church and school, probably used for deliveries from 47th street) filling the third side; and the back fences of a row of houses along Farragut Terrace completing the enclosure. We have no record of whether the small, closed yard space was planted or paved, or how it was used. It was probably a laundry and utility area for the rectory, and/or a school playground; there was, as yet, no need for parking, since people didn’t have cars.

Needs and conditions changed over time and that side of the property became exposed in 1926, when the parish bought and demolished the two corner houses on Springfield Ave. (numbers 4615 and 4617) to create the corner rectory garden; and numbers 936 to 932 on Farragut Terrace to build the addition to the school. The church parking lot on Farragut Terrace was part of that development. The ramp to the church door was added in the late 1990s.

SFDS shown on 1927 map

Who owned the houses that were removed back in 1926? One familiar name is that of Roger A. McShea at 928 South Farragut Terrace – he was the father of future Bishop Joseph Mark McShea, who would grow up to become our Fifth pastor from 1952-1961. Number 932, incidentally, was owned by a gentleman named John Sanderson Trump – a terribly familiar last name, but, as far as we know, unrelated.

As to the “portal sculpture” — if a design had ever been proposed for that empty half-moon space above the eastern door, what could it have been? The scenes above the doors on the front of the church show the Annunciation, the Crowning of Mary, and the Pieta. The 47th street side of the church shows another Mary-related scene, the Nativity. The Assumption might have completed her story – and that would have been very suitable, since Bishop Crane, who built the church, had a special devotion to Mary and to the Rosary. He could even have placed a Mary garden in the courtyard — invoking the medieval idea of the hortus conclusis or enclosed garden representing Mary’s virginity and purity – looking much like today’s Rectory garden with the MBS statues.

Instead, it was left to imaginations (and perhaps to future parishioners) to complete the decorations on that side of the building. We are reminded yet again, that we, like our magnificent church, are all “unfinished business” – ever adapting to new circumstances, never complete on this earth, and never, ever perfect.

SFDS front doors as shown in architectural drawings

To Infinity and Beyond

B029 It might be hard to get away from the city this summer, so let’s check out some distant worlds inside St. Francis de Sales church at 47th and Springfield!

We think of our 1911 church as old and elegant, but it was futuristic when it was built, decorated with the state-of-the-art fireproof tilework designed to sheath modern skyscrapers, and fully-wired for newfangled electricity. A 1922 photo of the church interior shows dramatic movie theatre light bulbs around all of the arches. Look closely: those antique back-to-the-future light fixtures are still embedded in the clay tiles!

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From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Our church bells have some curious associations. An early American translation of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel of space travel,  From the Earth to the Moon, used the name of the Meneely Bell Foundry – the same company that made our bells – for the manufacturer of the bell-shaped metal spacecraft in which astronauts were catapulted to the moon. One of our bells is named Gervase, probably after Bishop Crane’s sibling, who became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM. But there was also a medieval English monk named Gervase who was famous for describing a strange phenomenon in 1178 AD, when the horn of the moon split in two and  “from the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals and sparks…” Scientists hypothesize that Gervase-the-monk could have observed the formation of a crater on the moon, or, more likely, an exploding meteor between the earth and the moon – an event to think about when our bells toll!

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Artistic rendering of Gervase of Canterbury’s moon observation

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Detail from Saint Francisde Sales Church window

High in the tower on the East side of our church, is a window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light with radiant beams – or a tail. It may represent the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis. It could also have marked the arrival of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910. Though it appeared every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen and tabloids predicted the end of civilization. Our window-designer may have commemorated that fortunate escape.

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Bishop’s Insignia of Saint Francis de Sales

Even the Bishop’s insignia of our patron Saint Francis de Sales has an other-worldly reference in the form of twin stars Castor and Pollux. These were added to the Sales family shield around 1310, after an ancestor, Pierre de Sales, observed “two flying lights appeared above the mast” during a fierce storm at sea. Other sailors were terrified, but Pierre correctly identified “Castor and Pollux” – a name used to describe a double jet of Saint Elmo’s Fire – an eerie sea-going weather phenomenon. He advised the ships to stay their course through the Mediterranean to aid the Knights of St. John at Rhodes, and as a result, was awarded the right to embellish his family shield. Francis de Sales incorporated the stars from his family emblem in his Bishop’s insignia in 1602, perhaps also thinking about St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, who sailed on an Alexandrian ship “whose sign was Castor and Pollux.”

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Detail from the cover of Atlantis: the Andtedilivian World

Finally, back to earth, our Blessed Mother altar was donated in by Eleanor Donnelly, the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” in memory of her deceased family members — including her brother, Ignatius Donnelly, who taught her to write poetry. Ignatius, who was a Minnesota senator, is celebrated today for his 1882 book  Atlantis: the Antediluvian Worlda cult classic of  undersea “Lost City of Atlantis” lore.

So, though you may have to take a “staycation” this summer due to covid; there’s plenty of room for your mind to wander, from outer space to the depths of the ocean, back at church!

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How the Domes Got Tiled

E013 july 1956 dome 2Parish-led renovations in the 1950s looked good at the time, but changed an historic church.

Contractor Charles Kain recalled a long-ago project at St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia: “Early in the 1950’s we were approached by Bishop Joseph McShea,..the pastor…, to resurface the domes. They were quite old, in poor condition, and leaking into the church…The Bishop was proud of the fact that the domes could be seen as part of the skyline from a distance in the city on the highways going north and he wanted to maintain the character of the domes as they existed…We assured him that we could renew them with ceramic tile.

We consulted a tile contractor, Belfi Brothers, with whom we had done work previously. They advised us that the common bathroom tile was not sufficiently durable under exterior conditions and directed us to a tile manufacturer in upper New York State who made the type of exterior tile which would be appropriate. Next, I performed the structural calculations necessary for a domed structure. We determined that we should leave the existing dome in place to serve as a base for the superstructure, cover this with a four-ply fabric and pitch roofing membrane for waterproofing, then place a 3-inch thick reinforced concrete layer to accommodate the loads of snow and wind, then install the finished tile layer. We also divided the surface into eight quadrants, designed artistic patterns similar to those in the existing dome, and used a herringbone pattern for installing the tile.

The old dome had a base structure of masonry tile which was adequate to carry the necessary roof loads. One question asked was how this structure could carry the additional loads of the new concrete and tile. We explained that the old structure would have to carry the added loads only on a temporary basis until the new concrete dome on top could harden and become the basic supporting structure of itself and the normal roof loads…When we presented our design… to the Bishop, he…called upon…a structural engineer…to re-check my calculations…The Bishop…had previously read Latin descriptions of how some of the Roman domes were constructed…this confirmed his approval of our work.”

In the process of construction…we designed a small steel frame to roll around the dome on wheels at the base and at the top, enabling the workmen to reach all areas of the dome. For the exterior tile work, the tile setters, accustomed to placing tile on bathroom walls, had to experiment to get the flat tiles in a herringbone pattern on a spherical surface. Obviously, they succeeded.”

Fifty years later, when the joint between the big dome and the lantern at the top leaked, and the veneer of modern tiles peeled off, Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner and her team from Historic Building Architects were called in to study the original Guastavino dome underneath – a unique historic structure not understood by the 1950s parish contractors — and the engineering complications created by the 1950s concrete overlay. After considerable research and consultation with a variety of experts, they determined that the best available option was to remove the hazardous modern tiles and confirm that the 1950s concrete was working well to prevent water leakage. The simplest and cheapest solution was to paint the concrete dome to match the original dome tile colors. Paint samples were tested and left in place for several years and they did very well. However, a different paint product was ultimately used and that has not adhered to the concrete and has faded over time. It’s under warranty. We’re working on resolving issues and hope to get the dome repainted in 2020. So, as St. Francis de Sales himself once said: “Let us await our advancement with patience.”

 

 

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The main dome with the 1950 tiles, as it looked in the 1990s.

A000 aerial view

Doctors in the House

 

In 1908, when architect Henry Dagit wrote about the church he was starting to build at 47th and Springfield, he mentioned that its dome would be supported inside on four Columns topped with “marble mosaic emblems of the four Evangelists…and under them in sculptured niches will be statues of the four Doctors of the Church.

The statues were absent from descriptions of the finished interior in 1911, but they crept back into church descriptions written in 1928 and 1938, before vanishing again in 1940.

Who were the “Doctors of the Church” and why did they come and go?

Wikipedia defines the term as “a title given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing.” A document from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) notes that “The title was first given in the Middle Ages, and originally, there were four great Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, St. Augustine, 5th century bishop of Hippo, St. Gregory the Great, who was pope at the start of the 7th century, and St. Jerome, the 5th century biblical scholar and translator.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art identifies these as the four Latin Doctors and also lists four important Greek Doctors: St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostum, and St. Athanasius, who appear more often in mosaic artwork. Which doctors would have been most suited to our mosaic-filled Byzantine-styled church? Maybe that was the problem!

So many doctors! So many choices! And the list kept growing. The 2015 USCCB document notes that “Over the years the church has added about 30 (now 36) additional saints with the title ‘Doctor of the Church’… Since 1970….women have also been declared ‘Doctors of the Church’: St. Teresa of Avila; St. Catherine of Siena; St. Thérèse of Lisieux…, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.”

DSCN6373 (2)  DSCN6373 (3)In the end, the references to the Doctors in our church in 1928 and 1938 are likely mistakes from hastily recopying outdated text: the interior niches do not exist and we have no evidence that the statues were ever commissioned (though there are two full and two partial never-used niches on the 47th Street exterior!). We do have at least three Doctors “in the house,” though: our own patron Saint Francis de Sales was declared a Doctor in 1877. Saint Anthony of Padua (statue behind the mesh on the St. Joseph side of the church), became a Doctor in 1946; and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (statue in the former confessional by the parking lot door) was named in 1998 – both receiving the title long after our church was built. Our Saint Anthony statue – the patron of lost things — arrived in 1916 as a gift from Mrs. Elizabeth Lippe, who also bequeathed our bells (ironically, his correct pedestal is under St. Anne). St. Therese arrived near the time of her canonization in 1925 and was accompanied by a relic, venerated regularly through 1937.

In addition, parish records indicate that our church, located near several universities and medical centers, has always had a few medical doctors, PhDs, and probably some honorary titles among its congregation!