Category: building/architecture

Stuccoed Stars

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St. Francis de Sales 1954

The side walls of Saint Francis de Sales church might seem restfully plain when the rest of the church is ornate, but it’s deceptive! Parish history is thickly layered beneath the surface.

When our church was built, the side walls showed the same bricks that you see today on the walls of the Sanctuary. Early pictures reveal mosaic medallions — a star in an eternal circle, and a Trinity triangle  — decorating each of the six arches. Eight-pointed Nativity stars adorned the middle arches; and the side arches appear to have featured six-pointed stars representing the six days of creation and the House of David — earthly lineage of Jesus.

In the 1920s, each triangle had a large round lightbulb at its centre, and a row of  lightbulbs lined each arch. That changed in 1940, when Bishop Lamb replaced the exuberant celebration of electricity with more elegant and “practical” metal sconces, fastened to cross-shaped brackets in the mosaic triangles, their shaded lamps dangling from metal chains.

The church decor was slightly altered in the 1950s by Bishop McShea, then heavily renovated for the Parish 1965 Diamond Anniversary under Monsignor Sefton. A story says that Monsignor Sefton came home from a trip to Europe, inspired by the cool blue lighting of Mediterranean churches, and wished to replicate the effect with blue walls. His chosen shade of tile was very fashionable in the 1960s and prevailing tastes were for streamlined modern decor. Diocesan-approved changes at that time included new pews; new flooring; and an electrical update to remove wall lamps (leaving wall holes?) and replace ceiling lamps with chandeliers. Unapproved tile walls quietly slid in, with two casual notations: “The price listed for the terrazzo floor also includes setting tile in six arches of the church” and “Belfi Brothers. This amount also includes setting tile in 6 arches of church.”

Skip forward to the 1990s, when the “blue bathroom tiles” began to fall off the walls, revealing the patchy tile-prepped surface underneath. Father Janton remarked that the bald patch looked like the African  continent drawn on an ancient map. When  it expanded to resemble Pangaea, it was time to do something. The mustard-coloured resurfacing was a simple, attractive solution (look above the sacristy doorway for the remaining blue tiles)

The walls of our church are layered with stories. Symbols changed their meaning over time. Technologies advanced. A richly ceremonial era gave way to the sleek modernism of the 1960s and early Vatican II. Hard times improved. And today we should find meaning in graceful continuity.

 

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“That’s My Spot…” Pew Rents

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Cherish your right to choose a favorite seat!

When our church was first constructed, wealthy parishioners reserved their particular spots, renting them by the half year, with the pew rental fees contributing to the maintenance of the building. Non-renters had to squeeze into the remaining back rows or stand.

Some familiar names on the original Pew Rental List included important donors such as Mrs. William Lippe (who donated St. Anthony and the tower bells) in a prime spot on the odd side of the middle aisle in row 1, Jean Baptiste Revelli (Maitre’d at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel) in 15, church architect Henry D. Dagit and family in 19, General St. Clair Mulholland (Philadelphia Police Chief) and wife in 25; and on the even side, the Schwoerers (who donated the pulpit) in row 14 and  John Cooney (who donated the main altar) in row 16.

Pew rental was a controversial home-grown fundraising method in early American Protestant and Catholic churches. Why was it an issue? An 1840s tract criticizing the practice for Catholics suggested that emphasizing social stratification was “anticatholic,” and renting out the best seats to the wealthy was “calculated to pamper pride and a feeling of self- importance.”  Typically only about a quarter of Catholic parishioners paid rents and those who could not afford seats might feel less compelled to attend Mass. It could also enable discrimination.

In our church, pew rents seem to have gradually stopped after the church construction  debt was paid and the Parish basement was turned into an overflow chapel. Probably, as the parish grew and more services were added to the Sunday schedule, it became impractical to limit access to pews through all services. The Pew Rent Book was not regularly maintained after 1921. In 1924, The new Parish Monthly Bulletin began listing monthly contributions of all registered parishioners.

A few decades later, in 1964, as Vatican II came into effect, our church interior was “updated” for its 75th anniversary, and the original quarter-sawn oak pews, with their extendable brass “reserved pew” bars, were replaced with plain sleek modern pews crafted by New Holland Church Furniture in Lancaster County. All seats had equal status around the altar table, and parishioners at each Mass were free to choose their own number one spots — with their preferred perspective, with their desired cross breeze, and surrounded by a diversity of neighbours and friends in their own chosen places!

 

 

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A Tale of Two Parishes

It’s tempting to think that while our “Romanesque Church with Byzantine Details” was under construction between 1907 and 1911, architect Henry Dagit and contractors spent all their time busy on our site, planning and supervising, and obsessing over every magnificent detail.

Not true! And it turns out that de Sales and Most Blessed Sacrament have been connected longer than anyone may have realized.  While the designs for our church were still on his table, Architect Henry Dagit was also drawing plans for the combination school and chapel that would become Most Blessed Sacrament’s first permanent stone building (today Independence Charter School West at 5600 Chester), with Melody and Keating as the main contractor for both projects.

mbs mary knowlesGroundbreaking for our church was June 16, 1907, with Bishop Prendergast officiating. The smaller MBS chapel/school broke ground two weeks later on June 30  in a simpler ceremony, with the first sods cut by MBS Pastor Reverend McGinnis; two other priests; and a baby parishioner named Mary Katherine Knowles.

Construction preparations continued afterwards  at both sites. Bishop Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the MBS chapel/school building on September 15, 1907, in a ceremony described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Interesting;” he then  laid the cornerstone for St. Francis de Sales Church  a few weeks later on October 6,  in an “Impressive” ceremony with multiple bishops and dignitaries.

A relatively small project, the finished MBS school/chapel building was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan in September, 1908, in time for the start of the school year. Parish records say that the Protectory Band, the Paschalville Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Elmwood Band all played at the celebration.

SFDS church was finished and dedicated in elaborate ceremonies on November 11 and 12, 1911. Archbishop Prendergast presided at the Solemn High Mass on November 12 (having succeeded Archbishop Ryan in May of that year), with a number of priests assisting. Reverend Higgins, Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, acted as Deacon.

Meanwhile, the Guastavino firm, which designed and built our dome,  moved on to another local (secular) project, crafting the Harrison Rotunda at the Penn Museum, completed in 1915.

Most Blessed Sacrament School would grow to become  “the largest parochial school in the world” by the 1950s but closed in 2002 when attendance tapered. MBS Church, by architect Charles Willis Gilmore, was  built in 1922 and closed in 2007. Its standalone altar was moved to SFDS when the two parishes became one.

MBS aerial view
MBS historic aerial view

 

 

Neon Halo

In 1969, an astronaut stepped onto the moon; the New Mass of Vatican II came into full effect; and Robert Venturi renovated the sanctuary of our church. Nothing has been quite the same since.

De Sales had already weathered a number of alterations: Monsignor Sefton, who was pastor from 1961 to 1967, and assistant for 12 years before that, had provided continuity through the remodeling of the Lower Church, the re-tiling of the domes, and the blue-tile-wall modernization of 1965 (the blue tiles were removed from the nave in the 1990s, but remnants can still be seen above the sacristy doorway). But then he moved on, and the radical New Liturgy of Vatican II was ushered in by new faces in the rectory, just as the parish population was shrinking and its demographics changed.

As with every Catholic church across the country, the sanctuary of de Sales had to be opened up and reconfigured to include a permanent free-standing altar for the New Mass. Father McNamee recommended a friend-of-a- friend, world-renowned architect Robert Venturi to do the work at our church, and months of  planning and discussion followed with pastor Monsignor Mitchell and priests and architects — but, as was typical in those days, without input from the congregation.

Parishioners attending the inaugural folk guitar Mass were startled to find their familiar, ornate, back-facing marble altar thrust into the shadows, “cancelled out” by a ghostly neon halo hovering in front of Jesus’ feet. The white cathode tubing highlighted an elevated platform. Upon this bright vinyl island stood a plain modern altar table made of milk-white plexiglas, as smoothly curved as “bent butter;” a sleek plexiglas lectern; and a presider’s chair upholstered in shiny white patent leather. The center section of altar rail was gone, opening up the space to symbolically welcome priest and people together around the table.

The boldly original design and concept were intended to highlight the spare, simple, modern ideas in the New Liturgy, while paying homage to the past.

The New Mass and the new design were equally controversial.

The Venturi renovation proved, in fact, to be the most divisive episode in the history of our parish! College students, some of whom studied under Venturi, were electrified by the bright new look and the energy it represented. Architectural publications praised the design. Longtime parishioners did not. This was one renovation too many. The neon lights were blamed for migraines and removed as soon as the school year ended. The other furnishings disappeared from the  sanctuary piece by piece over time.

Ironically, in retrospect, Venturi saved our church. Vatican directives said that two altars must not compete for attention. In the 1960s, ” old-fashioned” ornate back altars were often altered,  removed, or covered. Venturi believed our history was important, though, so he left the old fittings in place and used the band of neon light as a form of “electric demolition” or “an editor’s pencil” to cancel them out visually. The old altar remained intact in the shadows, giving substance to the new.

It’s still there today, long after his renovations were removed. And now that the New Mass is old news, and the current forward-facing altar from MBS church symbolizes a new reality for our parish, we’ve restored this interesting chapter to our history.

In 2015, the Parish invited the Society of Architectural Historians to bring Father McNamee (pastor emeritus at St. Malachy) and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown to come back and talk about the long-ago renovations. Feelings still ran strong: longtime parishioners were passionate about the attempt to change the character of their church; while Denise Scott Brown, recalled every carefully considered detail of the design and the pain of losing it: “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.”  But after almost half a century, those involved found common ground in the perspective of time and age, and a whole new group of parishioners, neighbors, and friends heard the story for the first time.

Byzantine Revival

Is our church modeled after Hagia Sophia, an ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey?

The claim has been repeated a number of times in recent years, but a look at the two buildings, side by side, does not show an extraordinary resemblance.

When Architect Henry Dagit wrote about our church under construction in 1908, he described his building as “Romanesque with Byzantine details.” That was also its representation in newspaper reports about the new church; in the 1911 Dedication booklet; and in the 1911 Short History of St. Francis de Sales Church. Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who commissioned our church, envisioned a building “in which the soul would be lifted up to exaltation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty; a church rich with storied windows...” with no mention of Istanbul or Constantinople.

Art historian Richard Stemp provides a clue to the mystery, when he discusses the fifth century innovation of Hagia Sophia: “so great was the impact of a central dome that almost all Eastern churches were modeled on it thereafter.” Hagia Sophia provided an early and famous example of a Byzantine dome — although Stemp reports that “the surviving works at Ravenna (5th and 6th century Italy) have become, by default, the best representations of the splendour of the Byzantine court.”

Byzantine influence spread from Constantinople across the Mediterranean. Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia,  suggests that our church actually  traces “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 rounded arches and vaults, rather than Gothic pointed arches and steeples. The Byzantine-style dome completed the thought.

Our 1911 church, honoring a French saint,  was probably inspired by that late 19th century European architectural movement, but Moss notes that our building is “more than a rare example of the Byzantine Revival style in Philadelphia. It is also one of our three landmark examples of Guastavino tile construction” with distinctive domes and vaults built using interlocking layers of terracotta tiles (The Penn Museum and Girard Bank — Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two local examples). Rafael Guastavino’s works are prized: Structural Engineer and Guastavino authority John Ochsendorf at MIT opines that the tile domes form “some of the most exceptional masonry structures in history.”

 

 

Baked Earth

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Some of the most decorative elements in our church are made of the humblest material. Look up at the sculpted details outlining the arches and walls, and around the windows. All of the colorful green and yellow decoration in our church is made of “terracotta,” which means “baked earth” clay.

In the early 1900s, terracotta was the fashionable material for the exterior decoration of metal skyscrapers. It was easy to mould; it was relatively lightweight; weatherproof; and, most importantly, having survived the heat of a kiln in its manufacture, it was considered fireproof.

The Atlantic Terracotta Company was formed in Perth Amboy New Jersey in the mid 1800s, and, for a time, was the biggest manufacturer of terracotta tile in the world. Headquartered later in Atlanta, it kept offices and manufacturing facilities in New Jersey, where the local clay, dug out of the ground,  was perfect for the tilework that would cover the steel skeletons of many of the important skyscrapers in New York City, as well as buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere — even Japan. Some notable structures that used Atlantic Terracotta included the Flat Iron Building and the Woolworth Building in New York; the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC; and, locally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Terracotta was popular, in part, because it could take any pattern or shape. Craftsmen made clay sculptures, from which were created plaster moulds. Clay slabs, pressed into the moulds, could then be removed, dried, decorated with glaze, and fired in a kiln. Finishes could look like clay or imitate marble, limestone, or granite. The green and yellow glazes were particularly popular.

Most terracotta was used on building exteriors, but an article in The Brickbuilder, in 1911, reported that:

“An interesting example of interior decoration is the St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, Henry D. Dagit, architect. The style is an adapted combination of the Byzantine and Romanesque. The colors are very brilliant but in the mellow light of the stained glass windows the tone is softened and the result restful.”

So, should you feel “restful” during the sermon, you may now blame the terracotta.

 

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Baldachin and Blend

In 2007, Most Blessed Sacrament and Saint Francis de Sales parishes officially merged as one parish, known as “Saint Francis de Sales Parish United by the Most Blessed Sacrament.” The somewhat cumbersome name turns out to be peculiarly appropriate, due to an original design element in our church.

Specially-chosen Ushers, long ago, carried a richly-brocaded portable cloth canopy, called a baldachin, raised above  the Most Blessed Sacrament in processions. The canopy, decorated with symbols of the Passion and Resurrection, sheltered and drew attention to the monstrance — the magnificent golden sun-shaped vessel with the round window displaying the Holy Eucharist. At Benediction, the Priest then used a special folding footstool to lift the monstrance and place it, for solemn contemplation, in the little alcove atop the tabernacle in our church.

The word “baldachin”  is said to be derived from “Baghdad,” the ancient city in Iraq where the ornate canopy fabric, opulently embroidered with silk and gold thread, was first produced. The term is also used in architecture to describe a stone arch or canopy supported on a framework of columns, that protects and highlights an important place in a church. The most famous of all architectural baldachins is a sculptural masterpiece by Bernini, which stands above the High Altar and the Tomb of Saint Peter, at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

In our church, marble columns and an arch form an architectural baldachin above our 1911 High Altar. The white marble arch is inlaid with golden tiles to resemble brocaded fabric, decorated with a crown, symbolizing Christ the King, and the flowing  “fountain of the living water.” The baldachin shelters and highlights our beautiful Byzantine-style glass mosaic Crucifixion mural. Look carefully at the mural and its golden tiles form the abstract shape of a monstrance, with the head of Christ framed in the  large round double halo “window”. On Holy Days, the actual monstrance, in the small arch at its base, would mirror the scene above, emphasizing the connection.

An alternate name for an architectural baldachin is a “ciborium” – the same term used to describe a lidded container for the Eucharist – yet another association. Thus, the Most Blessed Sacrament has always been  the central design focus of our church! And so we discover that from its very beginning, a hundred years before anyone could have anticipated, our church building was made a fitting future home for our blended parish.

Guastavino Dome

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What do the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and SFDS all have in common?

Each one has a Guastavino tile Dome or vault as part of its architecture.

When you look up at the herringbone pattern in our dome, consider that Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, the founder of the R. Guastavino Company, started out working as a tailor, in the family business in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps the work of fastening fabric and linings smoothly together gave him a special affinity for knitting together the tile constructions that would one day become his life’s work!

At age 19, when he was already married. with two children, Guastavino went to Barcelona to study architecture. Seeking a better life for his family, he then moved to America in 1881, settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, and opened a construction business. There, he improved and patented a traditional Catalan technique for using interlocking tiles and thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without requiring expensive temporary interior framework and bracing. This construction method was not well known in America, and his business prospered.

Today, Guastavino’s tiles can be found on more than 600 buildings in 36 states. Our 90-foot high, 62-foot diameter dome is unique among them because it has no copper or other roofing above it. The distinctive appearance of the coloured dome has made it an  icon in our neighbourhood – with some of the same issues as other architectural icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s too-aptly named Fallingwater. It turns out that a construction method designed for use in sunny Spain is vulnerable when exposed to our region’s freeze and thaw winters.

The Guastavino firm was consulted about leaks in the 1920s and again in 1938. In the 1950s, the dome was topped with a layer of concrete and shiny ceramic “subway tiles” which held up for fifty years; today, the heavy, deteriorated tiles are gone, and the concrete shell is sealed and painted (and scheduled soon to be re-painted under warranty!) to match the original tile pattern – without the water-seeping gaps – for the next century.

A Bell Named Adolph

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Our church bells don’t ring out as often as they did in times past, but they’re still an important part of our church. Did you know that the largest bell weighs in at 2,500 pounds, which makes it bigger than the Liberty Bell (which is a mere 2,080 pounds, and cracked)!

According to the 1940 Parish Jubilee volume, the eleven bells up in the tower were “named after the following saints: Adolph, Michael, Elizabeth, Anthony, Cecilia, Theresa, Edmond, John, Thomas, Maurice, and Gervase.”

It’s an odd list. Among other things, one might wonder: why Adolph?

When the bells were consecrated in 1916, that was still a fairly common name. Several Saints are named Adolph: Saint Adolph of Osnabruck lived in Germany in the 1100s and was known as the “Almoner of the Poor;” there was also a 9th century Spanish martyr named Adolph; and Saint Adolph Ludigo-Mkasa, who was martyred in Uganda in the 1800s.

The name could be there for another reason, as well. The bells were bequeathed to the church by Mrs. Elizabeth Lippe, in honor of her late husband, William. A little research reveals that William’s Dad emigrated from Germany. His name was Dr. med. Adolph Graf zur Lippe Biesterfeld Weissenfeld, shortened to Dr. Adolph Lippe, and he was an important figure in the history of homeopathic medicine, holding the chair of “Materia Medica” at the Homeopathic College of Philadelphia (the origins of Hahnemann University Hospital) from 1863-1868.

The name could also be intended to honour Adolfo de Nesti, the Italian sculptor who created many of the statues in our church. (It may be additionally significant that Monsignor Michael J. Crane’s sister was a nun named Sister Mary Gervase; and his Assistant was the formerly-Anglican Reverend Maurice Cowl).

So, in the story of one church bell, we have represented Germany; Spain; Italy; England; Uganda; care for the poor; immigration; higher education; alternative medicine; Catholic history; Philadelphia landmarks; American history; fine art; and church music – an emblem of the rich tapestry of our Parish heritage!

 

 

Door Number Three

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As you enter the church vestibule through the recently-re-opened main doors, look to your right, and you’ll see a former interior doorway (note the transom window above it) transformed into a golden shrine to St. Francis de Sales – and, incidentally, to the spirit of Vatican II!

The statue appears to be the one donated to the parish by Timothy J. Wholey in 1920. For its first  forty-five years, it stood proudly in the sanctuary at the front of the church, beside the St. Joseph altar, overseeing countless richly choreographed solemn high masses.

By 1965, Vatican II and changing tastes dictated that venerable ornate churches were “fussy” and “old-fashioned.” Our parish celebrated its 75th Diamond Jubilee Anniversary that year with a modern streamlined blue-tiled-wall redecoration of the main part of the church (four years before the Venturi neon lights!). Parishes were also urged to “clear the clutter” in the sanctuary, so freestanding statues including our patron saint were banished.

Meanwhile, as rituals simplified, architectural usage adjusted. The Baptistry, the small room at the back of the church where baptismal ceremonies were held (today’s Adoration Chapel), was designed with three doors: an entrance from outdoors; a door from the vestibule; and a door leading into the main church. In old tradition, the first part of a baptism, which involved an exorcism, was supposed to take place outside the church, or symbolically in the church vestibule, before formal admittance into the Baptistry. When the ceremony changed, the vestibule door became superfluous.

The doorway space did turn out to be a convenient place to relocate the statue of St. Francis de Sales. Its modern shrine would also brighten the parish entrance and make it more welcoming. The family of Eugene F. White, a longtime parishioner who had died in 1962  (his family ran the J.J. White Funeral Home at 4700 and later 4701 Springfield), funded the construction as a memorial. Its trendy gold colored tiles and white marble base were slipped in with the other work, and casually mentioned in a single sentence in the Monthly Bulletin related to the Jubilee renovations.

Now, fifty years later, with the main doors of the church and vestibule re-opened after the latest phase of our 125th Anniversary restoration, we can welcome our patron saint’s statue out of  construction dust into another new chapter of our parish history!