Category: events

Seasons of Darkness and Light

“The altar at St. Francis de Sales’ Church arranged for Solemn Pontifical Mass, November 12th, 1916,” 
(Catholic Historical Research Center)

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 Lallou to 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.

 Interior of St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia, Pa., with balcony and organ. (Catholic Historical Research Center)
Saint Francis de Sales Church, modern view
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Bishop at Work

Bishop Crane breaks ground for St. Joseph’s University, 1925 (Photo used with permission from St. Joseph’s University Archives)

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?! 😊

Archbishop Dougherty’s Big Trip

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!

In this picture the Cardinal-elect sits in the parlor of the American College, Rome, awaiting the visit of the Vatican Emissary to give formal notice of his elevation to the Cardinalate. Figures in the front row from right to left are : Msgr. Patrick J. Supple, a classmate from Boston; Msgrs. Grosso and Respighi, Papal Masters of Ceremonies; Msgr. McCullough, Philadelphia; Bishop Allen, Mobile, Ala.; Msgrs. Fitzpatrick and Crane, Philadelphia; Msgr. O’Hern, rector, and Msgr. Mahoney, spiritual director of North American College.” (Funeral booklet for Cardinal Dougherty June 1951)

Arrival back in New York, April 1921 (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

2021 Border Mission: Pod 23A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Snapshot in Time

SFDS HISTORY MYSTERIES – Snapshot in Time

A browse through the parish archives turned up an unlabeled  photo from a long-ago ceremony – back when the sanctuary was lighted with electric candles on a tall stand, the altar rail had brass gates, there was no front-facing altar, and the old dark pews were still in place.

Parishioner historians John and Ted Deady, who grew up in the parish, offered some observations about the elaborate pageantry they recall from pre-Vatican II ritual, and a few of the names:

Okay. Will start with this. The priest holding the book of the gospels is Father Sefton, later monsignor and pastor (at SFDS 1946-1947; pastor 1961-1967). The priest incensing the book is Father Flatley (at SFDS 1940-1943 and 1946-1955; WWII military chaplain in between). The two altar boys holding candles are the acolytes and the other altar boy is the thurifer (who carries the incense container, or thurible). The other priest in a surplice is the master of ceremonies. At a regular solemn high mass this would be an altar boy. Fr Sefton is the sub deacon and Fr. Flatley is the deacon. He will read the gospel in Latin. Then not sure if he or someone else will suddenly appear in the pulpit and read the gospel in English. Whoever is in the pulpit will then preach the sermon starting with ‘may it please your excellency’ or ‘eminence’ depending on who the celebrant is. That is a mystery.”

The bishop in the seat is presiding and the two monsignors are his chaplains. The two altar boys in white cassocks are part of a gang of six called flambeaus. When Fr Navit was pastor (2004-2009) he had a similar group. They hold the lanterns during the consecration. The ones in the picture are just better dressed. “

What the occasion is and who is celebrating the mass are mysteries. It was in the winter, fur coats. The sisters did not routinely attend the 11:00 o’clock (solemn) mass. The master of ceremonies is not a familiar face meaning he might have come with the celebrant in a package deal.”

Fran Byers, another from-the-cradle parish historian, replied to this  “Wow, John,   I am really impressed.   We girls were not privy to any of this,” which is, itself,  notable. Ted notes that “Women were not allowed in the Sanctuary except for their wedding (Vatican rule).” What did girls do Pre-Vatican-II? John recalls that all SFDS School children, except those boys who were scheduled to serve or sing at the weekly solemn Mass, were required to attend a separate Sunday children’s service, where attendance was taken – parents had to send a written excuse for absence. Girls couldn’t serve at Mass or sing in the choir. Twice a year, they were invited to follow the boys in a Eucharistic procession, strewing flower petals, and girls were selected to perform the crowning of the Mary statue in the annual May Procession (which was led by the boy “popes” and altar servers). Their mothers joined the Sodality, a ladies’ organization devoted to prayer and good works.

The Bishop’s Feast

 Our second pastor, Reverend Michael J. Crane, was consecrated as a bishop one hundred years ago on September 19, 1921. Afterwards, he and his fellow priests celebrated with a grand feast. Some dishes seem ordinary now, but were exotic at the time. Some were chosen to surprise and delight. Today, the menu offers a portal into another age.

Celery was a status vegetable in the early 1900s — luxurious enough to be served in first-class cabins on the Titanic — and it appeared twice on the bishop’s menu: in Cream of Celery Soup and as an appetizer, probably served in a special-purpose dish.

Other pre-meal crunchies included olives and salted nuts – typically served with alcoholic beverages — which could hint at off-menu refreshments during Prohibition.  Radishes, also, are supposed to aid in “detoxing” the liver.

Braised Sweetbread” is a mystifying first course. Was it a favorite dish, a reminder of mother’s home cooking, or a nod to Irish heritage?  “Sweetbread” is a polite term for thymus or pancreas of calf or lamb – much more popular in Britain and Ireland, than in the United States. (Unconsciously ironic, since Bishop Crane was afflicted with a malfunctioning pancreas that caused his diabetes. The following year, Cardinal Dougherty would pull some strings to get his new bishop enrolled in a clinical trial of insulin on humans in Toronto, which saved his life for a few more years).

Rashers of bacon” and “Saratoga Chips” were next — both shown on the same menu line. “Saratoga Chips” was a fancy name for potato chips! Listing pig and potatoes together could have been another nod to the Bishop’s Irish heritage. It could also have referenced something closer: Saratoga, NY appears to have been a popular vacation spot for clergy (Rev. Francis O’Neill, after whom our parish may have been named, died there of a heart attack in 1882). Curiously, a town in Saratoga called “Bacon Hill,” had formerly been known as “Pope’s Corners” – which, if commonly known, could have made a good inside joke around the table of a newly-consecrated Bishop.

It’s a fair guess that “Long Island Duckling” was the closest that the menu planner could get to putting a crane on the table. Long Island was a center for raising Peking Ducks, which first arrived in this country in 1873; and duck with applesauce was a luxury dish (also served on the Titanic!).

For vegetables, Candied Sweet Potatoes, now often served at Thanksgiving, were a novelty, reportedly dating back just to 1917! Succotash – a mixture of corn and lima beans – was a traditional Thanksgiving dish in New England and upstate Pennsylvania. Bishop Crane was from Ashland, PA, and the occasion being celebrated was certainly one of thanksgiving.

The beverage accompanying the entree was “Punch A L’Évêque,” or “Bishop’s Punch.” Was it alcoholic? Unclear! The French name made the punch sound elegant and affords a cloak of ambiguity during Prohibition. Online recipes suggest it could have been a mixture of orange juice, lemon juice, and port. Bishop Crane was not a teetotaler, but Cardinal Dougherty, who publicly advocated against alcohol, is listed as a toastmaster at the event.

 “Filet Mignon Saint Michel” (St. Michael’s steak) was the entree at Bishop Michael Crane’s feast, and the reference seems self-explanatory, though the cut could, in theory, refer to beef (American) or Pork (French)!

Russian dressing” on the salad was trendy in 1921.The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink describes it as “a salad dressing made from mayonnaise, pimiento, chile sauce, green pepper, and chives. It is so called possibly because the mixture was thought to resemble those found in Russian salads, but it is American in origin, first found in print in 19

Meringue Glacée” (Meringues with ice cream) is Swiss; “Petit Fours” cakes are French. Was this a nod to our Patron Saint Francis de Sales, who came from French Savoy and became Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland?

It’s easy to read too much into the menu today, but its long-ago planners also had reason to over-think! It is clear, in any case, that the spread was carefully devised with genuine affection for the new bishop. Speculation about its details recalls that energy and coaxes dusty history back to life.

The Children’s Hour: First Communion 1911

The year 1911 was notable for the children of our parish – and not just because the newly-built church opened with great celebration and ceremony.

An old parish document states that “Nineteen hundred and eleven was a red letter year in the history of the school, for the children of St. Francis de Sales, shared with other children throughout the world the benefits of the new Decree of Pius X, making possible the reception of our dear Lord in Holy Communion at the early age of seven. Accordingly all the little ones who had reached that age received our Lord on the First Friday of May…

This was a big moment for the church. In October 1910, the Philadelphia Inquirer had reported Pope Pius X’s new decree that children should receive their first Communion at the “age of reason,” when they made their first Penance: “regarding the points of instruction, it will not be necessary for the child to know the whole catechism, as has been customary heretofore in the United States.” First Communion, which “completed” the sacraments of initiation, came after Confirmation in those days: Confirmation was regarded as a “strengthening sacrament,” rather than a “sacrament of maturity” (the order didn’t begin to change until 1932), and the Inquirer reported that before the 1910 ruling, “children making their first Communion were usually between the ages of ten and fourteen.

The 1911 ceremony – which may have been a combination Confirmation/First Communion — probably took place in the original chapel/school building, (the building that today contains the Parish Auditorium), since the new church would not be ready until November and we don’t know what “finishing touches” were still underway. Unfortunately, the Communion and Confirmation records for that year are unavailable, so we don’t know much about the actual ceremony, or the specific names of those receiving the sacraments — although we can guess that  the list might have included one of the Slattery boys — sons of the local coal wholesaler, who would help to “baptize” our bells in 1916; one of the Hasson girls — whose big brother Philip would be the first boy ordained from our parish; and perhaps one of the Dagits —  children of the architect, who may have modeled for our angel sculptures; among many others.

Reverend Crane chose a Friday for the 1911 First Communion, so that children could continue afterwards with “The Communion of Reparation, the receiving of Our Divine Savior, on the First Friday of every month for nine consecutive months….” A 1928 report noted that this “has ever been a devotion dear to the heart of the Pastor, and the children have responded joyously to the call of Christ, and the voice of their beloved shepherd…

Six years later, in 1917, when most of the children in the school were receiving Communion, they mobilized further with the entrance of the United States into World War I: “A Children’s Eucharistic League was formed, the principal duty of which was to receive our Lord frequently that He might bring peace to the war-ridden world….” This was part of a much larger movement, begun by Pope Pius X, who wanted everyone to take Communion more often, and promoted the special power of children’s eucharistic participation – especially in times of trouble.

Incidentally, our Father Eric wrote a thesis on the changed order of confirmation and First Communion, so we have our own “in-house expert” to take us full circle on this interesting historical subject!

Divine Providence

Rev. Joseph O’Neill

Our patron saint Francis de Sales knew that outcomes can’t always be controlled, and things don’t always turn out as planned, but he advised: “If you have a sure trust in God, the success that comes to you will always be that which is most useful to you, whether it appears good or bad in your private judgment.

A long-ago news item, reporting an effort to change an archdiocesan assignment, offers an intriguing backward glance at the providence that brought us where we are today.

When our parish was carved from the territory of St. James Parish (today St. Agatha-St. James) at 38th and Chestnut, in 1890, our founding pastor was Reverend Joseph O’Neill, who had been assisting at St. James. In March 1898, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that parishioners at St. James moved to have him back:

“In fact the feeling has risen to such an extent that a meeting of the members the parish will be held evening in the church building, the intention being to prepare a formal protest to be sent to Archbishop Ryan.”

“In discussing the matter a member of the congregation said: ‘We are going to make this protest because we feel that Father Joseph O’Neill, now in charge of St. Francis de Sales, forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue, was entitled to the rectorship of St. James’ when it was made vacant by the departure of Father P. J. Garvey. Father O’Neill came to the parish sixteen years ago, just one year before Father Garvey assumed charge. When the mission St. Francis de Sales was started Father O’Neill was placed in charge and has been there ever since. Father O’Neill is a man 55 years old and has endeared himself to very one with whom he has been thrown in contact, and we do not like the idea of having him set aside for Father Monahan, who is from the Cathedral and whom we do not know.’”

“A committee has been appointed and they have been so energetic that a good meeting is expected. The members of the congregation who are foremost in the fight for Father O’Neill say that they do not oppose Father Monahan on personal grounds, in fact they would be pleased to have him as rector if Father O’Neill had not been slighted. It is realized, of course, that the congregation has no choice in the selection of rectors, but they think. that a strong protest will have weight.”

The efforts of St. James parishioners to get Rev. O’Neill reassigned to them were unsuccessful, but their story still ended well: the 1950 St. James Jubilee Book notes that “the Standard of February 26, 1898 carried the news of the appointment of Father James C. Monahan to the pastorate of St. James. This short-limbed, eloquent, kindly yet combative priest was to remain at St. James for twenty-seven years” where he became much beloved and respected, as one of their longest-serving pastors.

It may seem funny today, and we may even feel mildly insulted, to think that anyone ever felt Reverend O’Neill was being “slighted” by his appointment to our parish! By the time of the conflict, he had been with us for eight years, and had built our first chapel/school and the rectory.  But our Rev. Joseph O’Neill was the brother of former St. James pastor Rev. Francis O’Neil — who had built their church – so perhaps he represented continuity to parishioners at St. James, and they felt loyalty and feared the unknown.

How would things have been different, if Reverend Joseph O’Neill had not been our pastor? He chose the site for our church and we believe he named our parish Saint Francis de Sales to honor his deceased brother Francis — so we might have had a completely different name, location, patron saint, and identity. At the time of this letter in 1898, our future second pastor Rev. Crane, was assisting Bishop Prendergast at St. Malachy Church, planning renovations there (in the Byzantine style), working with architect Henry Dagit, so he would not have been available to come here. If Reverend O’Neill had been reassigned to St. James, some other second pastor would have built us a different church!

The Lesson of the Christ Child

Nativity scene shown in the December 1931 SFDS Parish Monthly Calendar

The Parish Monthly Calendar for Christmas 1929, probably printed early, made no mention of the October stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression, but it did urge parishioners “WE ASK YOU TO BE MORE GENEROUS THAN EVER IN YOUR CHRISTMAS OFFERING.”

A year later, the pastoral letter observed that “The world is in dire need of a spirit of optimism today…” and a small news item in the Parish Monthly Calendar mentioned that the Girls’ Corps (a Girl Scout-like parish organization) had gathered donations to put together “thirty-four well-filled baskets” of food for the poor of the parish, distributed in December 1930.

Another year passed and the Parish Monthly Calendar reported that on December 20, 1931, “members from the Girls’ Corps with girls from the Commercial Class (girls not planning to go  to High School) accepted donations at the door of the church” in the morning, then, held an afternoon Christ Child Party, in which “children and adults crowded the school auditorium and presented gifts of food and various articles of clothing for the poor in honor of the Christ-Child, the exemplar of poverty.” Ninety-six boxes of food thus gathered were then sent out to “the needy families of the parish” and “a consignment of clothing and shoes was distributed to the children whom the Sisters in school knew to be in need.

Troubles continued. The January 1933 Parish Monthly Calendar reported that De Sales Night – the much-anticipated annual church party at the luxurious Bellevue-Stratford Hotel – was canceled “because of the stress of the times” and a less costly entertainment would be held, instead, at the Byrd Movie Theatre, 47th and Baltimore. A full-page article praised the efforts of all who had helped with, or donated at, the 1932 charitable Christmas Christ-Child Party (run by the St. Vincent de Paul Conference). That year “The need was much greater: so much so that one fears to mention the number of families in our parish that had to be helped…

As the Great Depression settled in, through the 1930s, the threat of hunger and homelessness loomed very real for many parishioners.

What was in the charity boxes? They sound remarkably like Covid-era lockdown kits, consisting of bushels of potatoes; tins of vegetables and fruits; lots of dried beans (assorted kinds); onions; coffee; sugar; butter; milk (in tins); bread; jelly; and oatmeal. Scrapple and chicken were the meats. Oranges and a little hard candy were offered as a treat. No toys: gifts included stockings, underwear, blouses, shoes, and other items of clothing.

It doesn’t seem like a lot by today’s standards, but new underwear, shoes, or socks might have been welcomed by children in a large family, and potatoes with chicken could make a good Christmas dinner. People didn’t have as much, and they didn’t expect as much: outgrown clothing was “handed down” until it wore out; then the pieces were turned into quilts and other handcrafts. Moth-eaten sweaters could be unraveled and re-knitted into gloves. An old sock could be fashioned into a doll or stuffed animal, and a wooden grocery crate made a scooter or cart. Mothers were adept at turning unappetizing food scraps into satisfying meals; picky eaters went hungry.

Now, decades later, the wheel of fortune has turned again and some of those long-forgotten coping skills have been rediscovered as families learn to manage Covid lockdowns, unemployment, and shortages. We are more isolated because of contagion, but we do have internet and phones to connect, and snail-mail still works. And we are conscious that we need to be less wasteful in order to save our shared environment. Covid is a reminder, calling us back to core values. Looking at the Nativity scene, Pope Francis observed last year: “we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness….From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.

The December 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar explained the Christ Child Party
The January 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar reported on the December 1931 efforts

An Ornament to the City

When Reverend Joseph O’Neill tried to buy land to build our first SFDS chapel in 1891, local property owners expressed concerns about the incoming Irish and German Catholic immigrants. By the time the handsome new church was finished in 1911, the building had become a local fixture.

1911 dedication

The media may have helped to bridge gaps and ease some of the tensions of the changing neighborhood, by opening windows into Catholic culture. Newspapers of the period liked to publish lengthy, detailed word-pictures of interesting events – as when, on November 13, 1911, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported how “Archbishop Prendergast, assisted by two other prelates of equal rank and a number  of priests of the archdiocese of Philadelphia, with appropriate and impressive ceremonies yesterday dedicated the new Catholic Church of St. Francis de Sales, Forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue.”

The Inquirer carefully described the scene: “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 that banked the altars with side walls. The church was crowded with a notable representation of the laity, which had gathered long before the hour set for the beginning of the ceremonies. Many unable to gain admission to the edifice stood about outside the church to see the imposing procession of prelates and priests which proceeded to the services.”

Two church dignitaries who assisted Archbishop Prendergast at the dedicatory exercises were Bishop Fitzmaurice of Erie, and Bishop Carroll, of Nueva Segovia, Philippine Islands. Promptly at 10.30 A. M. the procession of clergy and acolytes moved from the chapel of the school building and proceeded along Forty-seventh street to the main entrance of the church on Springfield avenue. As the cross bearer entered the wide door of the edifice the choir, accompanied by a large orchestra, sang a joyous anthem. The procession moved up the centre aisle. Here it divided, part going to the right and part to the left, allowing Bishop Prendergast and the other prelates, clothed in full pontifical robes, to ascend the altar when the simple ceremony of dedication took place.

1911 dedication cst (2)

For Catholic readers, The Catholic Standard and Times newspaper peered behind the scenes to list all the important names, then summarize the sermons and speeches. Pastor Reverend Crane spoke of construction concerns in our developing neighborhood, and how, when the plans of the building were first submitted to the men of the parish (no women, of course!), “At first all thought the church would be too expensive, but when it was pointed out that the neighborhood was one of the best residential sections of the city; that the Catholic church is the true house of God, and that God’s permanent home should be second to none, they began with confidence…” The project was complicated, with the Guastavino dome to be built atop the Dagit structure, so “Solemn High Mass was offered at the start for the intention that the work should be successful, and that no accident should occur...” Archbishop Prendergast addressed “all those who watched the progress of the work from the foundation until the cross surmounted the graceful and majestic dome, to those who that day saw for the first time the beauties of which they have so often read...” and described the resulting — “magnificent new temple” as a landmark that “charms the eye and is an ornament to the city.” It was also a permanent territorial marker for Catholicism in the area, with an interior “well fitted to serve the needs of those who for generations to come will assemble within its walls…”

Nine years later, after the construction debt was paid, the building was officially consecrated on November 13, 1920. The building that the neighbors once rejected had become a cornerstone of the neighborhood