Category: events


DSCN4869 (2)What are those oddly-shaped dark stains to the left and right on the back wall of the sanctuary behind the old altar?

They mark the places where two “dedication” or “consecration crosses” used to be mounted. You’ll find six cross-shaped candle brackets still arranged at eye-level around the inside walls of our church, and four more empty spaces.

What do they mean?

The crosses, originally twelve in number, represent a very old tradition of blessing the walls of a church – usually after its construction debt is paid.

Our church was officially consecrated by on November 12, 1920. The Catholic Standard and Times reported Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Dougherty’s speech, describing the ceremony, at the official celebratory Mass the next day: “three times the consecrator encircled the outer walls with holy water and invoking the Most Blessed Trinity. The inner walls were also blessed with the triple blessing of holy water. Then, the floor of the church, from the main entrance to the chancel rail, was sanctified with holy water and prayer. The inside walls were anointed with sacred chrism at the twelve places where brackets have been set up to hold lighted candles. By this consecration, the church has been lifted up into a higher order. It has been set apart in perpetuity for the worship of God…”

What was the symbolism? Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the “triple sprinkling and circuit of the walls…symbolizes the triple immersion at holy baptism…” According to Father Edward McNamara of Regina Apostolorum University, “in keeping with liturgical tradition, there are twelve anointings…as a symbol that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem…The twelve candles stem from the symbolic use of this number in biblical tradition. The 12 stones used by Moses to build the altar of the covenant represented the 12 tribes of Israel. There are 12 gates of the New Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Revelation…Likewise, there are the 12 apostles…” The lighting of the church “reminds us that Christ is a ‘light to enlighten the nations’” and “the anointing of the church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship…”


The symbolism would be meaningless in an empty church. At the 1920 Consecration, Archbishop Dougherty highlighted the role of parishioners: “that your church was ready for consecration within thirty years after the establishment of your parish, is a subject for wonder…and a sign that parishioners were fully-involved in parish life. Today, the ghosts of those missing candle brackets call out for our greater engagement and spiritual re-dedication.



Philadelphia Orchestra at de Sales

Michael Murray and Philadelphia Orchestra at St. Francis de Sales, Feb 1980 (PAHRC)

Did you know we were digital sound pioneers? On February 1, 1980, Michael Murray and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy recorded the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3 in C in our church – with recording company Telarc using then new Soundstream technology to capture the sound.

Michael Murray, the organist, recalls  that “a few months prior to the recording, the Telarc folks and I visited half a dozen churches in the Philadelphia area to try out organs, before settling on the St. Francis de Sales instrument.”

Fran Byers writes that the recording took a lot of preparation:  Bruce Schultz “had to ‘re-pitch’ the whole organ to conform with Maestro Eugene Ormandy’s pitch for the orchestra in order to make the sound ‘brighter.’ The organ was originally set to 435 pitch since 1911, which is flat compared with 440 (modern) and Ormandy wanted 442, to make the sound brighter. Every pipe had to be tuned or cut to make its pitch sharper. The organ is still at that pitch. All 6,000-plus pipes had to be physically cut after being taken out of position. It was quite a project. Also, the pitch of the organ is heavily dependent on the weather. The hotter the temperature, the sharper the organ’s sound. In winter, the pitch can go below 440, which makes it flatter than standard pitch.   It took about a week to prepare the organ, with round-the-clock work.”

Father Leo Oswald later recollected that “it was freezing cold, so space heaters were brought in… There was too much reverberation, so the area was draped…” Fran remembers “26 pews were taken out, 13 on each side of the middle aisle…The sound engineer and his equipment were in the lower church. They closed off the neighboring streets.  At one point, there was a siren outside, which had to be cut off.”

“Only a small handful of us were allowed in the church to observe and hear the recording, “ Fran recalls, “We sat in front of the St. Joseph altar. I recall Sister Carmella being there, as well as Dr. Harry Wilkinson and Father Oswald,” and Bruce was with the orchestra.

Years later, Michael Murray remembers that “several orchestra members mentioned really enjoying making music in those reverberant acoustics. The players were accustomed to the rather dry acoustics of the Academy of Music.”  Reviewers still note that the innovative recording exemplifies the best of Ormandy’s “Philadelphia Orchestra Sound.”

Baptism of the Bells


Ring out the Birthday song! One hundred years ago, on October 22, 1916, our brand-new church bells were blessed in a special ceremony before installation in our bell tower.

The Catholic Standard reported:

For the ceremony of the “baptism,” they were arranged along the left side of the church, where they rested on temporary trestles which were covered with Autumn leaves and chrysanthemums. The Services began at 3:30 o’clock with a procession from the sacristy to the main entrance of the church on Springfield Avenue and down the middle aisle to the altar. The Rev. William J. Casey, of the Church of the Ascension, was cross-bearer. He was followed by the acolytes, the sponsors of the bells, the clergy, prelates, the officers of the ceremonies, and the Right Reverend Bishop McCort.

Each bell had a parishioner acting as its “sponsor;” with church architect Henry D. Dagit  among the eleven. The bells were named after the following saints: Adolph, Michael, Elizabeth, Anthony, Cecilia, Theresa, Edmund, John, Thomas, Maurice, and Gervase. After each bell was blessed, it was rung by Reverend Maurice Cowl, Assistant to Pastor Monsignor Crane. The chime rang out from the tower for the first time a month later, at the Fifth Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church.

An article in the 1925 Parish Bulletin described a traditional bell blessing ritual, which, it reported, dates back to the tenth century:

The bell is washed with holy water (whence people speak of the baptism of a bell); it is signed with holy oils, and the thurible with fuming incense is held beneath it….The washing of the bell inside and out signifies the purity of life and the soundness of doctrine which should be found in both priest and people…The sign of the cross is made seven times, to represent the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, and also the seven Sacraments of Christ; and again four times to signify the four quarters of the universe…the burning perfumes indicate the prayers of the faithful…

After Psalms, Sermon, and  Gospel, a closing prayer asks that

the ringing of the now consecrated bells may summon the faithful to prayer, may excite their devotion, may disperse the storm clouds and drive away the dangers of the air, may terrify evil spirits, and may assure us health and happiness and peace.

Those sound like good prayer requests. Let’s hope that blessing still works!

Story of a Menu

sfds garden court

A card fluttered out of a book at the rectory and into a different century.

Its color was pale green, and its lettering,  gothic and ceremonial: a formal invitation from an age of suits and hats. It was addressed to the Ushers, Choir Members, and Aids (all male), from the Clergy of the Parish, inviting them to an annual Appreciation Dinner on January 25, 1926.

The event would be held at the newly-built Garden Court Apartments at 47th and Pine. A shield at the top of the invitation may have represented Clarence Siegel, the developer, anxious to promote  his luxurious new construction. The Garden Court Restaurant was advertised in the Parish Monthly Calendar as West Philadelphia’s smartest restaurant.

First on the menu was a Salt Oyster Cocktail. Sources suggest this was a precursor of the Bloody Mary: a beverage made with tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, and salt – with an oyster stirred in, instead of alcohol, as Prohibition was in force in 1926. The appetizer was celery, the status vegetable of the day, forced in a greenhouse and served in a special vase at the table. After Oxtail Soup, entrees were Sea Bass and Chicken. Dessert was  Peach Melba, consisting of vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry sauce and a peach. This special occasion dish was created in 1895 by celebrity chef Escoffier for renowned singer Nellie Melba. Due to primitive refrigeration, ice cream tended to be a winter treat, and peaches, a luxury.

After the meal, the menu lists cigars and cigarettes. Picture the room wreathed in smoke, as the men discussed news of the day over coffee: Dame Nellie Melba’s recently published autobiography (parishioner Baptiste knew her!); Irish Independence; the upcoming Sesquicentennial Exposition downtown; and the construction of the Delaware River (today the Benjamin Franklin) Bridge to New Jersey. Silent comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and the new Chrysler Automobiles probably inspired a comment or two. Business would include De Sales Night planning and a report on construction of the new school wing. Nobody knew that the Great Depression was just ahead.

One document, one time machine! What will future parishioners discover about us?


A White House Invitation

white house

Long ago, in a pre-9/11 world, our parish choir treasured a thank you letter from the White House in Washington DC.

In December 1998 and again in 1999, SFDS Parish Chorale represented the Great State of Pennsylvania, singing a short medley of traditional carols one evening to White House visitors. Each state sent a diverse musical delegation, for a total of over 2,600 performers through the holiday season. Other Pennsylvania groups included Renaissance of Dover; LanChester Chorus of Christiana; The Eric Mintel Quartet of Morrisville; and the Rankin Junior Tambouritzens of Pittsburgh.

When our choir arrived on a chartered bus, they were ushered into “A Winter Wonderland” — announced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the 1998 theme for the all-American holiday festivities. According to documents in The Clinton Library,  the Blue Room tree that year featured snowman ornaments “designed by artists, recommended by the governors’ spouses in each of the fifty states.” Members of  The Knitting Guild of America, from across the country, contributed little mittens and hats; and the Society of Decorative Painters crafted wooden decorations related to winter sports. An elaborate gingerbread house in the State Dining Room weighed over 150 pounds, and  featured miniature versions of the Clintons’ cat Socks and dog Buddy frolicking in an intricate (and edible) snowy landscape.

The East Room, where our choir sang, was “ transformed into an enchanted glittering wonderland…decorated with eighteen soaring conical trees…” The press department noted that “The traditional White House creche,” or Nativity scene, which formed “the focal point of the East Room, was made in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century. It features 47 carved wood and terra cotta figures. The creche…has been displayed each year at the White House since it was presented in 1967” (a tradition which continues today). A hand-crafted menorah was displayed in the West Wing.

Times were very different then. Security seemed minimal: choir members just submitted social security numbers ahead of time, brought identification, and observed the expected protocols. Fran Byers does remember a heavy presence of the Secret Service at one of the concerts – bringing their spouses and children, for their departmental family holiday gathering!

There’s a pleasant nostalgia in thinking about snowmen and Christmas carols in the heat of the summer, and recalling a more optimistic time. This year, Philadelphia hosts a political convention, and, hopefully, we can be as welcoming.

A Flying Nun

balloon          How did an IHM Sister wind up in a hot air balloon drifting over Clark Park in Philadelphia back in 1986?

When the United Nations declared an International Year of Peace that year, a plan was concocted to send a teacher from SFDS or St. Lucy School for the Blind (which shared a close relationship with the parish school), to drop leaflets, asking people to sign pledges for peace and return them to the school. Mary Brewster researched and tells the story:

          The crowd on the hillside was growing restless. The hot air balloon was ready to ascend but was short one passenger. “Run, run, if you want to go up.” This was not the Wizard of Oz speaking to Dorothy in the Emerald City: this was Sister Constance speaking to Sister Josette Marie in Clark Park during Catholic Schools Week in March, 1986.

           Sister Josette, now Sister Mary McKinley, taught fourth grade at Saint Francis de Sales School when she heard about the hot air balloon in Clark Park.  Sister Mary came to watch with several other Sisters after school, and shortly after they arrived, Sister Constance asked for volunteers to join the pilot and another teacher, Alice D’Gamma, on the ride.  This was not something Sister Mary planned to do, but her love of adventure took over, and without giving it a second thought she said “I’ll do it” and she ran down the hill. “They were trying to take off, and they literally threw me in,” she said.  As the other Sisters watched from the hillside, Sister Mary soon was airborne.

          Sister remembers floating from Clark Park over to West Chester Pike and seeing people below waving when they saw the balloon passing over them. She saw several trucks following the balloon ready to go in any direction to assist with the landing. Sister remembers being up in the air from about 4:00 to about 8:00, long enough to see the sunset as they floated along. Sister remembers how exciting it was to soar high above the rest of the world.  It was a smooth ride, the temperature was comfortable and Sister enjoyed the view.  

          When the balloon hit the ground on a field near Route 1, Sister saw 25-30 men struggling to hold the ropes as the wind dragged the balloon along the ground. They were trying to secure the balloon to allow the passengers to disembark safely.

Sister’s Peace adventure resonates in today’s unsettled world: is it time for a new excursion.

War of the Worlds

war of the worlds




Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make…. Incredible as it may seem, those strange beings who landed in New Jersey to-night are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars…At this moment martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania…People are now holding service below us in the Cathedral…This is the end. Black smoke is drifting over the city…”


          The doors of St. Francis de Sales swung open, and a phalanx of men and boys – one account says two thousand – processed out into the darkness, rank upon rank, chanting and carrying candles.

          Neighbours were unnerved.

          The date was Sunday, October 30, 1938. Orson Welles was just closing his famous radio drama, and police stations and newspaper offices nationwide were overwhelmed by telephone calls. Panicked civilians jammed traffic, fleeing the fictional invasion.

          Meanwhile, away from the radio, St. Francis de Sales Parish celebrated the feast of Christ the King. Under Bishop Lamb, the feast was celebrated in a day-long series of events culminating in a gathering of men and boys of the parish: “This Holy Hour and its attendant Eucharistic Procession of men is singular to this parish. It is a thrilling sight to see the men and the boys of the parish, carrying lighted candles walking before the Blessed Sacrament…” It “provides a splendid opportunity for father and son to walk with Christ…”

          The feast was relatively new, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to be held on the last Sunday of October (moved later to the last Sunday of the church year). A response to growing nationalism and secularism, it was reported that “Pope Pius XI sought, through the establishment of this feast, to restore Christ to his rightful, pre-eminent place in both the minds and wills of men...” In 1939, The Catholic Standard noted that “If his efforts had been universally successful, the rampant hatred which stalks across the world today would have been fettered, and world powers would not now be locked in terrible conflict….”

          Weird delusions. World’s Wars. Culture Wars. What’s changed!

Why a Church?


            Our church celebrated the Fifth Anniversary of the building’s dedication on Catholic University Day, November 12, 1916 . It was an auspicious date, since our then pastor, Monsignor Crane, was among the first graduates of newly established Catholic University in Washington, DC. The main celebrant was Right Reverend Thomas Shahan, Rector of the University. Reverend James T. Higgins of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, a classmate of Monsignor Crane, assisted.

        The sermon described our church construction: “Nine years ago last spring the first spadeful of earth was turned on the site of this magnificent building…month by month afterwards you watched the majestic structure rise, cradled by scaffolding, until the commanding dome was finished and the elaborate furnishing completed, and your church was ready for its dedication…” Today, “the sweet voices of the newly christened bells proclaim to the neighborhood that this is a day of joy for St. Francis de Sales Parish….” Dedicated in October, this was the first time the bells were rung.

          Addressing the building’s symbolism, the homilist noted that, atop the dome, “ its cross points heavenwards… to belief in God and hope in the world to come…” and  “pierces the clouds of doubt…which come between the soul and the Creator…” Doubt was strong in 1916: “The present is to a great extent the age of the merely natural. Man will believe only what he can see and science is so vastly increasing his vision that he has come to believe that there is no limit to his powers of penetration. The world of spirit, the world of faith, the supernatural, has to prove its reality before man will accept it…” using quantifiable scientific evidence from five senses.

          Our building outlines a sacred space, to be experienced with a different sense: “All the glories of Christian architecture owe their inspiration to a belief…that a church should be a worthy tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament…It is not an empty monument, but a place “within whose walls the Sacramental Christ is always dwelling;” a space to inspire, refresh, and lift us above the ordinary.

          The five-year anniversary of our building came in the darkness of World War I. A hundred years later, in this new century of unrest, we are still reconciling faith with reason, but science has begun to acknowledge that the more we learn about our universe, the more we realize that we don’t know. Our church is a refuge to reach for that which continues to be beyond our understanding.

Parish Night at the Byrd

C007 sfds 1933a



In 1933, for just one year in the middle of the Great Depression, De Sales Night at the Bellevue-Stratford was cancelled, and  Parish Night at the Byrd Theatre, at 47th and Baltimore, was substituted.

The “Somewhat different social evening than hithero enjoyed…in our parish events” included an organ recital on the theatre’s Gottfriedson organ, followed by Screen Entertainment: a short travel picture, followed by a humorous picture, and then, mysteriously,  “A somewhat different type of moving picture entertainment from that usually enjoyed in the average photo-playhouse.” A full-length feature film of truly amazing character. After Intermission, came a special greeting song, written by Father Canney and arranged by organist and choir master Albert Dooner; followed by other more traditional and religious organ, instrumental, and choral pieces; a solo dance; and  a short topical play called “The Photograph.”

          The event was wildly successful. The Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that: “The features of unusual entertainment…entirely captivated the interest and cooperation of our people. Although the evening was a blustery, teemingly rainful one, providing conditions such as old mariners would characterize as “dirty weather,” yet we taxed the capacity of a theatre which had never previously been filled. When the “De Sales Parish Night” began, we had hundreds standing and the S.R.O. (Standing Room Only) sign displayed at the box office. The Parish Bulletin also reported that The Parish Auditorium, where a promenade was held was filled to capacity.” In all, the event raised $3,112, which was almost $200 more than De Sales Night the previous year.

          De Sales Night returned to the Bellevue the following year.

          Things were never quite so bright again for the Byrd. The Byrd Theatre opened in 1928 with a capacity of 1,800 seats, but, according to the Glazer directory, had “trouble getting product” from the beginning, and, despite an acknowledgement from Admiral Byrd (the famous polar explorer), displayed in the lobby, it never was successful. In 1970, the property was sold to the Philadelphia department of Public Property, to be used as a parking lot (as it is still today); by that time, the theatre had already been closed for twelve years.