Category: history

Holy Year 1934

In the crisis of the Great Depression, and in a time of growing global unrest, the February, 1933 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin announced that Pope Pius XI had proclaimed a Holy Year for 1934. The writing is more formal than modern texts, and with the unconscious gender bias of its age, but the world described is strangely familiar:

vatican stampNineteen centuries after the death of Our Lord, in an age when a world gone awry is tortured by spiritual perplexities, the Sovereign Pontiff calls the world to reconsider its golden Christian heritage. No man denies that the times are out of joint. It is unquestioned that something must be done…

Taught humility by our failures, we can well afford to indulge in a little heart-searching. Men prate about the ‘failure of Christianity.’ Analyze the statement. Where has Christianity ever failed when its commitments were fully accepted and faithfully observed?… The failure of Christianity is the failure of unregenerate human selfishness and wickedness, nothing more.  The inability of the Christian Church to reform this world is part with the failure of Christ to convert his own generation. Humanity has failed often; Our Lord, never.

We need a year of extraordinary grace, a year of meditations and prayer. Its spiritual opportunities accepted, it can change the face of the earth.”

Looking back down the tunnel of history, we know that collective thoughts and prayers were tainted by the hypocrisy of individuals whose hearts were secretly self-interested and insincere. We’ve seen how global power struggles of World War I, followed by the 1918 influenza health crisis, inequalities of industrialization, the rise of crime during Prohibition, and poverty in the Great Depression, progressed into the horrors of genocide and World War II – and into the cynical modern age.

Today, as we face extraordinary challenges to our ideas of authority and order in church and government, we need to learn from the past. Jesus, long ago, laid out a single timeless route to follow – based on love of God and caring for those around us. Humans, gifted with free choice, make bad decisions, and may confuse, mislead, or be misled along the way, but the route itself never changes. Each one of us is called to seek out the Star of Bethlehem as our beacon, leading us back to Christ. As our patron Saint Francis de Sales observed:

We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear; let us take breath, and go on afresh.”

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Praying By the Rules

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In 1947, parishioners at Saint Francis de Sales Church were invited to submit questions to the rectory, to be answered in the Parish Bulletin. Some of those questions and answers — from a time when all Fridays were meatless and Catholics were required to fast from midnight, the night before taking Communion — offer insight into the mindset and small details of life before Vatican II:

            “Does cleaning the teeth before receiving Holy Communion break the fast? Brushing one’s teeth before Communion is even recommended….The fact that the flavor of the toothpaste or powder (not all toothpaste was paste!) and the moisture remains after rinsing the mouth does not break the fast. It is permitted to swallow one’s saliva, and the few drops of water that remain become part of the saliva…”

Do nose drops break the Communion fast? (Addictive nasal medication led to chronic stuffy noses). No, even though one is certain that a quantity of the fluid passed into the stomach…the substance must pass through the mouth. For the same reason food injections taken through the arm would not break the fast.”

“Does smoking before Communion break the fast? No, it does not. One, however, may well forego this pleasure, making the sacrifice part of the preparation for Communion” (This in a time when most adults smoked, and indoor air was generally thick with haze).

“A person arises during the night and takes a drink of water. The next morning, he cannot remember whether or not it was taken after midnight. May he receive Holy Communion? Yes. Where there is a doubt as to time the doubt may be resolved in favor of the person…”

“Does Daylight Savings Time make any difference in the observance of Friday abstinence from meat? In other words, is a Catholic permitted to eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday? Yes, a Catholic may eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday, even though that same time is an hour before standard time…Canon 33 says…in the observance of fast and abstinence one may deviate from the common custom of the place and follow the local true time, or the mean time, or the legal time, or any of the several ways of computing time.”

Trained by Depression scarcity, wartime experience, and an educational system that still included spanking and other physical punishment, Catholics were used to life framed by rules. The obsession with details seems rigid today, but it also reveals a people actively engaged in their faith – and looking for a straightforward path to navigate an increasingly complicated world.

Horse Party

horse partyStep back in time, just after World War I,  and imagine city streets filled with horse carriages and carts instead of motor vehicles. Miss Laura Blackburne (3808 Walnut; later 5038 Larchwood), an early donor to St. Francis de Sales Church, was also a board member of  the Women’s SPCA (today’s Women’s Humane Society) and worked on the Dispensary Committee for a unique holiday event as reported in The Philadelphia Public Ledger, December 24, 1918:

There was great rejoicing in “animal circles” at the announcement that Santa Claus today would visit the stables and kennels of the poor horses, dogs, and cats, as well as the homes of real folks. 

            Through the agency of the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Santa gave Christmas dinners to more than 200 animals. The horses that have so nobly done double duty during the war were given especial notice. 

            There was a sort of thin, soupy mixture for the first course, mixed feed for the entree and carrots and big red apples for dessert. Dog biscuits were Rover’s share and there was catnip in prettily tied bunches for the kitties. 

            Ned, a staunch old dray horse who for the last year has been supporting a family of eleven, had the time of his long life. Ned’s master is sick and has been almost blind for many months. Ned’s steady work in hauling has furnished the only livelihood for the master, mistress and the nine children of the family. 

            Dan is another of the heroes who were decorated “inside and out” for his splendid services. He has been earning the living for an eighty year old man and his family. 

            Girl Scouts distributed the Christmas dinners for the animals from the Lighthouse at Second Street and Lehigh avenue, from the dispensary at 315 South Chadwick Street (near Rittenhouse), and from Lowry Home (for homeless dogs and cats), Eighty-Sixth and Eastwick Streets. Horses in the police van and traffic squad stables were remembered by the women too. The Christmas compliments were in the form of bright red apples. 

            Members of the dispensary committee of the women’s society investigate their “horse families” just as conscientiously and carefully as social workers investigate the homes of they city’s poor people. Wherever the people are poor and deserving of help, and their horse or animals are hungry, the society gives its aid…

            The lighthearted article sounds reassuringly normal, considering that the Great Influenza Pandemic, which killed an estimated 12,191 people in Philadelphia alone, had finally slowed its brutal onslaught just the previous month! All schools and churches in the city — including ours — were closed down for three weeks, from October 6 to October 26, 1918, in an apparently successful effort to help stem the contagion.

 

Three Bishops

The Catholic Encyclopedia re-states Church law that “there shall be but one bishop of each diocese…” and “there is only one cathedral.”

Philadelphia’s cathedral is downtown on the Parkway, but our church has, in its history, been home to three bishops. How can this be?

All three of our bishops were titular bishops, which means that at consecration, each was assigned the title of an early Christian diocese that, by modern times, had “neither clergy nor people.” One reason was to preserve the memory of those “once venerable and important but now, desolate, sees.” Another, was the practical reason that, since there were no pastoral duties in an ancient inactive diocese, its bishop would be free to help out in a large modern district, such as the Philadelphia Archdiocese, that had grown too big to be managed by one bishop. A titular bishop could live locally and help with bishop’s tasks, but was not, by technicality, a local bishop with a competing cathedral.

Who were our bishops and what were their connections?

Our second Pastor, Reverend Michael J. Crane, became Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia under Cardinal Dougherty and Titular Bishop of Curium, Cyprus (aka Kourion – site of an important University of Pennsylvania archaeological excavation!)  while serving at our church in 1921. The Titular Bishop of the ancient see of Helos (or Elos, near ancient Sparta), was fourth Pastor Auxiliary Bishop Hugh Lamb, stationed at our parish from 1935 to 1951.  Reverend Joseph Mark McShea became Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia and Titular Bishop of Mina (aka Mauretania Caesariensis in Algeria), while serving as our fifth Pastor, in 1952.

What is the role of a titular bishop? It’s complicated. As Auxiliary Bishop, he reports to the local diocesan Bishop, who delegates a variety of pastoral tasks and “functions that require the sacramental power of a bishop.” In his own diocese-in-title, his power is entirely “potential:” the Pope is in charge, and the titular bishop waits forever in reserve “just in case.”

What happened to our SFDS bishops?  Bishop Crane, who built our church, died in 1928 and is buried on the rectory lawn. Bishop Lamb became diocesan Bishop of Greensburg in Western PA in 1951. Bishop McShea was appointed first Bishop of the newly created Allentown Diocese in 1961. His departure opened a new era in the Philadelphia Archdiocese when his replacement, Bishop Gerald McDevitt, opted to follow the 1960s population shift to live in the suburbs.

A Saint for Healthcare

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Who is the saint who stands so patiently with his broom, near the Mary altar in our church?

No one seems to remember when his humble resin  statue arrived at our parish, or who was the donor. For many years, he stood on the St. Joseph side of the church, near the sacristy doorway, until he was moved to his present position by Father Hand.

Martin de Porres is an interesting saint! Born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, he lived during the same period as our patron Saint Francis de Sales – though in a very different location and circumstances. Francis de Sales was born to rich parents in France, and rejected the noble lifestyle. Martin de Porres’ father was a Spanish nobleman, but his mother was a freed Black slave from Panama – possibly with some Native American heritage – so his parents could not legally marry. His father abandoned the family and Martin grew up in poverty,  stigmatized as illegitimate and biracial.

At an early age, after two years of school, Martin apprenticed to a barber/surgeon to learn the practical trade of haircutting and medical bloodletting. He wanted to join a religious order, but discriminatory laws prohibited it. Eventually, he was allowed to volunteer as a servant to the Dominicans, where he worked tirelessly in the kitchen and laundry, as well as cutting hair and tending the sick in the infirmary.

Martin was a mystic contemplative vegetarian, who did menial tasks willingly and spent long hours in prayer. He became known for almsgiving and for his gentle and effective medical ministry, helping anyone in need, regardless of who they were. His medical skills were renowned and it was said he was able to mysteriously pass through walls to perform healing miracles in locked rooms. He also is known, like Francis of Assisi, as a friend of animals. A story is told that when the monastery was troubled with mice (or rats), Saint Martin refused to poison them; instead, he politely asked them to leave, which they did.

Because of his growing holy reputation, exceptions were made for his birth circumstances, and Martin was eventually allowed to become a Dominican lay brother and to spend the rest of his life working as a healer in the monastery.

Martin de Porres died in 1639. He was beatified in 1837, canonized on May 6, 1962, and his feast day is November 3. He is known today as the patron saint for people of mixed race, as well as for barbers, innkeepers, and healthcare workers.

 

The Patron Saint of Journalists

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St. Francis de Sales (1940 Parish Silver Jubilee Anniversary Book).

Saint Francis de Sales died in France in 1622, but made the news just a few months before our Philadelphia church building was dedicated in 1911, and his message is strangely relevant today.

Our Patron Saint is used to working through turmoil. He was known in his lifetime for perilously hand-distributing his carefully-reasoned writings during the Protestant Reformation in the 1600s, when Catholicism was forbidden in France; and for  his patient efforts to reconcile deeply divided peoples.

His bones were hidden for protection in the 1790s, in the chaos of the French Revolution.

In 1905, when France became a secular state, with religion officially separated from government, its church properties were claimed by the bureaucracy. Our saint was newsworthy when his remains, along with those of St. Jane Chantal, had to be moved from the Church of the Visitation  “to the new convent which the Sisters have been obliged to erect in a different part of the town, the Government requiring the site of their former church and convent for public buildings.”

 The procession in Annecy on August 2, 1911, was an international event, both ceremonial and festive: “Two Cardinals and upwards of fifty Bishops and Archbishops from various countries, even from the far distant Argentine Republic and New Guinea, were present…” with many pilgrims. Celebrations were not without shadows, however: The Tablet International Catholic Weekly reported that

it was scarcely to be hoped that so religious a demonstration could be allowed to pass unnoticed by the Anticlerical party. The Superior of the Visitation and some of the town authorities had received anonymous letters threatening bombs during the procession, if it took place. After prayer and deliberation it was decided that no changes should be made in the programme, all trust being placed in the intercession of the two Saints with God. This confidence was not misplaced ; all went off without the least attempt at molestation.”

News writers at that time were proud to note that St. Francis de Sales was the “Patron Saint of Journalists” – named by Pope Pius IX during a turbulent period in the 1870s — and “the choice…was an apt one, for St. Francis was a man of letters.” In 1923, in an uncertain modern age with increasing  media communication capabilities, Pope Pius XI made an official declaration.

Our early parishioners might have been pleased to have such an enduring, inspirational and newsworthy patron saint. In today’s tumultuous “post-truth” age, our saint’s fortitude and journalistic intercession are more vital than ever!

 

Life Goes On: World War II at de Sales

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First De Sales Night after the War, February 2, 1946, with flags and sailors

The parish provided stability, community, and continuity during World War II. Near Veterans Day, old Parish Bulletins offer a glimpse of neighbourhood life in wartime.

In September 1942, the Holy Name Society contributed a Service Flag with a star for each parishioner in the military (1027 stars by war’s end, including 39 dead). That Bulletin also noted: “Because of the exceptional amount of printed matter this month, we are unable to publish Collection Lists (the bulletin usually contained a long list of monthly sums contributed to the parish by each family). This is in keeping with the request of the Federal Government that we conserve paper.”

De Sales Night went on as usual:  “we mean to keep up the traditions of former years…,’ but the Parish Bowling League announced that  “Because some of our men have entered into the service and others intend to in the near future, we have a few vacancies….” New parish activities were added: “a Home Nursing Course, sponsored by the American Red Cross, will be given in our school building…primarily for the woman in the house, to train her to give intelligent nursing care, now that the number of doctors and nurses is so limited…

The School also had its role: “ your children may have told you about the preparations being made in our school regarding the possibility of an air-raid…It is merely an attempt to be prepared for any possible emergency…All of our Sisters have taken an intensive and exhaustive course in First Aid and are thoroughly capable of meeting any emergency.” At the same time, the Boys Battalion did its bit, “collecting old newspapers, rags, and scrap-metal, etc. to aid the National Defense.”

The war did  provide a handy excuse to curb generally annoying behavior:“The telephone…is a vital war-time essential. Keep the wires open…Do not spend long time in chats, etc. This applies also to the Rectory…Many inconsiderate souls call for information already proffered to them by the calendar and other means…

Recommended Air Raid Precautions for everyone included “If your conscience is not in order, go to Confession…” and “Always have Holy Water in the house…” Above all, there was prayer:“The eleven o’clock High Mass every Sunday in our Church is offered for the men and women who are in the armed forces…There is no better way for us to think of these dear ones and also to pray for the safety of our Nation than through the Holy Sacrifice.

Prayers for our Nation – and the world—still  seem like a good idea.

Insulin

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        November is the month for lavish Thanksgiving feasting. It’s also Diabetes Awareness Month. Design? Coincidence? Irony? And what does this have to do with our parish?

          Diabetes – named by the ancient Greeks in Biblical times — is a metabolic disorder in which the body fails to create insulin to properly process glucose, or blood sugar. It is a terrible – and increasingly prevalent — disease worldwide. Though it’s been around for centuries, it was a death sentence for many until recent times.

          The breakthrough came in 1920, when  Canadian Dr. Frederick Banting demonstrated that insulin extracted from a dog pancreas could control blood glucose levels. The first test of insulin on human patients began with a 14-year-old diabetic boy at the Toronto General Hospital in January 1922, and other trials continued that year. Not all of the test subjects were children – fortunately for our parish..

          Bishop Michael Crane, the Pastor who built our church in the early 1900s, had long suffered from diabetes and his condition was worrisome. The Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center (PAHRC) recently uncovered several letters from Cardinal Dougherty to the Archbishop of Toronto, begging him to see what could be done to get insulin for his Assistant Bishop. In late 1922, Bishop Crane was accepted into Banting’s programme as one of the “guinea pigs” for the early testing of insulin on humans.

          On November 18, 1922, Bishop Crane wrote to Cardinal Dougherty from the Toronto General Hospital, detailing his treatment. He noted that only small amounts of insulin could yet be created, so “they have only thirteen patients in the diabetic clinic…They give you a certain amount of food, some of which contains sugar to see what percentage goes into the blood. I got my first record today…The percentage of sugar in the urine was less than 2 percent. In August I had 6 percent. This I consider very encouraging…” (A curious subject for a letter to a Cardinal!).

          The following year, in 1923, Dr. Frederick Banting and Professor John MacLeod received the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discovery and refinement of insulin.

          Bishop Crane returned to our parish after his successful treatment and resumed his many duties. Curiously, our parish chronicles contain no mention of his absence! He died of pneumonia during a flu epidemic just a few years later,  on December 26, 1928, at age 65.