Category: MBS

Little Chapel in the Big Woods

mbs burke
Reverend P.F. Burke, First Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament

In June, 1901, eleven years after Saint Francis de Sales Parish was founded, Archbishop Ryan saw need for an additional parish further west. Reverend Patrick Burke, appointed its first pastor, imagined all the challenges ahead and suggested jokingly to the Archbishop that his new parish be named “The Agony in the Garden.” “Ah,” said his Grace, with a knowing smile, “Yes, Father Burke, you have a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come.”

Most Blessed Sacrament Parish was a “fine garden” back then. Its first Chapel, a temporary wooden building at 56th and Chester Ave., was dedicated in December 1901. A 1917 parish history provides a lyrical description of the landscape, when “the very ground now hallowed by the erection of our Chapel and School was part of a vast woodland…To the south and east the Schuylkill, teeming with its myriads of fish, wound through sylvan glades to meet the lordly Delaware, while on the western slope of this section…Cobb’s Creek (was a ) variegated ribbon in and out among the trees…But  “the busy march of progress” was turning forest into farmland and placing mills and factories along the waterways. When immigrant workers – many of them Catholic — needed housing, green fields further transformed into “long imposing thoroughfares lined with blocks of houses.”

mbs walsh
Rev. John Walsh, First Assistat at Most Blessed Sacrament

Conditions were primitive as the neighbourhood developed, and Father Burke suffered “many privations…. Gray’s Lane was at times almost a trough of yellow mud and he had to walk from 55th and Woodland Avenue to the Chapel. Some of the most public-spirited among the parishioners at their own expense had a part of the lane filled in and a cinder path laid. Once in a while, a good soul would provide a carriage to convey the delicate priest to Mass.” Father John Walsh came to assist in 1902, but Father Burke had already exhausted his frail health trying to build the parish and died in 1906, while the chapel/school and permanent church were still being planned.

The 1917 writer was already nostalgic: “Memory calls up the little wooden Chapel among the trees in all the glory of its rustic setting on a Sunday morning in Spring. Over the fields, up the lane and through the main thoroughfare, came these worshipers, eagerly and happily.  At the door smiling and buoyant stood Father John  welcoming the newcomers, learning the names of the children, and by his subtle charm winning souls and also gaining workers for the new church…”

Different times!

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

 

 

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.