Category: neighborhood

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?! 😊

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Car Trouble

Does it seem as though roads are becoming more hazardous? In the early days of our church, when cars were still a novelty, our second Pastor, Reverend Crane, thought so. And vehicles moved a lot slower back then!

As the number of motorcars began to increase in the city — intermingling with horse carts, carriages, trolleys, bicycles, and others sharing the roads – officials took some odd advice in the struggle to keep everyone safe. In June 1912 – a year after our church building was finished – The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that our Reverend Crane was asked by the coroner to serve on a jury “composed of clergymen” ruling on an “automobile fatality” case, in which a man driving a “motor truck” ran down and killed a woman pedestrian. Six clergymen of different (Christian) faiths “were asked to serve on the jury as a result of a recommendation made a few months ago at the national convention of coroners, the object being to give the clergy an opportunity to impress upon members of their congregation, as well as upon chauffeurs and the owners of automobile and other vehicles, the dangers from the careless driving of motorcars” (The driver in the case was held responsible for the death and remanded for trial).

January 1916 brought traffic issues a little closer to home when the Inquirer ran a short news item headed “Auto Runs Down Aged Man.” In that incident, an SFDS parishioner, John F. Wholey, of 4822 Windsor Ave. (whose father Timothy Wholey would donate our St. Francis de Sales statue in 1920) “was taking a party of friends in an automobile to a wedding in Merchantville” when a man “stepped in front of the machine” at Day and Federal Streets, Camden; was knocked over; and suffered a “probable fracture of the skull.

Not all automotive troubles were accident related. A different danger made the news in February 1919, with the headline “Motor Bandits Get Furs Worth $5000; Terrorize W. Phila.” The Inquirer reported that a woman who lived next door to the fur store of SFDS parishioner Henry T. Amlung, at 4810 Baltimore Avenue (today, an empty lot behind a wooden fence),  heard a noise one evening, looked out from an upstairs window, and “was struck speechless by witnessing one man tossing furs out of the window, and into the arms of an accomplice, who was putting them into a limousine automobile.”

Fast-moving motor bandits quickly became a significant class of criminals, so police – still on foot – had to invest in vehicles and equipment in order to keep up. On December 23, 1920, the Inquirer reported that “Philadelphia’s Christmas presents for motor bandits are ready. Here they are: One hundred and fifty armed motorcycles, most of them with sidecars. Six fast automobiles for bandit-chasing owned by the city and a fleet of privately owned automobiles at the call of the police. A stack of short-range sawed-off shotguns, each pumping six shells of buck shot in rapid succession…” (The shotguns were thought to be a kinder and gentler approach to crimefighting than the submachine guns proposed in New York City to deal with a similar automotive crime wave). Speedy police vehicles might have discouraged automotive crime, but were unlikely to improve safety for pedestrians or other traffic!

As to Reverend (by then Bishop) Crane, the hazards of the new automobile age soon became very personal. On Nov. 11, 1922, Catholic News Service reported that “Rev. Cornelius X. Leahy, pastor of the Church of SS. Peter and Paul at Tower City, died last Sunday as a result of a fracture of the skull sustained in an automobile accident. This accident occurred when Father Leahy was driving with a party, including Bishop Crane, of this city, from Tower City to Tremont, where Bishop Crane was to administer Confirmation.” Curiously, there is no further information on what caused the accident or whether any of the other passengers were injured. We know only that the funeral took place in “St. Canicus’ Church, Mahanoy City” and began “with Divine Office at 10 o’clock. The Right Rev. Bishop Crane presided.”

The world keeps moving. A century later, cars are old news, but the car troubles are still familiar – and now we face challenges Bishop Crane never could have imagined, as we navigate hazards of life online in the new age of the internet!

Location, Location, Location

Have you ever wondered how our story—and our neighbourhood — might have been different if our church had been built in a different place?

So many spots were considered in the early days of our parish that it’s hard to keep track of what was real! The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in July 1890 that a site had been “secured” for first pastor Rev. Joseph O’Neill’s new church at “Forty-Seventh street near Chestnut.” Then, on October 31, it reported that “last week” Rev. Joseph O’Neill “purchased” a large lot “at Forty-seventh street and Chester avenue.” Were these two different plots or was the paper confused? A 1928 parish history affirms that Rev. O’Neill “secured a site at Forty-seventh Street and Chester Avenue, 250 feet by 150 feet, for the price of $15,000. But then, just to complicate things, a memo has surfaced referencing a “deed from Anthony A. Hirst to Most Reverend Patrick John Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia, recorded…July 1st, 1890, for the property at the intersection of 47th Street and Warrington Avenue and running through to Baltimore Avenue.” (the corner now occupied by the 801 S. 47th St. Cedar Park Place apartment building. The southern property line was actually closer to Windsor).

The 1894 First Annual Report of the Parish Debt Association – the closest document to the time – described the challenge of consolidating enough land to build since “the holders of certain lots would not sell, offering as an objection that they were opposed to the school which Catholics made the accompaniment of the church and parochial house. Other ground was reported swampy, and would not be accepted.” It confirmed the Forty-seventh and Warrington Avenuepurchase and observedIt was not the place most desired, but it was hoped that the Baptists, who had bought the property at the North-east corner of Forty-Seventh and Springfield Avenue, might eventually sell to them.”

Father O’Neill went to Europe July 1 and returned October 8, but negotiations continued while he was away, with Rev. P.J. Garvey (pastor of St. James at 38th and Chestnut — the “Mother Parish” of St. Francis de Sales) and lawyer Anthony A. Hirst working on his behalf.  At some point, Rev. O’Neill was notified that the “property at the North-east corner of Forty-seventh and Springfield Avenue was secured through his attorney, Anthony A. Hirst, Esquire.” A September 29 memo from Rev.  P.J. Garvey to Archbishop Patrick John Ryan noted that “this property referred to by Mr. Hirst and located at the South east (oopsie) corner of 47th St. and Springfield Avenue is in my judgement a much better and more suitable site for a church than that secured by Father O’Neill before his departure. I feel sure Father O’Neill will be well pleased at the change because this SE Cor. of 47th & Springfield Avenue was the place he wished to purchase in the first instance…While favoring this new site in preference to the old one, I must say that I think the new church should be nearer to Woodland Avenue and somewhat further West; but if 47th & Springfield suits Father O’Neill and the new congregation I shall be satisfied. Your obedient child in Christ, P.J. Garvey.” The Springfield Ave. deed was signed over on October 15, 1890.

According to the 1894 report, once the Springfield Ave. lot was purchased, “the former lot was then offered for sale. A small portion of it was retained to make ample room for the new buildings.” This has to refer to the Warrington/Baltimore Ave. site, which bordered the Springfield lot: the report continues “The lot held by Father O’Neill had a frontage of one hundred and forty feet and a depth of two hundred and sixty-five feet,” which matches the dimensions on the Springfield Ave. deed plus an extra fifteen-foot strip.

Oddly, the 1928 history, 34 years later, forgot Warrington and mentioned only the Chester Ave. plot, noting that “Father O’Neill returned in October (1890), and finding the site he had earlier purchased unsuitable, he disposed of it.” Assuming we are not dealing with multiple realities in alternate universes, this suggests that Father O’Neill could have purchased two properties to sell once he decided on 47th and Springfield Ave. Now, 132 years later, here we are, in a neighbourhood landmark under a Guastavino dome. Good choices?!

Drama on the Front Steps

Nearly a century ago, in the “good old days” of alcohol Prohibition and associated gangsterism, a dramatic movie-script-like news story unfolded in front of our church.

On April 21, 1923, the Inquirer reported that in the small hours of the previous morning, “Miss Mabel Hills, 21 years old, of 421 South Forty-ninth street…was left gagged and dazed on the steps of St. Francis de Sales Church, Forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue.”

“Miss Hills, with two other women and three men, was returning home from a café at Broad street and Girard avenue. At Forty-ninth and Spruce streets a big, crimson-colored car pushed in front of the taxicab, bringing it to a halt. Four white-masked men jumped out. Throwing open the door of the cab, the bandits thrust revolvers into the faces of the occupants and one of them demanded: ‘Which one of you is named Hills?’”

“‘That is my name,’ Miss Hills answered, according to the story she told police, and the men then proceeded to drag her roughly from the machine and hustle her into their car. ’One of them stuffed a handkerchief into my mouth,’ the girl said, ‘and another wrapped me in a blanket. Then it seemed as if they drove me all over the city at a break-neck pace. I fainted several times. When I finally came to I found myself on the church steps. ‘Where’s the rocks?’ one of the men asked me. ‘We don’t want to commit murder, but we’ll knock you off right here at the church if you don’t tell us where the jewelry is.’ So I told them I carried it in two chamois bags in my stocking. One of them slit open my stocking’ (presumably not at the ankle) ‘and took them.’ Her jewelry consisted of a diamond ring set with a five-karat diamond, two other rings with diamonds set in platinum, a diamond bracelet and a platinum and diamond studded wrist watch. “

“After the bandits had departed with their loot, Miss Hills, dazed and sick, staggered to the parish house and told her story. Meanwhile, her companions drove to the Fifty-fifth and Pine streets police station, where their chauffeur, John Halpin…was arrested…” Two other suspects –Thomas Alexander and Nathan Kessler — were also soon captured.

Inquiring minds might wonder how Miss Hills came to have $5,000 worth of jewelry – a magnificent sum in the 1920s — hidden on her person. The reporter carefully records the whole colorful incident using distancing words: “according to the story she told police…” Bishop Crane’s rectory also quietly stepped back from the odd occurrence on its church property.

One of the men arrested, Thomas Alexander, was already known to police for his connection with “the Columbia avenue gang.” He would go to trial for Miss Hill’s kidnapping, but “despite the strength of the evidence,” would escape a guilty verdict. (The other major suspect, Nathan Kessler, died in Moyamensing Prison due to a mysterious heroin overdose while awaiting trial). The story wasn’t over: soon “after his acquittal,” Alexander “appeared in Atlantic City. There he went to a boardwalk cabaret and seeing Miss Hill among the merrymakers gave her a severe beating. He pulled his revolver, knocked her unconscious and then literally shot his way out. The cabaret proprietor…was hit by one of the flying bullets” and spent some time in hospital.

Two years later, in November 1925, The Inquirer reported that Thomas Alexander was again arrested, along with a man named Samuel Martin and “two well-dressed women,” in a house at Park Avenue and Dauphin Street for a different crime: “the killing of a policeman and another man during the attempted hold-up of the Freihofer Baking Company loading station...” Over 800 postal money orders and many other stolen items were found at the scene of the arrest, along with a “peculiar shaped mask” like that used in the murders, and “enough dynamite and nitro-glycerin to blow up a house.”

In a dramatic finale, the four Park Avenue suspects were captured when “detectives…trailed a weeping woman from a cabaret” near Broad and Columbia, “to the rendezvous of the alleged bandit gang…The identity of the girl whose tears led to the capture was not revealed by detectives, as she is not under arrest. According to police, she is a member of a respectable family who left home to seek adventure and found only disappointment, sordidness and sorrow…   THE END!

Little Sisters of the Poor

In 1869 Archbishop Wood of Philadelphia invited the Little Sisters of the Poor from France to come and assist in caring for the vast numbers of elderly poor in the city regardless of race or religious beliefs. The Charism of the Foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, serving the poorest in simplicity, humility, and trust in Divine Providence (begging), imbued them with the gift of fortitude for over 150 years in Philadelphia through faithfully observing their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and hospitality, while personally assisting the dying with the firm belief that, as St. Jeanne said – “It is Jesus Himself whom you are serving in the Poor.”

Philadelphia Inquirer January 23, 1905

Did you know the Little Sisters of the Poor have been quietly serving the needs of the poor and the elderly in our neighborhood for 120 years? They’ve been here almost as long as SFDS (1890) and MBS (1901). And now, in a new age of need, our combined parish has a chance to renew connections with the Little Sisters that make us all stronger together.

The story of the Little Sisters of the Poor in this part of the city began in July 1902, when five Sisters “opened a non-sectarian house for the aged, southwest corner of Forty-second street and Baltimore avenue” in what appears to have been a four-story house (today an apartment building stands on the site), within the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales Parish. A mendicant order, relying entirely on charitable donations, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “the Sisters in their new quarters commenced with literally nothing. Now twenty feeble old persons are under their care, and there are moments when the next meal is a serious problem. The only support derived by the home is that secured by personal solicitation from door to door…

Many neighbors and others did want to be a part of the worthy effort, so that the following year, on November 2, 1903, Bishop Prendergast was able to lay the cornerstone for the “new house of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Fifty-fourth and Chester avenue,” within the boundaries of the recently established (1901) Most Blessed Sacrament Parish. The Inquirer noted that “The ceremony, solemn in itself, was rendered all the more effective by a procession of the children of the parish of the (Most) Blessed Sacrament, carrying silk banners of various hues, representing the sodalities of the church.” When the finished building was dedicated in 1905, Bishop Prendergast was “assisted by Rev. M.J. Crane, of the Church of St. Frances De Sales (sic!)…The altar boys were from the Church of the Gesu, (Most) Blessed Sacrament, and St. Francis de Sales,” so the local parishes continued to affirm their support.

Since it was just a few blocks away, Most Blessed Sacrament Parish School, at 56th and Chester, would develop a particularly positive relationship with the Sisters over the years, and some youthful helpers even returned later to serve as adults. Jim Dengler, a volunteer and former Advisory Board Member, recalls how, in his youth, fellow MBS students “would volunteer in the home’s kitchen or laundry room, or help assist the Little Sisters in taking care of the Residents, and some of the boys would serve as altar boys at Mass. But I would bet none of them left without something good to eat, for the Little Sisters’ hospitality is the best.” Don Carter, retired Director of Plant Operations & Maintenance at the home, also recalls that “My first experience with the Little Sisters was when I was in first or second grade at Most Blessed Sacrament School.  The school was having a canned good drive for the Little Sisters Home down the street.  I wondered how the Sisters could live off tomato soup because that was all that mom would part with.  Little did I know that one day I would be helping stack all the canned goods that would be coming in on food drives!”

Through good times and bad, the Little Sisters welcomed the “poor elderly” at Sacred Heart and two other facilities in the city until the Sacred Heart building closed in 1969 “to make way for a more modern facility.” A new building, combining all three Philadelphia homes (St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s and Sacred Heart) in one place, “opened on the same location on April 13, 1973, and was dedicated to the Holy Family.” Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it continued to change. MBS School would close its doors in 2002. MBS Parish combined with SFDS in 2007, and, with a dizzying succession of pastors, the combined parish lost track of some of its old neighborhood connections.

Today, still focused on their mission, the Little Sisters recognize that “Material deprivation is only one form of poverty. Others that weigh heavily upon a person are: isolation, insecurity, the anguish of feeling that one is a burden on others, or being unwanted, seeing one’s self become weaker and weaker, and in some cases, being abandoned…” They still rely upon volunteers and charitable donations for their work, so that “with the help of a dedicated staff, the Sisters care for Residents in Independent Apartments and Skilled Nursing Units.” The Sisters have started a capital campaign to upgrade yet again on the same site. Here’s an opportunity to see what we can do to help!

In Search of the Grail on Chester Ave.

Philadelphia Grail Center at 4520 Chester Avenue in 1955. (Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries. Philadelphia, PA)

 Aileen McGovern, widow of Nativity artist Bob McGovern, inspired an interesting quest when she mentioned that Bob’s first wife Beverly (d. 1970) had been a “Grail Girl” before marriage. It sounded so medieval!  What could it mean?

                Research led to 4520 Chester Avenue (The Gables B&B, today), once used by Carmelite nuns as a retirement home. Purchased by The Grail in 1954, it underwent “an orgy of renovating,” in which volunteers joined in “removing varnish, sanding floors, plastering, painting, and repairing,” before the twenty-room house opened as “The Grail Center,” “a new type of resident Adult Education, designed to help young women develop themselves more fully in Catholic life…

What was the Grail? The international organization was the 1921 vision of a Dutch Jesuit priest, who “felt that many new possibilities were opening up for women and that a group of lay women, unconfined by convent walls and rules, could make an immense contribution to the transformation of the world.” By 1939, thousands of women belonged to the Grail in the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany.Marian Ronan then notes that two Dutch Grail members “brought the Grail to the U.S. in 1940, just before the Nazi invasion.” Its first U.S. home was Chicago, IL; then, it moved to a farm called Grailville outside Cincinnati, OH, with a mission “deeply connected to the Catholic ‘Back to the Land’ movement.” As it expanded, the Grail also supported a social mission. The Philadelphia Grail, approved in 1952 by Archbishop O’Hara (who had an SFDS connection), and headed by Anna McGarry, “a pioneer in Catholic interracial work,” had a special hope: “to discover potential leaders among black women” and nurture their talents.

How did it all work? The NCWC News Service reported that girls would live at The Grail for a three-month course covering “everything from Scripture to social action,” and “those with special interests will be offered courses in arts and crafts, writing, music and the recreation home arts in their relation to the lay apostolate.” Many girls stayed on or came back to enjoy the “Open House on Saturday nights for Mass preparation, Sunday breakfasts after Mass devoted to discussions on women’s apostolate, an evening a week for a choir and another on family service. An art and bookstore was soon set up in a large room on the first floor.”

                Parishioner Maureen Tate, active since the 1980s, learned that in the 1960s, “Many of the women who lived and worked at the Grail Center came from a year-long training experience at GrailvilleMen and women participated in lecture series and prayer experiences at the Grail Center. Many women met their husbands at these programs and many later settled in Mt. Airy with their families…The Grail was active in Civil Right marches and anti-racism efforts locally. They sponsored, and were active in ecumenical programs…

How did the Grail connect with our Parish? The Catholic Standard and Times reported that “Participation in the Mass is the high, point of the day—the girls must rise early…but this is training for a lifetime of conviction that it’s the Mass that matters.”  Grail member Maclovia Rodriguez who ran the Grail Bookshop in 1958-59, recalls daily Mass was at SFDS. So were the marriages! Bob and Beverly McGovern were married at SFDS in 1963.

There were also other neighborhood interactions: parishioner Jerry McHugh recalls his mother taking him to a “different” store when he was about six – the Grail Bookstore – where they bought his first Advent Calendar! He also remembers the bread made in the Grail bakery. His relatives recall the Grail Family Service, “through which Grail members would come into the homes of women after childbirth, to provide assistance.”

                After Jerry’s Dad, realtor Gerald McHugh, helped sell 4520 Chester to the Jesuits in 1966, The Grail Center was in Wynnefield until 2003, then met at various city locations. Today, as an ecumenical women’s spiritual organization with centers in OH and NY, https://www.grail-us.org/  “envisions a world of peace, justice and renewal of the earth, brought about by women working together as catalysts for change.”

Operation Discovery

Amid the unsettled mix of optimism, experimentation, disruption, and social change that were the 1960s, Jeanne McGettigan (SFDS ’61-’67) recalls being part of a capstone character-building summer program at SFDS aptly named “Operation Discovery.”

The pilot project was launched in 1964 by the Archdiocesan Commission on Human Relations with a goal to “develop the hidden talents and to foster a sense of community responsibility” among mostly black youth in the low-income area around Most Precious Blood Parish in North Central Philadelphia. By 1966, the program had expanded to four other Philadelphia city parish neighborhoods – including SFDS — and one in Chester.

Students invited to SFDS (the Southwest Center) and the other centers were seventh, eighth and ninth graders from surrounding parochial and public schools, selected for good grades “and a keen  intellectual curiosity… no distinctions were made regarding race, nationality or religion…” This was notable at the time, since Civil Rights were still new. For SFDS participants, Jeanne recalls that the idea of parochial school students mingling with public school students was an exciting and strange experience!

What happened in the six-week program? In addition to creative classes, the Catholic Standard and Times noted that “Each center produces its own weekly newspaper, The Discovery Times…Frequent debates are held on questions related to teenage dress, civil rights, capital punishment, the minimum voting age and the high school ‘drop out’ problem…Basic logic,…parliamentary procedure and the art of conducting public meetings also form part of ‘Operation Discovery’s’ challenging curriculum…” along with “trips to area museums and historic places of interest….

Jeanne reports on the debate classes in which “I competed with what was really an essay (not a speech) on taking responsibility. I was in way over my head and other, public school debaters blew me out of the water.  As I mentioned to you, I remember best the comparative self-assuredness of the black students from public schools.  They demonstrated more confidence and much less deference to authority.  I was a bit in awe of them.”

In September, 1966, the Catholic Standard and Times reported that about 500 “Operation Discovery” students completed “a summer of discovery and learning Tuesday by visiting the Nation’s Capital and hearing an inspiring speech by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey” who “told of how he had to delay his education for lack of funds, but emphasized that he finally won his college diploma. Mr. Humphrey, chairman of the President’s Space Council, painted a rosy picture for the youngsters of the Nation’s capabilities in space. He predicted that the U. S. will put a man on the moon before 1971..and  ‘In less than five years, we’re going to have a village on the moon in the sense that a manned station will be set up to maintain scientific data.’” (Jeanne’s verdict: “He seemed ‘fake’ to me at the time, but I was probably suspicious of most adults who were overly jolly, as he presented himself”). 

The paper reported that “The final act of the six-week leadership development program was the placing of a wreath on the grave of President Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery.” It was a sobering moment after the optimistic pep talk: Kennedy – the first Catholic president and national emblem of youth – had been assassinated in November 1963, just a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. King would be killed in 1968. Americans landed on the moon in 1969. Sadly, moon villages never materialized and racial inequality never disappeared. “Operation Discovery” seems to have become lost in history, but could have had positive lasting effects: Jeanne reports “My experience with Operation Discovery was really the first time I had been encouraged to see myself as someone with an active role to play in the broader community.  I also recall enthusiastically grabbing hold of the idea that poverty was a problem that could be analyzed and, with sufficient good will, solved.” The challenge remains!

Operation Discovery Program Booklet, circa 1967
Operation Discovery students shown at one of the Centers

Secret Garden Door

Door on East side of church as shown in architectural drawings

Have you ever noticed that there is no sculpture in the arch (tympanum) above the parking lot door outside Saint Francis de Sales Church? It looks a little bare, but that seems to have been intentional.

Henry Dagit’s original architectural plan for the church shows sculptures in the arches above the three front doors on Springfield Ave., and above the 47th Street door, but the Eastern Elevation drawing, showing the Rectory Side of the church, has an empty half-moon above the door, with no ornamentation planned for that side of the building.

                Why would that be?

SFDS shown on 1909 map

When our church was finished in 1911, that part of the building wasn’t a priority, since it wasn’t visible from the street! The eastern entrance to the church was tucked away in a “secret garden” courtyard, formed with the back of the  rectory on one side; the wall of the new church on another; the side of the school (with the alley space between the church and school, probably used for deliveries from 47th street) filling the third side; and the back fences of a row of houses along Farragut Terrace completing the enclosure. We have no record of whether the small, closed yard space was planted or paved, or how it was used. It was probably a laundry and utility area for the rectory, and/or a school playground; there was, as yet, no need for parking, since people didn’t have cars.

Needs and conditions changed over time and that side of the property became exposed in 1926, when the parish bought and demolished the two corner houses on Springfield Ave. (numbers 4615 and 4617) to create the corner rectory garden; and numbers 936 to 932 on Farragut Terrace to build the addition to the school. The church parking lot on Farragut Terrace was part of that development. The ramp to the church door was added in the late 1990s.

SFDS shown on 1927 map

Who owned the houses that were removed back in 1926? One familiar name is that of Roger A. McShea at 928 South Farragut Terrace – he was the father of future Bishop Joseph Mark McShea, who would grow up to become our Fifth pastor from 1952-1961. Number 932, incidentally, was owned by a gentleman named John Sanderson Trump – a terribly familiar last name, but, as far as we know, unrelated.

As to the “portal sculpture” — if a design had ever been proposed for that empty half-moon space above the eastern door, what could it have been? The scenes above the doors on the front of the church show the Annunciation, the Crowning of Mary, and the Pieta. The 47th street side of the church shows another Mary-related scene, the Nativity. The Assumption might have completed her story – and that would have been very suitable, since Bishop Crane, who built the church, had a special devotion to Mary and to the Rosary. He could even have placed a Mary garden in the courtyard — invoking the medieval idea of the hortus conclusis or enclosed garden representing Mary’s virginity and purity – looking much like today’s Rectory garden with the MBS statues.

Instead, it was left to imaginations (and perhaps to future parishioners) to complete the decorations on that side of the building. We are reminded yet again, that we, like our magnificent church, are all “unfinished business” – ever adapting to new circumstances, never complete on this earth, and never, ever perfect.

SFDS front doors as shown in architectural drawings

Get Your Skates On

d009John Deady recalls Bishop McShea’s tales of roller skating around the basement of St. Francis de Sales church as a child in the early 1920s, when the McShea family owned the house that used to stand right behind the school at 928 Farragut Terrace, and before our basement became the Lower Church.

Roller skating became an official parish activity, briefly, during the Great Depression, at a time when a skating history notes that “Americans turned to roller-skating for an inexpensive form of entertainment. By the late 1930s, roller-skating ranked second only to bowling as the most popular participation sport….” A school auditorium could easily be multipurposed as a rink, so Catholic parishes across the country offered the diversion to their flocks. In some places, nuns in swirling habits had their own special skating hour after everyone else went home!

A 1936 notice in the Parish Monthly Bulletin explained how skating worked at Saint Francis de Sales:

 “We are gradually becoming a parish on wheels. The youngsters and the oldsters of the parish are ROLLER SKATING. Every Monday and Friday evening finds many of them cavorting and contorting in the Auditorium for their own enjoyment and the pleasure of the spectators. “The music goes around and around” and so do the skaters; it is surprising how few fall. The young boys and girls delight in circles, fancy figures, twists, turns, and waltzes, while their parents, dames and mesdames, graybeards and gallants, father and mothers circle and waltz after the manner of the pre-war days.” (that’s pre-World War I!)

“This parish activity should receive greater patronage from the boys and girls of the parish and greater encouragement from their parents. A splendid opportunity is afforded for the youth of the parish to meet with each other under favorable circumstances and to enjoy beneficial recreation. At the same time it need not be thought that it is only intended for the young. Doctors have recommended Roller Skating to cure and ward off the blues, arthritis, rheumatism, avoirdupois, high and low blood pressure, headaches, coughs, colds, and fever blisters. Its prophylactic value lies in the fact that, while roller skating, it is impossible to take ourselves too seriously in matters that are not important.”

 “We would enjoy seeing many more enjoy themselves. The parish has the best of new equipment for two hundred persons. Those attending are very sociable and the attendants, who are boys of the parish, see to it that good order is preserved and those who are learners or recapturing the spirit of childhood are helped and instructed.”       

“With the coming of colder weather, we hope that many will avail themselves of this parish activity. We would like it to be one of the social features of the parish. It is suggested that skating parties be formed and groups of friends come together to add to the enjoyment and pleasure of all concerned. Young and old are invited.”

Parish skating ended when the Auditorium was renovated in 1937 “at a considerable cost of money,” with a newly sanded, repaired, and painted floor. Entertainment changed to more sedate “Card and Radio” parties and dance “Socials.” The Catholic Bowling League started in Philadelphia in 1939 and our parish formed its own league in 1941.

Today, some find circular skating meditational. On the other side of the country, the pastime has an odd, lingering religious connection: in 2013, an abandoned Catholic church in San Francisco was turned into the “Church of 8 Wheels” roller disco “spreading rolligion around the world” — with signs at the entrance reminding that “many in the community still see this as a sacred place. Please be respectful.” It’s currently closed due to Covid, but outdoor roller skating is said to be making a comeback nationwide.

1936 roller skating 3

1936 roller skating 2

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Walk in The Woodlands

DSCN4406A walk around The Woodlands Cemetery (40th and Woodland) offers interesting glimpses into odd corners of our long parish story.  Click here for the St. Francis de Sales Woodlands tour map

winthrop smith (2)Turning right on the main path after you enter the gates, approaching the old carriage house, look for a tall obelisk with the name of Winthrop Smith, publisher of the celebrated McGuffey Readers, on the front. His son, also named Winthrop Smith, is listed on the back, with his first wife, who died in 1911. Our parish connection is with this Winthrop’s scandalous second wife: when the couple married in 1913, the well-connected protestant Philadelphia financier and member of the Union League, was aged 67 and Miss Margaret McMenamin, of 4303 Baltimore Avenue, was a 33 year old Catholic stenographer from his old banking firm. They were married quietly, on a weekday, at St. Francis de Sales by Reverend Maurice Cowl, a former Episcopalian priest, recently converted to Catholicism. The couple later had a daughter also named Margaret; her husband, Lieutenant Cmmdr Charles Monk, is buried beside the obelisk, but the two Margarets were not included in the family plot.

vetterleinContinuing around the outer asphalt drive, in section N, you’ll pass the family plot of Emma and Joseph Smallwood Vetterlein, who achieved the “American Dream.” They rented a prominent pew on the main aisle of our church in the early 1900s, had a house at 4212 Spruce Street, and an estate called Knollhurst, built in Radnor in 1898. Joseph was a partner in the Vetterlein & Co. family cigar business started by his father, Theodore Vetterlein, who emigrated from Germany, “poor, without friends or relatives,” took a job in a tobacco shop, and ultimately saved enough money to go into business for himself. By 1864 he was renowned as a “leading merchant of Philadelphia.” His sons Joseph and Herman eventually took over the family business. Herman, an officer of the American Catholic Historical Society, donated one of our dome windows.

dandurand refectory4Esther Poquet Dandurand and (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand– are buried opposite the enormous Thomas Evans obelisk on the VA side of Woodlands. Esther Poquet left France in 1838 as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Upon reaching New York, she left service to join her fate with young French adventurer and cook (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street. When Alexandre died in 1849, Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise. What’s their connection with our parish? They were the grandparents of our church architect, Henry Dagit, and it may have been this family heritage that sparked Henry’s awareness of French Byzantine Revival architecture and our patron saint.

DSCN6292Sheltered under a yew tree behind the Thomas Evans Obelisk, is a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother, marking the grave of Rose-Marie Simonis, a much-beloved Haitian teacher at SFDS school, who died of breast cancer in 2004. She lived at 4811 Windsor Ave., and her French husband, Eric, was the well-respected Sacristan of the church for several years under 12th Pastor, Father Roland; and 13th Pastor, Father Navit. SFDS School’s annual marathon used to wind through the cemetery to pay tribute at her gravesite. It’s still a good place for quiet contemplation!

Finally, back on the main path, working your way towards the exit, you’ll find a monument for Josephine Dandurand who fell in love with Charles (Karl) Dagit, the German tenant who lived above her family restaurant in the 1850s. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit, who would design our church as his family parish – he lived at 4529 Pine, rented a family pew, donated two dome windows, and his daughters are memorialized as angel statues in the back of our church.

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