Category: neighborhood

The Murder of Doctor Bull

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Lorraine Bull (Mix)

When Dr. George W. Bull, a wealthy New York widower, wanted to remarry in 1885, his adult children feared that he would “deed or try to give away his property,” so they attempted to have him committed to an insane asylum. He and his new wife decided that they’d rather live in Philadelphia.

They apparently were content enough for the next thirteen years, spending most of that time at 825 South 48th Street, within the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales Parish. Bull, retired, was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish Catholic fraternal organization), and may have been an amateur painter with a penchant for religious themes. Sadly, he was also said to be an alcoholic, which is supposed to have killed him at age 64, though the death certificate read “aortic stenosis” (heart disease).

bulletin 1908During his final moments, around 1:00 AM on June 14, 1898,  his wife, Lorraine sent messengers to fetch the family doctor and “Father O’Neill, the pastor of St. Francis Catholic Church…of which Dr. Bull and his wife were members...” SFDS first Pastor, Reverend Joseph O’Neill, arrived just “in time to minister the last rites of extreme unction,” but the doctor, returning  from a Knights of Columbus meeting, was minutes late. Bull was buried from our parish (the building that today contains the school auditorium, which was then the chapel; the church was not yet built).

Soon afterwards, Bull’s son-in-law started a rumor that Lorraine poisoned her husband. He provided juicy speculative details to Thomas Wanamaker’s North American newspaper, which relentlessly pursued Lorraine in a series of sensational stories.

When the case came to trial, Lorraine was defended by Anthony A. Hirst, Esq. (the same lawyer who arranged the archdiocesan purchase of land to build St.Francis de Sales church).

The prosecution produced a pharmacist’s assistant from Osterland’s Drug Store, 46th and Baltimore (a used-furniture store today), who identified Lorraine as the customer who purchased mercury insecticide and “nervously” signed the name “Lillie Stokes” in the poison register. Lorraine swore that she had never been to Osterland’s. The neighbor next door at 823 South 48th — the other half of the twin — counter-testified that “Lillie Stokes” was the name of the black servant girl she had sent to that drug store to purchase insecticide on the 14th, and the register showed that the purchase was made at 5:00 PM – long after Bull had died. Under cross examination, the pharmacist’s assistant admitted that Bull’s son-in-law had come to the store and pointed out the entry in the register as “suspicious.” The servant girl could not be located.

The judge ordered Dr. Bull’s body to be exhumed from Holy Cross Cemetery, and when no poison was found, Lorraine Mix (she had, by this time, remarried) was declared innocent.

Lorraine sued Thomas Wanamaker and the North American Newspaper for libel and slander in 1904, and was awarded a fortune in damages, but this was not reported by local press. The powerful Wanamaker (son of the retail giant) then had the judgment against him quietly overturned as a mistrial – in a bold filing, modestly tucked into an obscure court record.

Meanwhile, Lorraine’s stepson-in-law worked on trying to have Bull’s will declared invalid.

Careful hints left by reporters that everyone acting in Lorraine’s defense was Catholic, intriguingly suggest a possible undercurrent of anticatholicism in the saga – which would have been consistent to the period.

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The Story Between the Lines

mccarron kitchen (2)An apparently routine notation in the parish Baptismal register hides a sad neighborhood tale of long ago.

It began with a classic parenting dilemma of breastfeeding versus bottle. In the early 1900s, the advertisement of new easy-to-clean glass bottles with soft rubber nipples, coupled with ready access to dairy milk, made bottle feeding seem like the “modern” way. However, public health campaigns advised that fresh cow milk – unregulated, unprocessed, and potentially infected with tuberculosis  — could be unsafe: “a few bacteria in milk as it leaves the farm can become millions by the time it reaches the consumer in the city…“ so mothers were warned that milk must always be heated in order to “pasteurize it at home to kill the germs it contains.

On Monday, May 13, 1907, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “Mrs. William McCarron, 25 years old, was awakened by the cries of her baby early in the morning. The mother went herself to the kitchen of her home at 1424 Hanson Street (near 49th and Woodland), and made preparations to heat a bottle of milk. The fire on the stove was low, so she decided to expedite matters by using coal oil (kerosene!). Clinging to her skirts, her two-year-old son William heard a loud shriek and… he was pushed out of the way of the blaze. Mrs. McCarron…attempted to run to the front door, but she tripped over her skirt and fell in the kitchen doorway. Just at that moment, her husband who is a motorman (trolley driver), entered the house…He ran to a bedroom and filled his arms with quilts and blankets. These he threw over his wife, extinguishing the flames. She was hurried in a patrol of the Sixty-fifth Street and Woodland avenue station to the University Hospital, where she is in critical condition.

 During a temporary return of consciousness, she murmured to her husband, sitting anxiously at her bedside, ‘Have the baby christened today, for fear something should happen to him.’ This wish was accordingly carried out yesterday afternoon, (May 12), when the child received the name of David in the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church…” Before the age of antibiotics, there was little that doctors could do for the mother’s wounds. She died on May 21, 1907, and was buried from our parish a few months before the cornerstone was laid for the present church building.

The family appears to have moved elsewhere in the city after that, but a cross-reference, neatly penned below baby  David’s baptismal record, notes that he was back, living at 5140 Catherine Street, when he married Amelia Nigro of 1140 South Wilton Street at SFDS in 1938. Today, the house where the long-ago fire occurred, is an empty lot, and a family’s tragedy and resilience lie buried in a bland two-line Latin record in a dusty parish ledger. How many other stories does it contain?

Weekly Parish Dances

tuesday dances 1946 (2)The 1940’s and 50’s were part of a big dance hall era,” Joe Ruane recalls, and dancing was the popular pastime: “our crowd would go to St Joe’s (his home parish in Collingdale) on Sunday night; de Sales Tuesday and Friday night. On Wednesday night I would go to the Carousel Hall in Clifton Heights which my father owned which had a big band…and then I would…go to the Arcade Hall on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue where my friends hung out. Saturday would be Holy Cross, Springfield.” 

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Saint Francis de Sales offered regular Tuesday night dances in the parish auditorium for all the “young people of the parish and their friends.”  A typical 1950 Monthly Bulletin notice advertised: Music for the occasion is played by the well known and very popular orchestra of George Sommer. Admission is seventy-five cents. Good music and a very beautiful auditorium provide the atmosphere for a very enjoyable evening. All the young folks of the parish (no High School students) are cordially invited to attend these Tuesday evening Socials. We would like to see many of our young married couples attending and can assure them of a very enjoyable evening.”

George Sommer, with his “Big Band” sound, was known as “one of the best dance bands in the city and one of the most popular.” Information about the band appeared in Billboard Magazine, and they played at ballrooms across the city.

What about the High School students? They had their own dance night at de Sales auditorium every Friday. John Deady recalls that “I attended the Friday night dances. Admission $.50. On the stair case going up to the stage (rectory side) is a closet. There was a turntable in the closet where 45 rpm records were stacked. Cokes were sold at the kitchen on the other side of the stage. Did not go to the Tuesday night dances. Understand it was a wide age group that attended them.”

The Tuesday and Friday groups likely catered to slightly different musical tastes. A 1959 Parish Bulletin opined: “Older people often express disapproval of rock and roll because it is so noisy and so violent, and the music accompanying it seems so unbearably monotonous. But for oldsters to be unsympathetic toward rock and roll for these reasons does not make it morally wrong.”

Joe Ruane’s father, incidentally, was a disk jockey for the dances in Collingdale, and Joe recalls a big event there: “a pre-publication test run of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1953.” However, Catholic high school students were discouraged from joining the dance floor at American Bandstand, Dick Clark’s famous TV dance program, broadcast from its 4548 Market Street TV Studio (Today’s Enterprise Center for minority entrepreneurs). That was still considered too “fast!”

 

 

A Trip to the Movies

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Belmont Theatre, Philadelphia PA in 1920 (Creative Commons)

The 1928 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin offers a description of a long-ago outing, supposedly written by one “Bad Boy Brady… in the Third Grade at SFDS School:”

Our sister told us this morning in school to write…about something we did during the Easter holidays…I thought of the treat that… Joe Forte gave us on Easter Monday…Joe…lives in our parish (4839 Larchwood) and has charge of a lot of movies in West Philadelphia. He has a big green car and wears a soft hat….So one day (Father Canney) met Joe Forte in Mr. Rody’s barber shop (1213 S. 50th Street) where they get their haircut, and asked him to give the school a treat…”

We all met at the school…and marched over to the Belmont Theatre on Fifty-second and Market Street. There were over eight hundred of us…Me and Joe Rody and Cornelius McLaughlin walked over together, and talked about marbles and baseball players. Joe said he wants to be an outfielder like Al Simmons, but Cornelius said he wants to help his father on the Ice Cream truck. I thought I would like to be a cop… A couple of cops who knew Father Canney kept the green lights on so that we could all pass across Chestnut and Walnut Streets without any break in the line. A…man named Frank Yates was in charge of the Belmont Theatre and he certainly gave us a great treat…”

Imagine friendly local police, in dark uniforms with shiny buttons, officiously stopping horse carts, delivery trucks, and Model T Fords for the neighbourhood children. The long parade filed past James Beers’ Drugstore at 47th and Baltimore, and Nace Hopple’s Radio Repair shop at 47th and Cedar; then up Cedar and along Fiftieth Street, “the head of their line of march turning into Market Street as the end approached to Pine Street” (that’s ten blocks!). The Belmont Theatre, which opened in 1914, seated 1,000 people. A trendy Philadelphia-born fast-food eatery – the Horn & Hardart Automat — was next door, and doubtless, some little faces covetously eyed its interesting prepared foods behind little clear coin-operated windows.

Movie treats for parish children ended in 1934 when Cardinal Dougherty issued a pastoral letter, prohibiting Catholics from attending the movies due to cinematic violence and bad language. Boycotts worked: within a few years, the industry cleaned up its offerings and the Catholic audience trickled back – but by then, Father Canney was gone.

dougherty movie boycott
Philadelphia Inquirer June 9, 1934

A Place For Hope

 

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Reverend Thomas J. Hilferty      (9th Pastor 1977-1989)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city churches faced tough times as population shifted to the suburbs. At St. Francis de Sales, registration dropped steadily from 4,233 families in 1963, to just 831 families by 1983, raising serious concerns about our finances and our future.

But a church is not a container for ancient rituals; it’s a meeting place for people striving to live their faith. So our small parish ignored its own worries for a larger sense of purpose, when wave after wave of desperately fleeing refugees swept into Philadelphia after the Vietnam War.

Our Lower Church became the archdiocesan “Mother Church” for incoming Vietnamese Catholics, with Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh, himself a refugee, as chaplain. Our then Pastor, Father Hilferty, who had been a travelling Navy chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years, understood the needs of the new arrivals. He also had a military-trained practical outlook, so that in 1980, Philadelphia Magazine reported that “Over the last five years this parish has become one of the most successful centers for Indo-Chinese refugee resettlement in the area.”

Philadelphia Magazine singled out longtime parishioner Betty Allen as “a one-woman resettlement agency” with a goal to “get the immigrants employed and off welfare and out of Stoneleigh Court (an underheated, barely livable shelter at 46th and Walnut) as fast as they can.” In 2012, Liz Campion recalled that Betty Allen’s “spiritual life was connected to the refugees of every major war or famine over the past forty years. She also volunteered services to the mentally ill, people recovering from addiction and to folks who needed job training after prison. She helped open a school to teach English as a second (or third, or fourth) language to her beloved refugees. She made sure the curriculum included classes to help parents better help their school-age children with homework.” And she invited people to use their various talents to get involved.

Lloyd Romero was point-person for Catholic Social Services. Liz recalls the work of local realtor Arthur Kane, who “moved people into affordable housing and through to home and business ownership and a stake in the American Dream.” Philadelphia Magazine mentions the efforts of “Woodland Presbyterian Church…and the West Philly Refugee Center of the Living Word Community on Chester Avenue,” as well as a “Jewish businessman who recently put up $1,000 for a Christmas party and blankets…” Joint efforts to help immigrants of all faiths, brought the neighborhood together.

Today, our parish is still relatively small, and the budget is tight, but as the world changes yet again, new needs are out there. Do we still have heart?

A Well-Connected Family

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John and Wilhelmina Ruane (center) celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1956, with their children and their spouses and the 20 grandchildren at that time. Joe is fourth from the right, at the edge of the door in the back row.

Longtime parishioners Joe and Nancy Ruane are “well-connected” at Saint Francis de Sales parish. Joe’s grandparents were early parishioners, and Joe’s electrician father and grandfather worked on our electrical connections – including installing the two long chandeliers at the front of the church and the first sound system.

1943 ruane baltimore aveJohn F. Ruane and Wilhelmina Halberstadt Ruane married in 1906 and appear to have moved to the parish sometime before 1920. Joe writes that by the 1930s, “the couple lived at 720 S. 49th Street, and had an electrical shop at 4830 Baltimore Avenue…” He notes that his father became a partner in the business after the Second World War, and “took over the business when my grandfather retired in the late 50’s. They did a lot of the electrical work for De Sales when Bishop Lamb was pastor” from 1936 to 1951.

sfds bookstore 1948
The SFDS Parish Bookstore was located at 4726 Baltimore Avenue

Joe says “My grandmother worked one day in their store keeping the books, and worked other days at a religious goods store in 4700 block of Baltimore Ave, next to the then Byrd theater (this could have been the SFDS Parish Bookstore and Lending Library at 4726 Baltimore – today’s Vientiane Restaurant).  She was the author of a book sold there, “A is for Angels” which went through the alphabet with a religious word for each letter.”

Joe further recalls “My parents lived in Delaware County after they got married and raised our family in Collingdale, but as an infant, after being baptized in the hospital, the sacrament of baptism was supplied, or completed, at St. Francis de Sales a few weeks later. As children my parents used to bring us into the city to watch the De Sales May Procession during the time of Bishop Lamb.”

Joe’s guardian angel moment came when he helped in the family electrical store in 1947/1948: “One day I dropped a screw from a toaster on the floor” and  “noticed through a crack in the floor a fire in the basement. Luckily the fire was taken care of quickly by the fire station at 50th and Baltimore (today’s Dock Street Brewing Co.) since three stores on the corner of 49th and Baltimore all shared the same basement, divided by thin wooden partitions.

Joe notes that as an adult, “ I moved to the parish in late 1968, married and moved to Roxborough in 1971, and returned here in 1973, where Nancy and I raised our daughter who was married in St. Francis De Sales in 2000” — connecting our parish through multiple generations!

ruane 1
Joe’s grandfather, John F Ruane and grandmother, Wilhelmina Halberstadt Ruane at their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 1956. The priest on the left is Rev. Philip Bruckner, C.M., of the Miraculous Medal Association in Germantown, Joe’s cousin and nephew of his grandmother; the priest on the right is Msgr. Charles B. McGinley, pastor of Holy Child parish, north Broad Street, now Our Lady of Hope where Sr. Gertrude Borres R.A, is Director of Evangelization. Ruane Electric had done the electrical work, including lighting, for the Holy Child Shrine of the Nativity.

Early Parishioners

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Undated letter shown in 1940 Parish Jubilee book

 

 

 

 

SFDS Parish legend suggests that a long-ago letter written to Archbishop Ryan by an Irish servant girl inspired the creation of our parish. The original of that undated letter has long since vanished, and the name Mary Bryan is common enough to be so far untraceable in available archives. A careful reading of early histories shows that the letter was always considered more of a heartwarming artifact than a mandate.

 

So who really were our original parishioners?

They are said to have been Irish immigrants, and this is largely true — including a few militant Irish nationalists. However, Philadelphia also had a large Germanic population before the First World War, reflected in parish names such as Dagit, Lippe, Schwoerer, Engel, Vetterlein, and Speckman. Most Blessed Sacrament was mostly Irish and Italian: their 1917 history book notes that the pastor could speak to Italians “in their native tongue.” Photographs show African Americans in both parishes from early days.

Many houses in our immediate neighbourhood were constructed for middle-class professionals. Early parishioners included our church architect; the Maitre’d at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel; a renowned female poet; the owner of a fleet of oyster schooners; an electrician (Joe Ruane’s grandfather!); a railroad  foreman; a police chief; a movie theatre magnate; a liquor wholesaler; and several doctors, construction contractors, bankers, and realtors. We also had teachers, saloon keepers, and store owners.

Professions of younger parishioners, just starting out,  are a little more mystifying in the modern world: milliner (made hats);  milk salesman (delivered milk door-to-door); coal wholesaler (houses were heated by coal-fired burners); gas inspector (light fixtures were often dual-purpose gas-over-electric, since electricity was still new); telephone company auditor (landlines were new technology); stenographer (used special handwriting called shorthand to write down dictated information). And then there were the many local live-in servant girls.

What did all these folks do in their spare time?

In days before television, tablets, and smartphones, people socialized more. The parish was a community centre, at times offering religious clubs, bowling, roller skating, and radio and movie parties. Newspapers reported frequent “Euchre” card parties in the neighbourhood. Every institution seemed to have “Lawn Fetes” or other fundraisers during the year, and Catholics enthusiastically supported Catholic institutions from hospitals, to schools and nursing homes. The school offered youth organizations and activities. With fewer cars, people found entertainment nearby, and friendly rivalries among local churches helped to knit together a large, strong community – just as the dropped stitches of lost parishes and modern distractions have left holes today.

Little Chapel in the Big Woods

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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!

Fireworks

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Here’s a long-ago neighbourhood tale for the holiday weekend.

Did you know that our church had an important connection with the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel before our annual  De Sales Night event existed?

Jean Baptiste Revelli, from France, was an early “pew holder” (parishioner who rented a specific seat) in our parish. Known simply as “Baptiste,” he was also the Assistant Manager and Maitre d’Hotel at the Bellevue from its earliest days.

When the Bellevue Hotel became the Bellevue-Stratford in 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a fulsome article, reassuring everyone that: “Baptiste Revelli will still be manager of all the large dinners and look after the menu. ‘Baptiste’ is a personal friend of every society man, woman, and child in the city…In addition to knowing the men and women of prominence here, Baptiste is a walking social register of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities and he is familiar with most of the titled persons of Europe who visit America or have social connections here. He has the reputation of knowing more of what is needed to make a private dinner or public banquet pass off successfully than any man in America, and his ideas as regards table decorations have won him worldwide fame.

Baptiste was married in our parish in August, 1910 – around the time that he donated one of the tall stained glass windows to the ongoing church construction. His bride, Miss Catherine Hayes, was his second wife; his first wife had died thirteen years previously. They lived at 4609 Cedar Avenue.

Sadly, being a star did not protect against flying stars. On July 8, 1926, the Reading Times reported that “Jean Baptiste Revelli came to Philadelphia in the Centennial year of American Independence and met death at an event commemorating the Sesquicentennial Anniversary…when an aerial bomb (rocket) struck him in the chest at the close of a fireworks display in Clark Park.”

Aged 75, the “genial white-haired” Baptiste  had retired from the Bellevue just a year before. In his time, he had “waited on kings and presidents… from President Arthur to President Wilson, General Pershing, King Albert and Queen Elizabeth, of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, Lloyd George and Clemenceau.” He was buried from our church.

A Woodlands Connection

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Two monuments at The Woodlands cemetery and two long-ago love stories offer family insights about the architect of our church.

In 1838, a rustic young Frenchwoman named Esther Poquet set sail for America as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Esther was not, perhaps, a model employee: upon reaching New York, she fell in love with a young French adventurer and cook named (Pierre) dandurand refectory4Alexandre Dandurand, left service, and the two were soon married. They moved to Baltimore, and, eventually, to Philadelphia. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street called Cafe Tortoni, described by one newspaper reporter as “The best eating-house in Philadelphia…much frequented by editors, authors and the better class of men about town”  and known for its excellent wine  cellar. When Alexandre died in 1849, his wife Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise.

What does any of this have to do with our church?

Another romance.

The Dandurands’ daughter Josephine fell in love with the family’s German tenant, Charles (Karl) Dagit, who lived above the  restaurant in the 1850s. Josephine’s very French mother did not approve of this French-German alliance, but the couple refused to be discouraged. They courted for several years, until they were finally allowed to marry in 1858. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit.

DSCN4409In the 1840s, when The Woodlands (former estate of William Hamilton, from a different Hamilton family) opened as a cemetery at 40th and Woodland Ave., it was promoted as “the most beautiful rural cemetery in the United States.” Henry Dagit’s grandmother Esther  must have been impressed, since she chose the location for her husband’s 1849 burial (Section G 332-334). When her daughter — Henry’s mother Josephine —  had to bury her three-year-old baby in 1882, she chose a spot at Woodlands not far from her own parents (Section I 555-557), and where she and her husband would both later be buried.

DSCN4406Perhaps visits to Woodlands through the years alerted Henry Dagit to the growing neighbourhoods on this side of the river, so that in 1904 he built a house at 4527 Pine Street for his own young family — and, a few years later, he embarked on the construction of our church. And perhaps his European family background gave Henry Dagit a particular affinity for the French and Swiss heritage of our patron saint – and inspired the many French and German artistic references in our church.