Category: neighborhood

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.”

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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.

The Assumption of Mary Vietnamese Community

In 2016, the Vietnamese Community celebrated their fortieth anniversary at St. Francis de Sales.

Their history (translated) recalls that: “On April 30, 1975, with the collapse of South Vietnam, more than 130,000 Vietnamese left their homeland to seek freedom. Vietnamese refugees came to Philadelphia from refugee camps in Florida, Arkansas, California and Pennsylvania. Most came to Philadelphia from Indiantown Gap Camp, PA” (near Hershey).

The Philadelphia Archdiocese sponsored seven Vietnamese priests, who “were invited to St. Charles Seminary to learn American customs and English language, so that after three months of study, they could be appointed to the parishes they would serve.”

I002 IOct 5 1978 Father Annthony Vu Nu Huynh
Rev. Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh

In December 1975, Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh was appointed Assistant Priest at St. Francis de Sales Parish and Director of the Vietnamese Apostolate for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. His Vietnamese ministry started first at de Sales. Then, “in 1976, as the number of refugees grew, he began establishing communities in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties. Once his diocese was stabilized, he then helped small communities in neighboring locations, such as Wilmington, Reading, Allentown, Atlantic City and Camden.”

It was not an easy time: “in the early days, when everyone was a new refugee, the language was foreign, transportation was not available, many had to depend on American sponsors, there was a shortage of  Vietnamese food, Vietnamese markets were not available, and the communication between Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese was difficult.” A reunion Mass at St. Charles Seminary that first Christmas was bittersweet, with happy faces and sad memories to share.

Our parish helped with resettlement efforts. Monsignor Hilferty, who became Pastor in 1977, had served as Military Chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years from 1957 to 1977, so he understood the needs of immigrants and the challenges of starting over in a new place. Parishioner Betty Allen worked tirelessly to find housing for Vietnamese families – as well as newly-arriving Laotians, Cambodians, Koreans, and H’mong – many of whom were not Catholic. The Parish School began an ESL (English as a Second Language) program for children, who were soon able to participate in regular classes.

Until he passed away suddenly in 1990, Father Anthony worked diligently to insure that Vietnamese heritage survived in a new land, and children continued to learn their culture, religion, language, and customs. Today’s flourishing community of over 300 faithful from the tri-state area is a tribute to the success of his early efforts, as is the ordination of eight Vietnamese  priests and a deacon.

A Day in the Countryside

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Before the automobile age, how did people in the neighbourhood take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life?

In 1891, de Sales parishioners who wanted to enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon in the countryside just stepped out the door of our first combination chapel/school building (today’s auditorium) and crossed forty-seventh street!

At that time, most of the 4700 block of Windsor/Warrington was an open field; while the 4700 block of Warrington/Baltimore, belonging to Mary R. Wilson, was occupied by a stone farmhouse, a barn, and fruit trees. More fields stretched out beyond, to 50th street. On the other side of Baltimore Ave., the grounds of the Twaddell Estate, with 1640s mansion, spring house, antique rose bushes, and fruit trees, sat in the middle of a swathe of property stretching from from 44th to 48th Street; Baltimore Avenue to Lombard (today Larchwood), with other farms beyond it.

The area grew quickly. By 1911, when our church was completed, only part of the Wilson farm remained on this side of Baltimore Ave. Its former 48th Street edge was accessorized with an eyebrow-like row of new houses – including two at the end that were moved around the corner onto Baltimore Avenue in 1905 to make room for a the new Calvary M.E. Church! Neat lines of tract housing quickly filled in  the rest of the neighbourhood. Even the 275-year-old Twaddell mansion – which had survived both the Revolution and the Civil War – would be demolished in 1921, for new construction.

Our parish bought the remains of the Wilson farm in 1920, and third grade and commercial classes (business skills for those not attending high school) were held in the 3-storey stone farmhouse for a few years as the school continued to expand. The parish also held several Lawn Fetes and Carnivals on the grounds. A 1925 event featured the Philadelphia Firemen’s Band and the SFDS Boys Battalion Band. The prize for a lottery drawing was “a Chest of Linen Service.”

The parish had planned to build a new school building on the Wilson land, but in 1926, Bishop Crane changed his mind, and bought and demolished several houses on Farragut Terrace  to make room for  a new wing added to the original school building. The Wilson farm property was sold to  Brown & Sons developers, who, by 1927, advertised a newly-built Automobile Showroom at 4730 Baltimore Ave.; with a theatre (the Byrd), apartment building, and 17 stores in the planning.

 

 

Where Babies Came From: Misericordia Hospital

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Families used to be large and the University of Pennsylvania Hospital was small and far away. So where were all those local babies born?

In 1913, as the neighbourhood grew, Archbishop Prendergast recognized a need and prevailed on the Sisters of Mercy to open a Catholic hospital in West Philadelphia at 54th and Cedar. Reverend Mother (Patricia Waldron) commissioned architect Edwin F. Durang to design an elegant six-story building “flanked by four diagonal wings, the whole forming a St. Andrew’s cross. ” Nursing sisters began training at other Mercy hospitals and also locally at the College of Pharmacy (today’s University of the Sciences) and the Polyclinic Hospital (formerly 20th and South). Our parish was one of several to help with fundraisers.

Misericordia  Hospital was finished and dedicated on June 9, 1918, by Bishop McCort, assisted by our then pastor, Monsignor Crane. The Philadelphia Inquirer announced that “preceding the dedicatory exercises, will be a big parade of the various West Philadelphia parishes,” and “Red Cross units from West Philadelphia parishes will be in line, attired in uniform.”  Later, a “fully equipped motor ambulance” would be presented by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish American Fraternal organization.

Local parishes continued their support through the early years: some of the attractions at a 1921 Lawn Fete included baby clothes and a baby beauty contest; a lamp and lampshade booth; ice cream; a doll table; and a performance by our St. Francis de Sales Boys’ Military Band.

In the beginning, the hospital was prepared “to take care of sick and wounded soldiers and sailors of the United States and nurse them back to health.” The First World War was just  ending as the hospital opened, but the great Influenza epidemic of 1918 was about to begin.

And then there were the babies. Generations of them. Father Hand and his twin brother were both born at Misericordia. Jeannie Jordan and Beth Ellerby were also born there, and Jeannie notes that her father used to feel that after the births of his seven children, he’d paid enough to have a personal stake in the place! Many other local families likely felt the same.

Today, families are smaller, but Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, as it is now known, still serves the region: its “commitment to West Philadelphia is as strong as ever and is an expression of our core values which are rooted in our history, define our present, and direct our future.”

Parish Night at the Byrd

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

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

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

          De Sales Night returned to the Bellevue the following year.

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