Category: neighborhood

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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A Room With A View

DSCN6647Constance O’Hara’s 1955 biography Heaven was Not Enough, chronicled a personal crisis of faith in an eerily relatable setting.

Born near Rittenhouse Square in 1905, Constance came from a well-connected, well-to-do Philadelphia Irish Catholic family in an “age of immense security and serenity.” Her father was the physician for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and local convents; her great uncle was the first Bishop of Scranton. Her family were also linked, in some way, with Eleanor Donnelly – the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church” who contributed our Blessed Mother altar.

That solid world began to turn hollow in May 1914, when Constance made her First Holy Communion — two months before the start of World War I. Her father, rejected by every branch of the military due to his fragile health, then exhausted himself tending patients through the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Inspired by Blessed Thérèse, the “Little Flower,” who would be canonized in 1925, he quietly carried her relic and “offered up” his sufferings as his health slowly deteriorated.

Our neighborhood enters the story at this point: Constance writes that “my mother, with the realities of life swamping her, returned to the precepts of her ancestors – a belief in bricks and mortar. We bought a vast house on Baltimore Avenue (number 4331 per parish records), its front windows flooded with sunshine, its back rooms dark and damp. It faced Clark Park which seemed like the wilds of the country. The oak paneling was solid and magnificent, as my mother pointed out; the furnaces consumed tons of coal and we were never warm. Over this uneasy home was suspended a mortgage bearing a staggering interest rate...”

DSCN3138 (2)I still went to Sunday Mass with my father, often to the ornate Church of St. Francis de Sales where Bishop Michael Crane met us at the door, saying in a booming cheerful voice that maddened me: “It’s time you got a nice Irish Catholic boy to marry that one. I’ve just the lad in mind. I’ll send him over tonight...”

Constance was not receptive. She notes that the years after WWI and during Prohibition were “an ugly period in which to be young.…” Cynical youth like herself  “were going to be honest about everything, and as the old moral values were based on hypocrisy we would dispense with them” and “just get as much pleasure from money and our senses as possible before it all ended in the final defeat of death…” while an off-kilter world careened towards the Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII.

After an unfortunate visit to an unnamed confessor at SFDS when her father died in 1926 – she wanted comfort, but was scolded, instead, for “indulging in self-pity” — Constance rejected the Church for many years. Nonetheless, one day in 1933, when “the sun poured in the windows of my room, and the tall trees in Clark Park had never seemed so beautiful...” she wrote  a “profoundly Catholic play” called The Years of the Locusts, about an enclosed convent of Irish Benedictine nuns surviving in occupied Belgium during the First World War, based on real diaries. The play was performed locally at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Tree and was picked up for a run in London, but the beginning of World War II derailed those expansive plans.

1943 photo fr. flatley in uniformA long period of small achievement followed, punctuated with illness and depression, before Constance reconciled with the Church in the early 1950s. This was due, in part, to Reverend William Flatley, recently returned to SFDS from service in WWII, who gently encouraged her to offer up her personal suffering for American soldiers then fighting in Korea – and she wrote her healing memoir. She died in 1985, but her story remains like a leaded-glass window to another age, offering odd glimpses of a familiar,  unfamiliar landscape though its diamond panes.

constance

Henry Amlung and the Motor Bandits

amlung furs

Today, neighbors routinely fret about parking spaces and inattentive drivers, but in the early 1900s,  parishioners like Henry Amlung (who owned a fur store in a time when furs and cars were both desirable luxuries) – and city government – had to adjust to some “new normal”  challenges at the dawn of the automotive age.

On February 11, 1919, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s front page reported an innovative crime wave: “Motor Bandits Get Furs Worth $5000; Terrorize W. Phila.” The news story continued:  “Motor bandits — believed by the police to have been the same who were frustrated in an evident plot to hold up storekeepers in the vicinity of Sixty-second and Race Streets…made a $5000 haul just twenty-four hours later from the fur store of Henry T. Amlung at 4810 Baltimore avenue.” (today, an empty lot behind a wooden fence).

“Discovery of the thieves in the very act of transferring furs from the store to a waiting automobile led to an alarm which saved the balance of the stock, valued at close to $50,000…”

“Mrs. Letitia Hanganer, who occupies an apartment on the third floor of 4808 Baltimore Avenue, directly adjoining the Amlung establishment, first heard the robbers at work, but thought it was Amlung trying to enter his store and for a few moments returned to bed. She had been attracted to her window by the noise of someone in the adjoining sideyard below. She thought Amlung had locked the store up leaving his key inside, and was trying to re-enter by the window.”

“A few minutes later she was again attracted by the same noise, this time accompanied by the subdued voices of men. She returned to the window and for a moment 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…Mrs. Hanganer …awakened William Brooke, who conducts a tailoring establishment on the first floor of 4808 Baltimore avenue, and he ran to a second-floor window, shouting at the thieves.”

“Without abandoning the bundle of furs they then had in their arms the men dashed for their car, clambered in and fled.”

Police, on foot, stopped a trolley driver, who “saw the car drive east on Baltimore avenue as far as Forty-fifth street, at which point it might either have turned or continued on toward the central part of the city.” The police couldn’t chase them without vehicles! The paper reported that “an interesting development of the day was the loan to the police of the station at Fifty-fifth and Pine Streets of two fast automobiles for the purpose of waging war upon the motor bandits…” by local garage owners, but it wasn’t enough, and “motor bandits” just became bolder.

It wasn’t until the end of the following year, on December 23, 1920, that the Inquirer reported “Philadelphia’s Christmas presents for motor bandits are ready..: 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 sawed-off shotguns were thought to be a kinder and gentler approach to crimefighting than the submachine guns proposed in New York City to deal with its similar automotive crime wave.

Sadly, it came too late for Henry Amlung, a member of the Holy Name Society and Knight of Columbus – he died a month after the incident, of “cardiac decompensation,” possibly weakened by influenza, and, perhaps, by worry. He was buried from our parish in an “auto funeral” (with an automotive, rather than horse-drawn, hearse and procession of cars driving from SFDS to Holy Cross cemetery) on March 29, 1919.

Remembering the Past: Influenza 1918

influenza news clip bulletin oct 5 1918
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin October 5, 1918

A History Mystery column about the 1918 influenza pandemic published in July 2014, pondered: “Imagine not being allowed to go to church in a time of troubles…”

Well…now we know.

Influenza arrived in Philadelphia in September 1918, aboard a Navy ship coming from Boston. It spread quickly in the Navy Yard, then at a military parade in Center City attended by 200,000 people, promoting sales of Liberty Bonds to fund the war effort – a parade at which our parish was particularly well represented due to the school’s very successful Bond drive.

All public and parochial schools in Philadelphia closed for three weeks afterwards, to try to stem the epidemic. Medical personnel were still overseas aiding in the war effort, so IHM teaching sisters volunteered as nurses, tirelessly tending bedsides of many races, ethnicities, and religions, especially in the MBS boundaries.

Police closed places of worship citywide from October 6 through October 26, 1918, with few exceptions. Our church was one of these: the October 5, 1918 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that: “Placards have been posted within the confines of the Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, announcing that by permission of the Board of Health, masses will be celebrated tomorrow morning in front of St. Francis’ Church, 47th St. and Springfield Ave. at 7:30, 9:30 and 11 A.M.” The outdoor Mass on the front steps “did not meet with general approval,” however (curious phrasing!), and the practice ended after October 13. Catholics were exhorted to pray in their homes for a speedy end, both to the epidemic and to the war.

October 1918 was a rough month for SFDS. The parish Death Register recorded eight deaths in September; then jumped to 40 between October 6 and October 31, 1918. Fatalities tapered off again to five in November, nine in December, and a few more in January. In the end, parish losses from influenza probably totaled about 60 people; the names of the deceased are recorded in the parish ledger, but not all of the death certificates are available to confirm the cause.

Who were the victims? Geographically, most of the deaths in our parish occurred in the less-prosperous section south of Baltimore Avenue. Victims were married and single; many were in their 30s; a few were infants and children. Most had been born in Philadelphia, many to immigrant parents. The death certificates provide a snapshot of their employment: a stenographer; a policeman; a sheet metal worker; a number of housewives and several salesmen including a cigar salesman; a female Bolter at J.G. Brill’s trolley manufacturing co.; a telegraph operator; a young lady in the women’s Naval Reserve; several bartenders; a soldier; a watchman; and a motor inspector among others. Above Baltimore Avenue, victims included the Assistant Treasurer of Standard Steel Co. and the Treasurer of the Broad Street Theatre.

The epidemic slowed down considerably by November 11, when the First World War officially ended.  Catholic sisters (who tended bedsides), Catholic seminarians (who dug graves), and clergy in Philadelphia were especially commended by the city for their heroic efforts during the crisis.  Worldwide, more people died of influenza than died in World War I, and more people died of influenza in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the world – a dubious distinction for our fair city!

 

DSCN6422 (2)Coronavirus 2020

Rectory offices have been closed since March 13 and Masses are being celebrated privately. Find Morning Prayer livestreamed on the Matt Guckin Facebook page at 7 AM (Monday to Friday) and 9 AM (Saturday and Sunday); Night Prayer at 9 PM.  

HOLY WEEK AND EASTER SERVICES TO BE CELEBRATED PRIVATELY. On March 25, 2020, The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Decree in Time of Covid 19 (II) stating that “Given that the date of Easter cannot be transferred, in the countries which have been struck by the disease and where restrictions around the assembly and movement of people have been imposed, Bishops and priests may celebrate the rites of Holy Week without the presence of the people and in a suitable place, avoiding concelebration and omitting the sign of peace. The faithful should be informed of the beginning times of the celebrations so that they can prayerfully unite themselves in their homes. Means of live (not recorded) telematic broadcasts can be of help….”

SFDS Holy Week 2020 Services, celebrated privately,  will be available on Youtube and Facebook:

April 5 Palm Sunday Mass at 10:15 AM

Thursday April 9 Mass at 7:00 PM

Friday April 10 Passion at 3:00 PM

Sunday April 12 Easter Sunday Mass at 10:15 AM

Thomas V. Lilly: Human Cork

DSCN6400 (2)SFDS has had its share of “quirky” personalities through the years, but, as far as we are aware, only one who was described as cork-like or “corky”!!

The story of parishioner and Knight of Columbus Thomas V. Lilly seems at first unremarkable: he was born and grew up in Philadelphia, left school after eighth grade, and started as a draftsman in a machine shop, according to the census – possibly employed by his brother-in-law, James Dunton, a Machine Shop Superintendent. In 1897, the two men shared a patent for a bicycle bell. At some point, Lilly joined the Dunton household and moved with his sister and brother-in-law to 920 South 50th Street, where he would spend most of the rest of his life – first with the Duntons and then on his own — until he transferred to a nursing home shortly before he died.

Lilly dreamed of escaping from machine shop work, though, so when Cedar Park opened at 50th and Baltimore in 1911, he took an appointment as its first Park Superintendent. Collier’s magazine reports this left him time for hobbies: “Lilly was an amateur boxer, professional tap dancer and amateur diver before he became a cork. It happened on his fifty-fifth birthday when skeptical friends bound his ankles, knees and wrists with sash cord and tossed him— fully clothed—into a swimming pool. Lilly shucked off the ropes, undressed (to his trunks), wrung out his wet clothes, stored them on his stomach, floated around for a bit, then dressed and swam to the pool ladder.”

Lilly kept escaping. In 1932, he made the news with an exhibition of floating and diving, as “the 65-year-old natator (swimmer) who is still able to show the youngsters a few tricks about the water sport.” Collier’s Magazine reported in 1948 that “Thomas Vincent Lilly of Philadelphia…recently celebrated his eighty-second birthday by asking his neighbors to throw him, bound and gagged, off a diving board. They obliged. Thomas Vincent wiggled out of the ropes in one minute and five seconds. Lilly, a pensioned city employee, modestly discounts any element of risk. “I can’t sink,” he explains. ‘I float all day without twitching a muscle. Doctors have examined me plenty of times but they can’t account for my corkiness.’

 In November 1950, Lilly’s obituary noted that he “was famous for his aquatic feats, and demonstrated his ‘Houdini’ rope escape trick in the West Branch YMCA pool two years ago.” Parishioner Joe Ruane, whose Dad had an Electrical shop at 4830 Baltimore Avenue, offers “I don’t know anything about Thomas Lilly, per se. I do recall the legend of a person who did Houdini escapes at the YMCA which in those days was on 52nd Street…The rumor was something I heard from someone in my Dad’s store when I was about 13 or 14.

Lilly was known for rope tricks in his lifetime, but he surprised with one final stunt as a magician at investments. In June, 1951, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “for 23 years Thomas V. Lilly…was Superintendent of Cedar Park, a public square at 50th St. and Baltimore Ave. Appointed to the post in 1911 by the Bureau of City Property at a per diem wage of $1.50, he never earned a wage more than $3.75 a day, which he was receiving when he retired in 1934. Yet, through profitable investments in securities and stocks, started with his small savings, he amassed a $50,000 fortune, the bulk of which he bequeathed to charity…” a sizeable amount at the time. Among his bequests was a large sum for St. Francis de Sales Church; in addition, the residue of his estate was willed to Bishop Lamb – then pastor of St. Francis de Sales – “to be used for charitable purposes as he sees fit.

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Woodland Avenue Roots

A002A story has been making the rounds that St. Francis de Sales Parish “was founded upstairs from a bar on Baltimore Avenue.”

It’s not true! And it’s just one of many casual pieces of misinformation that have been tossed into circulation about our church in recent times.

Where did our Parish actually begin? The Catholic Standard reported that the first Mass for the “New Mission Chapel” that would become our parish took place in a rented hall on the second floor of a commercial building on the “south east side of Woodland below Forty-ninth street” on February 16, 1890.

Woodland Avenue was one of the oldest, most well-known roads in the area. It began its life as part of the “King’s Highway” – a roughly 1,300-mile road laid out in the 1600s on the order of King Charles II of England, to link Boston, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina. The local section was eventually renamed “Darby Road,” then became known as the “Darby Plank Road” in the 1850s, when it was covered with wooden boards to provide a better surface  “for the sporting fraternity, who speeded their fast horses over it.” When the boards wore out, racing stopped, and the road was renamed yet again as “Woodland Avenue.” Through all its early history, it was a busy, well-established commercial corridor; so when nearby farms and fields gave way to the rows of houses that we know today, and a need developed for a new parish to serve them, it was natural that our first Masses would find a home there.

The Woodland Avenue building where our first services were held is now long gone. The only photos available are the two supposed versions taken in 1940 for the Parish Jubilee Book: one with signs edited out, and an un-retouched version which shows a dry cleaner and an Oyster House on the ground floor, with a photographer or dentist occupying the second floor. We have so far been unable to determine what businesses occupied the premises in 1890, and the 1940 photos may not actually show the correct address.

The first Masses for Most Blessed Sacrament Parish are reported to have been held in a rented house at 5550 Woodland Avenue starting in May 1901.

How did the “Bar on Baltimore Ave.” story come about? Perhaps it emerged when someone misunderstood or misremembered that the piece of land on which our first chapel was built in 1891 (today it’s the part of the school that contains  the auditorium) included a small portion of the back lot of the Cherry Tree Inn – an historic hotel and tavern on Baltimore Avenue. The assertion could have been made flippantly, on the “spur-of-the-moment,” in one place — and then developed a life of its own.

Truth still matters.  In a modern age, when rapidly moving information is quoted and requoted in multiple places and different situations, it’s unhelpful to circulate half-remembered information without checking it, or to improve upon the facts in order to suit an agenda or to make a better story. Every misstatement or misrepresentation becomes a new tangle to upset or confuse and further complicate the future. We’ve seen that happen around the world in multiple contexts, in matters big and small, sometimes with horrifying results. Honest mistakes will occur but let’s make the sincere effort to limit them where we can.