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Seasons of Darkness and Light

“The altar at St. Francis de Sales’ Church arranged for Solemn Pontifical Mass, November 12th, 1916,” 
(Catholic Historical Research Center)

A pair of evocative photos turned up recently in the Archdiocesan CHRC Archives, capturing our church in solemn and celebratory moods long ago.

The first is labeled on the reverse “The altar at St. Francis de Sales’ Church arranged for Solemn Pontifical Mass November 12th, 1916. Presented by Father Lallou to A.C.H.S.” (American Catholic Historical Soc.) The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the dedication of the Church, and Father Lallou, of St. John the Evangelist Church, gave the sermon. Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, D.D., rector of the Catholic University, presided, assisted by Rev. James T. Higgins, pastor of MBS. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted at the time that “All the officers of the mass are alumni of the Catholic University.” Our Pastor, Rev. Michael J. Crane, and Rev. Higgins – both now memorialized on our rectory lawn – had graduated together, among its first alumni. The exuberant electric lighting (imagine climbing up to replace those burnt-out bulbs!) is a reminder of how much clean, bright electricity – the new light of knowledge — was prized in 1916.

The second photo, showing the rear of the church, is unlabeled but also very early, and captures the magnificent serenity of the church at rest.

Look around you and compare these photos with our church today   — eerily the same and different. Check out the old full altar rail, the big hanging cross-shaped sanctuary lamp, the “cake stand” electric candle stands, and the early view of the organ. The old church was both darker, with the ornate dark pews and old flooring, and brighter with its multitude of light stands and bare bulbs.

Pope Francis quotes composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future,” adding “It is not a museum piece. It is what gives us life, as long as it makes you grow.” Our parish treasures its past, while continuing to move ahead: trying new ideas to engage families, planning updates to facilities for modern energy awareness, and looking at feasibility of adding wheelchair cuts to our 1960s pews to make the church more accessible. The shared sacrament of the Eucharist is what anchors us, connecting our past, present, and future.

 Interior of St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia, Pa., with balcony and organ. (Catholic Historical Research Center)
Saint Francis de Sales Church, modern view
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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?!

Priest Bails Out of Falling Jet

 “Priest Bails Out of Falling Jet, Lands in Tree – Gets to Wedding.” Was it the sensational news headline that distracted from the original research subject on the same page, or was it the oddly familiar name of the adventurous priest, Captain Cornelius F. McLaughlin?

Rev. McLaughlin   tells his tale to the newlyweds

It took a minute to place that distinctive name, then memory clicked with a smile on a small boy in a whimsical 1928 Parish Monthly Bulletin account of a children’s movie outing https://sfdshistory.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/a-trip-to-the-movies/ quoted in a history column a few years ago. “Bad Boy Brady…in the Third Grade at SFDS School,” had reported that “We all met at the school…and marched over to the Belmont Theatre on Fifty-second and Market Street…Me and Joe Rody and Cornelius McLaughlin (then about 11 years old) 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...” Cornelius popped up a few other times in other 1920s bulletins – in lists of altar boys, and school awards, and writing his own thank you for another movie treat

If he could have looked forward in time, young Cornelius might have been surprised by his future career and amazed by his calamitous adventure – a real-life caper as exciting as any of the movies he enjoyed!

On June 3, 1956, the Inquirer reported that Air Force chaplain Captain Cornelius McLaughlin (then age 39) was on his way from Sioux Falls IA, where he was stationed, to officiate at his cousin Barbara Coyle’s marriage to Edward Norbert Dooling in St. Alice’s Church, Upper Darby, PA, when his pilot realized that their T-33 jet trainer was running out of fuel. “Shortly thereafter, the pilot bailed out, having satisfied himself that his passenger had done likewise.” The jet crashed near Pine Bush, NY just before midnight, and “no-one knew what had happened to Father McLaughlin. It was 5:30 AM when police finally got a telephone call from the missing priest” who “had spent the intervening hours up a tree – trying to extricate himself from the harness of his parachute. Then came the breakneck race to get to Philadelphia in time for the 10 AM ceremony.” Would he make it? The Inquirer noted the first hurdle: “When New York State police picked up Father McLaughlin he was clad only in coveralls, the normal ‘uniform’ for jet flight…” so “he would have to obtain proper vestments, and quickly…After a few inquiries, the Rev. James Dalsey, of the Epiphany College in Newburgh, was willing and able to supply them…” Others helped as the race continued: “Police took him to Stewart Air Force Base at Newburgh, NY. There an obliging operations officer got Father McLaughlin a seat on a (C-47) transport plane just about to take off on a training flight. The transport landed at the International Airport here just four minutes after 10 AM. Father McLaughlin’s brother, Patrolman Martin M. McLaughlin, of the Upper Darby Police, met him there and sped him to St. Alice’s Church.”

But, as the Inquirer sadly noted, “yesterday was the first Saturday in June. At St. Alice’s, there was a wedding scheduled for 10 AM, another scheduled for 11 AM and still another scheduled for noon. Fifteen minutes was the maximum delay permissible under the circumstances. So the ceremony was already under way…when the McLaughlin brothers arrived at the church. Father McLaughlin entered the sanctuary and quietly took a seat there while Father Nolan, assistant rector of the church, performed in his stead.” All was forgiven, though, when Father McLaughlin attended the Wedding Breakfast and told his story!

Who was Cornelius McLaughlin? Baptized at SFDS in 1917, one of five children of William and Margaret McLaughlin, his family lived at 5028 Beaumont Street. He graduated from SFDS School and West Catholic High School, before entering St. Charles Seminary. McLaughlin was ordained at the Cathedral in 1945 by Bishop Hugh Lamb (who was, at the time, pastor of SFDS) and served at several parishes in the archdiocese before becoming a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force in 1952. Father McLaughlin served in the Air Force during the Korean War and remained on active duty for 20 years, earning several awards. He retired to San Diego, died in 1995, and is buried back here in PA, at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Gender Bender

71. St. Francis de Sales

We come to thee, O happy Saint

To claim thy care and love,

To beg thy guidance through this life,

To endless bliss above.

Chorus

Oh, pray for us, St. Francis,

For dangers hover near;

Oh pray for us, St. Francis,

To conquer every fear.

While in the rosy bloom of youth,

To God thy soul was given,

And true, through life, thy spotless soul

‘Mid suffering soared to heaven.

Thy purity has won for thee

A crown of fadeless light;

Oh, may its beauty shine on us

And cheer the gloom of night.

              The verses above are from a hymnal printed for SFDS by the Catholic Standard in 1926, under the direction of Rev. Charles McGinley who was the Director of the women’s BVM Sodality organization at the time.

              The words to the hymn are somewhat peculiar for our Patron Saint – particularly the second verse, about “the rosy bloom of youth” and the suffering of a spotless soul. Saint Francis de Sales wasn’t tortured or martyred; he became the Bishop of Geneva in 1602 and died peacefully of a heart ailment at what was then a respectable age of 55. It seems odd that the hymn doesn’t reference his patient efforts to keep the faith alive during the Protestant Reformation; his advice on the Devout Life or his other inspirational writings (“We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear. Let us take breath, and go on afresh“); or his designation as patron saint of journalists and the deaf (a role Pope Francis is now highlighting).

              Curiously, an internet search finds the same song used to honor Saint Charles Borromeo in Monterrey, CA in 1914: “…then all the people form a long procession. In the center is carried the statue of San Carlos, and, while the choir sings the Hymn to San Carlos, they march slowly around the church… ‘We come to thee, O happy Saint/ To claim thy care and love,/ To beg thy guidance through this life,/To endless bliss above…’” Here, too, the words don’t fit the life of that 16th century Bishop known for founding seminaries.

              Hymnary.org, which tracks different versions of hymns printed over time, provides an answer. Its first recorded instance of the verses, is as a Hymn to St. Agatha, “dedicated to St. Agatha’s Sodality by a member” in 1872 and popular from 1872 to 1935. Ah, now it all fits! St. Agatha made a vow of virginity in rosy youth; kept her purity, through the suffering of torture and imprisonment; and soared to heaven to claim a martyr’s crown, around the year 251 AD.

              So why was the hymn repurposed? Since saintly feast days fall once a year, usually on a weekday, there hasn’t been much call for special songs – surprisingly, even for use in the annual Forty Hours or for institutions named for saints. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, now working on a new English language breviary, notes that music has existed for a number of saints but “Many of the nearly 300 Latin hymns, some dating back to the early centuries of the Church, have never had an official English translation…” If a need arose for an anthem, churches improvised. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has now approved the Green Book of the hymns of the Proper of Saints, so more official songs could eventually be available in English, but here’s a challenge and an opportunity for our own parish tribute to our patron St. Francis de Sales!

2021 Border Mission: Pod 23A

Sisters Constance and Jeannette in San Antonio, TX, May 2021

When two thousand anxious immigrant children were separated from their families at the U.S. southern border in early 2021, Catholic Charities summoned its unique superpower — nuns from orders across the country – to help in the crisis. Among those IHM sisters who answered the call, were several familiar names: Sister Kathy Benham of the IHM Ctr for Literacy, who worked with families in CA; and Sisters Constance and Jeannette, formerly of SFDS School. Snippets from Sister Jeannette’s San Antonio TX diary hint at the size of the task there:

This morning we reported at 6:45, police, security everywhere….Covid test…Dept Homeland Security lanyard and ID, then… Catholic Charities…took pix, got ID there…gave us Catholic Charities vests and gave us instructions…We were given total charge of a pod ourselves!! 23A.   The place took our breath away. A Huge coliseum with maybe 1,000 cots in it!!!!!  And 1,000 boys to match the cots…They gave us a map and a list of names and information and told to go watch them, that the overnight person had just left…23A was Only 21 boys ages 13 to 17… We couldn’t see the end of our cots and the beginning of the cots on the pods around us…Some were sitting on their cots and a few tried to talk to us…They were scheduled for ‘indoor activity’…Our pod is scheduled to go outside to a small yard tomorrow. Around lunch time we were told to line up our pod for lunch. They are really good at getting in line and waiting to be told when to go…It’s amazing Totally organized…We picked up boxes on the way in and ate with them: sausage, beans and salsa, potatoes and a roll. It was hot and good. The minute you’re finished they move your pod out and more are coming in all the time. After lunch they are supposed to ‘rest’ and they did. Lots were reading paperback Bibles in Spanish, of course, or playing UNO. But Most of All, they were using pieces of yarn and had beads and they were making beautiful bracelets.  They were so earnest about this…The boys are so gentle and thoughtful…Three different times there was clapping, whistling, cheering and it meant that a boy from some pod was being taken out because they were reuniting him with his family…they were happy for the lucky boy and really showed it…”

Day 2 was exciting:the boys “each got to make a telephone call!!… They were arranged in a line according to bed #, then seated in chairs….The boys were called to the tables and the volunteer called the number on the paper and asked for the person to verify the info. Then they gave the cell phone to the boy and he talked. We heard one to a mother and another to a priest. They talked for 12 minutes (there was a stopwatch), then they came over to us and the next boys were called to the table. It’s like musical chairs here….”

As days went by, some boys were released to relatives, and the rest waited patiently for their turn. Indoors, “along the side aisles there were soccer ball games going on all over. It reminded me of the schoolyard (small) at St. Francis de Sales…” The sisters bought craft supplies and games at Walmart. The boys studied basic English phrases and looked at a map to see the states where they would someday live. They had haircuts and figured out how to make elaborate folded paper swans. “The shrine on the table to Our Lady of Guadeloupe has been cleaned, straightened and added to. It looks very nice.  A picture of St. Martin de Porres has been placed there, also.”

The Sisters ound out that “All the boys here are from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua…The US is allowing these in as a safe haven” because “their lives are in danger. If they stayed in their countries “they would be forced into gangs for drug running or sex or killed for refusing.”

At the end of their two exhausting weeks, Sister Constance called together the remaining boys in their Pod 23A “family” to tell them “this will be our last day.  We are going back to our school…” (St. Matthew’s). Explanation was important so the boys wouldn’t feel abandoned: “We learned that lesson… at De Sales. When Sisters were changed, the kids often thought that they didn’t like…them and that’s why they went away…Because we can’t touch them, we fist-bumped each one. It brought tears to us and them. They presented each of us with a RECUERDOS bracelet – remember, regards, memories.”

Saint Francis de Sales: Saintly Geography

St. Francis de Sales

Our patron Saint Francis de Sales was born in Savoy (France) in 1567. Appointed Bishop of Geneva (Switzerland) in 1602, he worked with gentle firmness to preserve the Catholic faith through the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. He was an inspirational preacher; a powerful writer; a friend of the poor; and a saint who, like his model, Saint Francis of Assisi, promoted a simple and devout life. Today he is known as the patron saint of journalists and the deaf, and his worldwide footprint is surprisingly broad!

An informal survey has so far identified 120 churches and cathedrals named for St. Francis de Sales in India, Africa, South and Central America, Canada, Britain, Europe, and the South Pacific; and in 32 U.S. states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico! Many educational institutions have also been named for the saint, who is one of the Doctors of the church. His worldwide religious orders include the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary (Visitation Sisters), cofounded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances Chantal; as well as several 19th century orders including The Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, the Salesians of Don Bosco (officially known as the Society of St. Francis de Sales), The Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

A few of the cities and towns named to honor him include:

The city of St. Francis, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, formed around Saint Francis de Sales Seminary when it was established in 1845.

San Francisco de Sales, Guatemala, is perched on the edge of the active Pacaya volcano.

Saint-François-de-Sales, Quebec in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, Canada, with its blueberry field and municipal campsite, is considered an “oasis of tranquility.

São Francisco de Sales, Minas Gerais, Brasil, was the site of a purported alien abduction in 1957

St. François Atoll in the Seychelles archipelago (Indian Ocean off East Africa) is an island nature refuge known for shipwrecks and a small, short-lived unsuccessful coconut harvesting business.

Described as a “charming little mountain village,” the town of Saint-François-de-Sales in the department of Savoie of the French region Rhône-Alpes (the region where St. Francis de Sales was born) was once known for farming; today it is focused on tourism and mountain sports such as cross-country skiing and hiking.

Our patron saint’s fame has spread well beyond geography and religion. Some of his odder associations include the St. Francis de Sales Cricket Club in Victoria, Australia; St. Francis de Sales Broadcast Center radio station in Batangas City, Philippines; and Historic St Francis de Sales Church Inn & Event Venue in Hatch, NM, home of an annual chili festival. He even has a dental office, Dental San Francisco de Sales, near Lima, Peru!

Dental San Francisco de Sales

Over the centuries, many people have been named after the saint, including several children in our historic parish record books. A Mexican-Italian Visitation Sister, Sister Saint Francis de Sales Bortoni, emigrated to the United States in 1926. A Philadelphia-born Hollywood actor named Francis de Sales appeared in a surprising number of old 1950s-1970s movies and TV shows. And parishioner Mary Brewster wrote a few months ago that “an Inquirer article about a posthumous pardon in Virginia caught my eye because it highlighted capital punishment and racial injustice. When I read the story, I noticed Francis de Sales Grayson was one of the men referred to as the Martinsville Seven. I wondered about Mr. Grayson’s connection to the Black Catholic community in Richmond and thought about how the de Sales name connects us all.” Around the world and back, and through history.

Francis de Sales Grayson

Bishop Crane Visits the Penitentiary

December 19, 1924. “The Eastern Penitentiary witnessed one of its strangest, most moving ceremonies Saturday. In the prison chapel, candles burned against the background of a tall crucifix, and flowers decked the altar. Before the altar there ranged, in the garb of the prison and with heads bowed, thirty-two men. Beside each stood one of Philadelphia’s substantial citizens. Pacing the line, in his ecclesiastical robes, stood the Rt. Rev. Michael J. Crane, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia.” (and Second Pastor of SFDS).

“Then, as the ancient hymns of repentance, charity and forgiveness the Church were sung by yet other prisoners in the choir, the Bishop passed along the line and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to the thirty-two men who are expiating crimes against the State. An organ and a violin, also played by prisoners, softened still more the Latin chants.”

“If here behind prison walls you have found faith, then your imprisonment has been a blessing in disguise,” said the Bishop simply, when the ceremony was ended. Later, the prisoners presented Bishop Crane with a table and smoking set they had made themselves in the prison shops. Ho told them he would put them in his room as one of his chief treasures.”

“The thirty-two citizens of Philadelphia are representatives of Catholic lay organizations here. They were recruited by Father Francis Hoey, chaplain at the penitentiary, and they have promised to visit their individual charges for whom they stood sponsor, as long as they remain in the prison, and to find Jobs for them when they are released.”

“Organizations which the thirty-two laymen represent are: The American Society for Visiting Catholic Prisoners, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Temperance Society, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Holy Name Society.”

***

This evocative story turned up in the archives of the Catholic News Service. A separate Catholic Standard and Times article filled in a few more details: seventeen of the thirty-two confirmands were converts to the Catholic faith, due mostly to the missionary efforts of the “young chaplain there, the Rev. Francis P.K. Hoey.” About two hundred prisoners attended the service.

The Confirmation, though not the first there, was still significant. Eastern State Penitentiary records note that when the prison opened in 1829, it “was the world’s first true ‘penitentiary,’ a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners.” Early prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, but that proved too strict. The state ruled in 1913 that inmates should be grouped “for the several purposes of worship, labor, learning, and recreation.” In 1914 a “storage room of Industrial building fitted up, in service as chapel” and on 5 Apr 1914: “the prisoners were for the first time in the history of the Institution allowed outside their cells for the purpose of religious worship.” The first Catholic Mass was held Easter Sunday, April 12, 1914, and by 1918, the “chapel and assembly room abundantly justifies itself for church.”

By the time Bishop Crane visited the facility, in 1924, living conditions were much improved. A January report that year, noted “Inmates eat for first time in group dining halls. Tablecloths were provided on Sundays and holidays, and the holiday decorations were described as a ‘morale building factor;’” and by April, “clergymen of all denoms have unlimited privileges of visitation…” and the various chaplains had their own offices.

We have no record of whether Bishop Crane ever returned, but other bishops did, through the decades, bringing confirmation to inmates up until the prison closed in 1971. Abandoned for twenty years afterwards, it then reopened as a museum and historic (and Halloween) attraction in 1991. Today, one of its treasured features is an impressive series of murals, created in the Catholic chaplain’s office in the 1950s by a devout, self-taught artist inmate, and recently restored.

The Eye of the Crane

A few years ago, an elegant, throne-like chair, moved from a sacristy side room, replaced the plainer presider’s chair in the sanctuary of our church. Much has been made of the fact that the replacement chair once belonged to a bishop, but today, the symbolism in its decorations offers a more important message.

The chair belonged to Reverend Michael J. Crane, our second pastor, who built our church. One hundred years ago, on September 19, 1921, when he was consecrated as a bishop, his new crest was carved into its back. The insignia was very personal at the time, with a bird, a sword, stars, and a motto chosen to represent his family name, his own first name, his mother’s ancestry, and his career. The elements also had another layer of meaning, though, and even when the chair was tucked away in the shadows for decades after he died, the totem remained a presence in our church.

The bird on the Bishop’s shield — a “crane ‘vigilant,’ that is, with a stone in one claw.” — represented his family name (ancestry websites suggest that the name Crane may actually have come from a tall, gawky bird-like long-ago Irish relative!). Worldbirds.org notes the bird’s religious significance: “In Christianity – especially in Christian Art, the crane is a symbol of vigilance, loyalty, good life and works, and good order in the monastic life.”  Signs and Symbols in Western Art, attributes this symbolism to a fable: “Legend recounts that cranes form a circle around their king at night, holding a stone in one foot while standing on the other. Should a crane fall asleep, the stone would fall and arouse him to renew his watch.” Worldbirds.org also finds that the bird has a special Irish symbolism: “Celts believed that birds like cranes were present in the Other World as well as this one. That is why they were viewed as Divine Messengers.”

Flanking the crane were two stars, taken from the Monaghan family shield of Bishop Crane’s mother. (Interestingly, the name Monaghan is supposed to have been derived from “monk,” suggesting a family spiritual tendency!) The Bishop’s 1928 Jubilee Book states that Two “Monaghan stars have been used – one symbolic of Our Lady Star of the Sea and the other of the Bishop’s mother in her own family symbol.” Respect for earthly heritage and spiritual guidance of the Blessed Mother are twin beacons.

Above the bird, Bishop Michael Crane’s first name was represented in “the angelic sword of St. Michael. An erect sword signifies a martial purpose, but in the horizontal position in which it appears in the new coat-of-arms, it indicates Protection and Guidance.

The shield was topped with the Catholic hierarchical “emblems common to all bishops – crozier, mitre, and hat with twelve tassles.”  At the bottom, Bishop Crane chose a little local historic continuity: “The Motto – Ut Sim Fidelus’ (That I may be Faithful) – is the same as that of the Most Rev. Edmond F. Prendergast, D.D., the late lamented Archbishop, who departed this life on February 26, 1918, and with whom Bishop Crane was associated for fourteen years at St. Malachy’s Church (1889-1903).”

Why is the chair important today? In recent years, we have been rediscovering our Parish story, charting where we’ve been to help guide our way forward. As we install our Seventeenth Pastor, the crane emblem on our chair peeks out above his head like an avatar, or “Divine Messenger” – ever vigilant, ever faithful; protecting and guiding, connecting our past and our future.

Historical Context of a Prayer

A Prayer “For the Protection of the United States,” by Father Abram Ryan, printed in the December 1953 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin, was a little old-fashioned in phrasing, and oddly passionate. 

                In 1953, without the easy reference capabilities of the internet, the Bulletin editor probably had no idea of the piece’s origin.

                Blessed instinct said “find out more about it before you reprint it in 2021” (though a quick google finds this odd prayer online already, in various places, unattributed)!

“O Mary Immaculate! Guard with loving care this country dedicated to thee. Let thy purity keep it pure. Watch over its institutions. As thou art the Refuge of Sinners, this country is the refuge of the exiled and the oppressed. Guide it ever in the ways of peace. Let it never forget its high vocation to teach all the nations of the world, by word and example, the principles of well regulated liberty and reverence for rights of men. Let not its prosperity be its ruin. Alas, many of its children who know not what they do, are walking in uncertain paths, whch are dark and lead them away from the truth. Mother of all, pray for us and plead for them, that we thy children may love and adore thy adorable Son with more fervent faith; that those who are wandering in error’s path may, through thy intercession, return to the one Fold of the true Shepherd — to thy Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Father Abram Ryan

It appears in a book entitled A Crown for Our Queen, written by Rev. Abram J. Ryan, published in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1882.

Who was Reverend Abram Ryan?

The 1912  Catholic Encyclopedia  describes him as “the poet priest of the South, born at Norfolk, Virginia 15 August, 1839; died at Louisville, Kentucky, 22 April, 1886.” (Other sources correct his birthplace as Hagerstown, MD February 5, 1838 – shortly after the family moved from Norfolk). Father Ryan was ordained just before the Civil War and entered the war as a chaplain for the Confederacy. The Catholic Encyclopedia guardedly observes that “he inherited from his parents…the strange witchery of the Irish temper...” and he used “weird and exquisite imagery” in his works. The careful wording begs for further investigation.

Modern sources clarify that Father Ryan was called the “poet laureate of the Confederacy,” writing poems during and after the Civil War which “captured the spirit of sentimentality and martyrdom then rising in the South.” He was known well-enough, that he even had a cameo in Margaret Mitchell’s famous Civil War novel Gone With the Wind: “Father Ryan, the poet-priest of the Confederacy, never failed to call [at Melanie’s home] when passing through Atlanta. He charmed gatherings there with his wit and seldom needed much urging to recite his ‘Sword of Lee’ or his deathless ‘Conquered Banner,’ which never failed to make the ladies cry.

Several sources note that Ryan was fiercely “anti-abolitionist,” which draws new attention to the emotional phrasing of his exhortation. Reaching out from history, this curious artifact offers an unsettling glimpse back in time, and a stark reminder that context is important. Though the prayer itself is ambiguous enough that it could just as easily have been prayed by a Catholic abolitionist. Sometimes God answers prayers in unexpected ways.

“In all of your affairs, rely on the Providence of God through which alone you must look for success. Strive quietly to cooperate with its designs. If you have a sure trust in God, the success that comes to you will always be that which is most useful to you, whether it appears good or bad in your private judgment.” (Saint Francis de Sales)