Snake in the Glass

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_MG_2611The third long window on the St. Mary side of our church is an Easter theme with a Christmas puzzle.

At the top, Jeremiah prophesies “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord...” The sections below show Jesus comforted by an angel during the Agony in the Garden, and the Death of St. Francis de Sales – two stories about the end of life. So how does the Star of David at the bottom – a symbol of Jesus’ family lineage and of his birth at Bethlehem — fit this theme?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t.

Long ago, someone restored several panels and put them back incorrectly. A photo at the Athenaeum shows the windows just after they were installed in 1910. At that time, the bottom part of the Agony in the Garden window featured the wreath-with-a-passion-flower-and-snakes currently under the middle window.

That makes more sense! The passion flower is said to represent “faith and suffering.” The laurel wreath surrounding it is a traditional symbol of victory, creating  an Easter message of triumph over death. According to Heilmeyer’s Language of Flowers, the passion flower can also represent “a hankering for a long-lost paradise.” Two snakes nibbling at crosses represent original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the reason we need a Savior.

Worries about lost paradise form a subtle undercurrent in the Agony in the Garden window. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth notes that “D’Ascenzo’s composition …appears to have been derived from an etching of the Agony in the Garden by Rembrandt. But D’Ascenzo has changed Rembrandt’s composition with the introduction of an olive tree, which forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” William Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, medieval, hand-crafted, nature-inspired worldview. His ideas were popular when our church was built and D’Ascenzo admired him. The world in 1910 was experiencing rapid change – our church had modern electricity, a state-of-the-art Guastavino dome, and fireproof tiles made for skyscrapers  — new “fruit from the tree of knowledge” that was both exciting and unnerving. D’Ascenzo, like Morris, looked backwards to a simpler, more natural age.

Curiously, the accident of the mixed-up windows has changed their mood from melancholy reflection on change, to a reassuring meditation on continuity: moving clockwise around the church, the Star of David — the symbol of Jesus’ family lineage — below the Agony in the Garden heralds the next window in the eternal cycle — the Annunciation across the aisle, followed by Jesus’ Birth.

A Saint for Healthcare

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Who is the saint who stands so patiently with his broom, near the Mary altar in our church?

No one seems to remember when his humble resin  statue arrived at our parish, or who was the donor. For many years, he stood on the St. Joseph side of the church, near the sacristy doorway, until he was moved to his present position by Father Hand.

Martin de Porres is an interesting saint! Born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, he lived during the same period as our patron Saint Francis de Sales – though in a very different location and circumstances. Francis de Sales was born to rich parents in France, and rejected the noble lifestyle. Martin de Porres’ father was a Spanish nobleman, but his mother was a freed Black slave from Panama – possibly with some Native American heritage – so his parents could not legally marry. His father abandoned the family and Martin grew up in poverty,  stigmatized as illegitimate and biracial.

At an early age, after two years of school, Martin apprenticed to a barber/surgeon to learn the practical trade of haircutting and medical bloodletting. He wanted to join a religious order, but discriminatory laws prohibited it. Eventually, he was allowed to volunteer as a servant to the Dominicans, where he worked tirelessly in the kitchen and laundry, as well as cutting hair and tending the sick in the infirmary.

Martin was a mystic contemplative vegetarian, who did menial tasks willingly and spent long hours in prayer. He became known for almsgiving and for his gentle and effective medical ministry, helping anyone in need, regardless of who they were. His medical skills were renowned and it was said he was able to mysteriously pass through walls to perform healing miracles in locked rooms. He also is known, like Francis of Assisi, as a friend of animals. A story is told that when the monastery was troubled with mice (or rats), Saint Martin refused to poison them; instead, he politely asked them to leave, which they did.

Because of his growing holy reputation, exceptions were made for his birth circumstances, and Martin was eventually allowed to become a Dominican lay brother and to spend the rest of his life working as a healer in the monastery.

Martin de Porres died in 1639. He was beatified in 1837, canonized on May 6, 1962, and his feast day is November 3. He is known today as the patron saint for people of mixed race, as well as for barbers, innkeepers, and healthcare workers.

 

A Tale of Two Parishes

It’s tempting to think that while our “Romanesque Church with Byzantine Details” was under construction between 1907 and 1911, architect Henry Dagit and contractors spent all their time busy on our site, planning and supervising, and obsessing over every magnificent detail.

Not true! And it turns out that de Sales and Most Blessed Sacrament have been connected longer than anyone may have realized.  While the designs for our church were still on his table, Architect Henry Dagit was also drawing plans for the combination school and chapel that would become Most Blessed Sacrament’s first permanent stone building (today Independence Charter School West at 5600 Chester), with Melody and Keating as the main contractor for both projects.

mbs mary knowlesGroundbreaking for our church was June 16, 1907, with Bishop Prendergast officiating. The smaller MBS chapel/school broke ground two weeks later on June 30  in a simpler ceremony, with the first sods cut by MBS Pastor Reverend McGinnis; two other priests; and a baby parishioner named Mary Katherine Knowles.

Construction preparations continued afterwards  at both sites. Bishop Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the MBS chapel/school building on September 15, 1907, in a ceremony described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Interesting;” he then  laid the cornerstone for St. Francis de Sales Church  a few weeks later on October 6,  in an “Impressive” ceremony with multiple bishops and dignitaries.

A relatively small project, the finished MBS school/chapel building was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan in September, 1908, in time for the start of the school year. Parish records say that the Protectory Band, the Paschalville Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Elmwood Band all played at the celebration.

SFDS church was finished and dedicated in elaborate ceremonies on November 11 and 12, 1911. Archbishop Prendergast presided at the Solemn High Mass on November 12 (having succeeded Archbishop Ryan in May of that year), with a number of priests assisting. Reverend Higgins, Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, acted as Deacon.

Meanwhile, the Guastavino firm, which designed and built our dome,  moved on to another local (secular) project, crafting the Harrison Rotunda at the Penn Museum, completed in 1915.

Most Blessed Sacrament School would grow to become  “the largest parochial school in the world” by the 1950s but closed in 2002 when attendance tapered. MBS Church, by architect Charles Willis Gilmore, was  built in 1922 and closed in 2007. Its standalone altar was moved to SFDS when the two parishes became one.

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MBS historic aerial view

 

 

The Cross in the Dome

The careful arrangement of the symbols in the twenty-four windows of our church’s Guastavino dome generally goes unnoticed.

Imagine a cross, drawn through the centre of our dome. One line would connect the Keys in the dome window on the St. Joseph side of the church, with the Triple Crown on the St. Mary side. The other would go from the Descending Dove window in front of the altar, across the dome to its opposite, the Ascending Dove. The two lines would cross in the  triangle-in-a-trefoil window in the middle.

The meaning of the first part of the cross is easy to understand. The Keys are the emblem of Saint Peter, based on Matthew 16: “And I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven...” and the Tiara, or Triple Crown, across from it, is a symbol of the Pope. (The 1940 Anniversary Book explains that “the first circlet symbolizes the Pope’s universal episcopate, the second his supremacy of jurisdiction, and the third his temporal power”).

The other part gets complicated.

The dove pointing down, designed to be seen by people in the pews,  represents God’s presence and favour. The 1940 Anniversary Book reports that as “a symbol of the Holy Spirit it is specially connected with Baptism…

Across from it, the dove in flight was designed to be viewed by the priest and, in 1911, was thought to be “indicative of the graces which lift man up to God through the priesthood.” By 1940, it was re-interpreted as “the Ascension of Christ, or the entrance of Saints into glory.” But Henry Dagit’s original 1908 plan  suggested that half of the dome panels would relate to the  Old Testament, and half to the New, so it could also have a third meaning – recalling the story of Noah in the Old Testament, who looked for a sign of God’s presence, in the form of a dove at the window.

Imagine an invisible line through the dome, connecting prayers offered up in the sacrifice of the Mass, to the grace of the Holy Spirit descending on the parishioners. Now visualize a cross linking  Biblical promises of the Old Testament and New; intersected by the line of authority from Saint Peter to the Pope; with the “Eye of God”  at the centre of everything. That’s a neat description of Catholicism. (And the mystery remains: who imagined and put together all of the careful symbolism in our church: Henry Dagit; one of Dagit’s designers; or Reverend Crane himself?)_mg_2409

 

 

 

Neon Halo

In 1969, an astronaut stepped onto the moon; the New Mass of Vatican II came into full effect; and Robert Venturi renovated the sanctuary of our church. Nothing has been quite the same since.

De Sales had already weathered a number of alterations: Monsignor Sefton, who was pastor from 1961 to 1967, and assistant for 12 years before that, had provided continuity through the remodeling of the Lower Church, the re-tiling of the domes, and the blue-tile-wall modernization of 1965 (the blue tiles were removed from the nave in the 1990s, but remnants can still be seen above the sacristy doorway). But then he moved on, and the radical New Liturgy of Vatican II was ushered in by new faces in the rectory, just as the parish population was shrinking and its demographics changed.

As with every Catholic church across the country, the sanctuary of de Sales had to be opened up and reconfigured to include a permanent free-standing altar for the New Mass. Father McNamee recommended a friend-of-a- friend, world-renowned architect Robert Venturi to do the work at our church, and months of  planning and discussion followed with pastor Monsignor Mitchell and priests and architects — but, as was typical in those days, without input from the congregation.

Parishioners attending the inaugural folk guitar Mass were startled to find their familiar, ornate, back-facing marble altar thrust into the shadows, “cancelled out” by a ghostly neon halo hovering in front of Jesus’ feet. The white cathode tubing highlighted an elevated platform. Upon this bright vinyl island stood a plain modern altar table made of milk-white plexiglas, as smoothly curved as “bent butter;” a sleek plexiglas lectern; and a presider’s chair upholstered in shiny white patent leather. The center section of altar rail was gone, opening up the space to symbolically welcome priest and people together around the table.

The boldly original design and concept were intended to highlight the spare, simple, modern ideas in the New Liturgy, while paying homage to the past.

The New Mass and the new design were equally controversial.

The Venturi renovation proved, in fact, to be the most divisive episode in the history of our parish! College students, some of whom studied under Venturi, were electrified by the bright new look and the energy it represented. Architectural publications praised the design. Longtime parishioners did not. This was one renovation too many. The neon lights were blamed for migraines and removed as soon as the school year ended. The other furnishings disappeared from the  sanctuary piece by piece over time.

Ironically, in retrospect, Venturi saved our church. Vatican directives said that two altars must not compete for attention. In the 1960s, ” old-fashioned” ornate back altars were often altered,  removed, or covered. Venturi believed our history was important, though, so he left the old fittings in place and used the band of neon light as a form of “electric demolition” or “an editor’s pencil” to cancel them out visually. The old altar remained intact in the shadows, giving substance to the new.

It’s still there today, long after his renovations were removed. And now that the New Mass is old news, and the current forward-facing altar from MBS church symbolizes a new reality for our parish, we’ve restored this interesting chapter to our history.

In 2015, the Parish invited the Society of Architectural Historians to bring Father McNamee (pastor emeritus at St. Malachy) and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown to come back and talk about the long-ago renovations. Feelings still ran strong: longtime parishioners were passionate about the attempt to change the character of their church; while Denise Scott Brown, recalled every carefully considered detail of the design and the pain of losing it: “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.”  But after almost half a century, those involved found common ground in the perspective of time and age, and a whole new group of parishioners, neighbors, and friends heard the story for the first time.

The Thirteenth Apostle

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dscn4256-2Around the nave of our church are twelve names and symbols of Jesus’ Apostles. But the twelve inscriptions do not include Judas Iscariot – the “bad guy” who betrayed him on Holy Thursday. So who is the extra Apostle?

Matthias, near the sacristy, was not among the original twelve. Our 1940 Anniversary Book mentions that “St. Matthias is represented by the emblem of the spear, as Raphael has painted him; others picture him with the hangman’s axe to indicate that he was beheaded…” A much-quoted anonymous reference suggests that the Italians painted Matthias with a spear and the Germans with an axe, although few enough representations exist that it is hard to generalize!

Little verifiable information is available about Matthias. Tradition says he was selected by lot, following a Jewish custom for determining God’s Will, to replace the traitorous Judas. Some accounts suggest that Matthias was killed while preaching in Judea. Other accounts suggest he was martyred after a mission to Colchis (Also  land of mythological Jason and the Golden Fleece. Today the country of  Georgia), where he was, perhaps, blinded by “cannibals” and, possibly, saved, for a time,  by Saint Andrew. Matthias is the patron saint invoked against alcoholism.

Why were there twelve Apostles in the first place? It is said that twelve is a “perfect” or “complete” number in Jewish religion. Twelve Apostles may have represented a link and sense of continuity with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This would explain why it was important to maintain the number.

Judas, the first twelfth Apostle,  may have been banished from our walls, but he is still represented in our church, in the sculptured scene of the Last Supper on the front of the freestanding altar from Most Blessed Sacrament Church. All twelve original apostles were important in that most perfect of ceremonies – including the betrayer — an interesting thought.

Our 1911 back-facing altar features twelve encircled Xs around a Chi Rho (PX monogram representing the first two letters of Christ in Greek).  A similar design at St. Malachy Church – also decorated by Henry Dagit under Reverend Crane’s direction – is described as “…crosses in circles making twelve in number, which symbols stand for the twelve Apostles, the authorized teachers of Christ, who carried the real doctrine….to all the world.” This suggests that St. Malachy’s invoked Matthias, but we don’t know for sure which twelfth Apostle, in which role – Last Supper or Pentecost — was intended on our original  Altar!

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The Patron Saint of Journalists

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St. Francis de Sales (1940 Parish Silver Jubilee Anniversary Book).

Saint Francis de Sales died in France in 1622, but made the news just a few months before our Philadelphia church building was dedicated in 1911, and his message is strangely relevant today.

Our Patron Saint is used to working through turmoil. He was known in his lifetime for perilously hand-distributing his carefully-reasoned writings during the Protestant Reformation in the 1600s, when Catholicism was forbidden in France; and for  his patient efforts to reconcile deeply divided peoples.

His bones were hidden for protection in the 1790s, in the chaos of the French Revolution.

In 1905, when France became a secular state, with religion officially separated from government, its church properties were claimed by the bureaucracy. Our saint was newsworthy when his remains, along with those of St. Jane Chantal, had to be moved from the Church of the Visitation  “to the new convent which the Sisters have been obliged to erect in a different part of the town, the Government requiring the site of their former church and convent for public buildings.”

 The procession in Annecy on August 2, 1911, was an international event, both ceremonial and festive: “Two Cardinals and upwards of fifty Bishops and Archbishops from various countries, even from the far distant Argentine Republic and New Guinea, were present…” with many pilgrims. Celebrations were not without shadows, however: The Tablet International Catholic Weekly reported that

it was scarcely to be hoped that so religious a demonstration could be allowed to pass unnoticed by the Anticlerical party. The Superior of the Visitation and some of the town authorities had received anonymous letters threatening bombs during the procession, if it took place. After prayer and deliberation it was decided that no changes should be made in the programme, all trust being placed in the intercession of the two Saints with God. This confidence was not misplaced ; all went off without the least attempt at molestation.”

News writers at that time were proud to note that St. Francis de Sales was the “Patron Saint of Journalists” – named by Pope Pius IX during a turbulent period in the 1870s — and “the choice…was an apt one, for St. Francis was a man of letters.” In 1923, in an uncertain modern age with increasing  media communication capabilities, Pope Pius XI made an official declaration.

Our early parishioners might have been pleased to have such an enduring, inspirational and newsworthy patron saint. In today’s tumultuous “post-truth” age, our saint’s fortitude and journalistic intercession are more vital than ever!

 

Byzantine Revival

Is our church modeled after Hagia Sophia, an ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey?

The claim has been repeated a number of times in recent years, but a look at the two buildings, side by side, does not show an extraordinary resemblance.

When Architect Henry Dagit wrote about our church under construction in 1908, he described his building as “Romanesque with Byzantine details.” That was also its representation in newspaper reports about the new church; in the 1911 Dedication booklet; and in the 1911 Short History of St. Francis de Sales Church. Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who commissioned our church, envisioned a building “in which the soul would be lifted up to exaltation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty; a church rich with storied windows...” with no mention of Istanbul or Constantinople.

Art historian Richard Stemp provides a clue to the mystery, when he discusses the fifth century innovation of Hagia Sophia: “so great was the impact of a central dome that almost all Eastern churches were modeled on it thereafter.” Hagia Sophia provided an early and famous example of a Byzantine dome — although Stemp reports that “the surviving works at Ravenna (5th and 6th century Italy) have become, by default, the best representations of the splendour of the Byzantine court.”

Byzantine influence spread from Constantinople across the Mediterranean. Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia,  suggests that our church actually  traces “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with rounded arches and vaults, rather than Gothic pointed arches and steeples. The Byzantine-style dome completed the thought.

Our 1911 church, honoring a French saint,  was probably inspired by that late 19th century European architectural movement, but Moss notes that our building is “more than a rare example of the Byzantine Revival style in Philadelphia. It is also one of our three landmark examples of Guastavino tile construction” with distinctive domes and vaults built using interlocking layers of terracotta tiles (The Penn Museum and Girard Bank — Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two local examples). Rafael Guastavino’s works are prized: Structural Engineer and Guastavino authority John Ochsendorf at MIT opines that the tile domes form “some of the most exceptional masonry structures in history.”

 

 

Baked Earth

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Some of the most decorative elements in our church are made of the humblest material. Look up at the sculpted details outlining the arches and walls, and around the windows. All of the colorful green and yellow decoration in our church is made of “terracotta,” which means “baked earth” clay.

In the early 1900s, terracotta was the fashionable material for the exterior decoration of metal skyscrapers. It was easy to mould; it was relatively lightweight; weatherproof; and, most importantly, having survived the heat of a kiln in its manufacture, it was considered fireproof.

The Atlantic Terracotta Company was formed in Perth Amboy New Jersey in the mid 1800s, and, for a time, was the biggest manufacturer of terracotta tile in the world. Headquartered later in Atlanta, it kept offices and manufacturing facilities in New Jersey, where the local clay, dug out of the ground,  was perfect for the tilework that would cover the steel skeletons of many of the important skyscrapers in New York City, as well as buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere — even Japan. Some notable structures that used Atlantic Terracotta included the Flat Iron Building and the Woolworth Building in New York; the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC; and, locally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Terracotta was popular, in part, because it could take any pattern or shape. Craftsmen made clay sculptures, from which were created plaster moulds. Clay slabs, pressed into the moulds, could then be removed, dried, decorated with glaze, and fired in a kiln. Finishes could look like clay or imitate marble, limestone, or granite. The green and yellow glazes were particularly popular.

Most terracotta was used on building exteriors, but an article in The Brickbuilder, in 1911, reported that:

“An interesting example of interior decoration is the St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, Henry D. Dagit, architect. The style is an adapted combination of the Byzantine and Romanesque. The colors are very brilliant but in the mellow light of the stained glass windows the tone is softened and the result restful.”

So, should you feel “restful” during the sermon, you may now blame the terracotta.

 

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A Visit From Saint Nick

The above news item appeared in the December 1925 Parish Bulletin. The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary was an organization of parish women, and Father McGinley was its Spiritual Director, but who was that man with the beard?

Timothy (T.J.) Wholey was a well-known member of the parish, who might be remembered today as the donor of the statues of St. Anne and St. Francis de  Sales.

Wholey’s story covers a tumultuous historical period. He started as a beer bottler on Passyunk, and moved into the saloon business. In 1905, he bought a building on the southeast corner of  52nd and Market, with a bar on the ground floor and an upstairs apartment for his family. Close to retirement age, Wholey sold the liquor license, just as the Temperance (anti-alcohol) movement gathered momentum (the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, was proposed in 1917 and became effective in 1920).

Wholey moved in with his son-in-law, James Alderice, of 4822 Windsor Avenue. Alderice was a railroad foreman in a busy age when both the Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad were headquartered in Philadelphia. Wholey registered a patent on a piece of railroad equipment soon after – possibly inspired by his son-in-law’s work, or, perhaps, as a proxy. Meanwhile, Wholey’s son John (4842 Windsor Ave.) went to fight in the First World War.

T.J. Wholey was very active in the parish: his name appears on an assortment of event and committee lists from the period — as above, when he played Santa. Or when he contributed “most generously” to a children’s picnic and outing to Willow Grove Park, with his grandchildren among the participants. In May 1926 – right before the corner stone was laid for the Farragut Terrace addition to the school — he contributed $500 (a very large amount just a few years before the Great Depression) to the School Building Fund.

Is there a Santa Claus? Yes, there is – in all the generations of people, like Wholey, whose names may no longer be known, but whose spirit of generosity helped to build and shape our parish. So let us hereby celebrate all those, through our history, who have, through good times and bad, offered their energy, time, talents, and facial hair – because every effort is important to the strength of our community and to its lasting legacy in our neighbourhood.