The View from the Belltower

SFDS Belltower

One afternoon a few weeks ago, the perilous hatch up into the belfry creaked open and the pigeons were astonished by a rare human visitor. Who was it? Not Quasimodo the Hunchback, but Tim Verdin, President of the Verdin Company of Cincinnati OH – the sixth-generation family-owned company that inherited the mantle – and the records — of the Old Meneely Bell Foundry of West Troy, NY, which made our bells back in 1916 (not to be confused with the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, NY – a different family branch and a separate competing company. Verdin notes that the Meneely vs Meneely trademark case of 1875 actually set a precedent, establishing “the legal right to use one’s surname commercially, even if a business using the same name already existed”).

In any case, Verdin, who was in town to work on the 58-bell Meneely carillon at Valley Forge (one of the world’s largest carillons), was especially interested in seeing our bells because he knew that there was something special about them: “Starting just before 1900, Meneely began experimenting with tuning their bells. What they do is cast the bells slightly thicker than they thought they should be and then they would remove metal from the outside of the bell to flatten the tone. Meneely is the only bell company to have tuned their bells on the outside; in Europe at the time all bell foundries tuned their bells by removing metal from the inside of the bell. Meneely would put the bell on a large metal lathe and then use a cutting tool to remove the appropriate bronze.” Eventually, the firm developed a new method of tuning to all “five different partials or frequencies that make up the note the bell is perceived to be” rather than just the middle three, and bell shaving became obsolete.

 Verdin observed that “Meneely cast some of the finest bells of any of the early American bell founders.” Our “chime consists of a total of (11) bronze bells..The largest bell weighs about 2,300 Lbs. and rings the note E1 in the middle octave. All of the bells except the largest are stationary which means they hang from the wooden frame…and don’t move.” Verdin notes that   they are “cast of bronze which is a mixture of approx. 80% copper and 20% tin. They are showing a nice greenish/blue patina which is perfectly normal for this age of bell in the environment they are in…These bells were not tuned before they were installed, but sound very nice. This is very typical of early American bell founders…The largest bell which sit on top of the wooden frame is designed to be a swinging bell, although it looks like it’s been a long time since it actually did swing.” He further notes that “The chime is a wonderful example of preserved history. It is still very much original and is basically using all of the same components as it did one the first day it was installed 104 years ago,.” which is, apparently, unusual!

Verdin located the original 1916 records for our bells in his archive. In addition to the technical specifications, labor costs, and stated fifteen-year warranty(!), there is an historic notation that “the bells to be arranged for blessing ceremonies after which they are to be placed in chiming order in the tower…Less allowance towards installation concert programs. Mr. C. to receive gratis about 250 copies.” That’s a lot of copies of our 1916 Parish Bell-Blessing ceremony program potentially floating around. What was the first music played on our bells? Can we dare hope that one of those programs may someday turn up in somebody’s attic?!

Incidentally…

Tim Verdin commented: “My Great-Great-Great Grandfather was Francis de Sales Verdin. He and several of his brothers are the ones that brought their families to America, from Marlenhiem, France, in the early 1830’s (and started the company). I am unsure…how he came to be named Francis de Sales. We actually have a Francis de Sales Catholic Church here in Cincinnati which I always thought was kind of cool because of his name. in fact, the Francis de Sales Catholic Church here in Cincinnati has the largest bell that has ever been cast in America in the tower. The bell was cast right here in Cincinnati in 1896 by the Buckeye Bell Foundry. It weighs almost 35,000 Lbs. and is called ‘Big Joe.’

Here is a picture of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather Francis de Sales Verdin; and here’s ‘Big Joe’ – Largest bell ever cast in America.

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.”

A Snapshot in Time

SFDS HISTORY MYSTERIES – Snapshot in Time

A browse through the parish archives turned up an unlabeled  photo from a long-ago ceremony – back when the sanctuary was lighted with electric candles on a tall stand, the altar rail had brass gates, there was no front-facing altar, and the old dark pews were still in place.

Parishioner historians John and Ted Deady, who grew up in the parish, offered some observations about the elaborate pageantry they recall from pre-Vatican II ritual, and a few of the names:

Okay. Will start with this. The priest holding the book of the gospels is Father Sefton, later monsignor and pastor (at SFDS 1946-1947; pastor 1961-1967). The priest incensing the book is Father Flatley (at SFDS 1940-1943 and 1946-1955; WWII military chaplain in between). The two altar boys holding candles are the acolytes and the other altar boy is the thurifer (who carries the incense container, or thurible). The other priest in a surplice is the master of ceremonies. At a regular solemn high mass this would be an altar boy. Fr Sefton is the sub deacon and Fr. Flatley is the deacon. He will read the gospel in Latin. Then not sure if he or someone else will suddenly appear in the pulpit and read the gospel in English. Whoever is in the pulpit will then preach the sermon starting with ‘may it please your excellency’ or ‘eminence’ depending on who the celebrant is. That is a mystery.”

The bishop in the seat is presiding and the two monsignors are his chaplains. The two altar boys in white cassocks are part of a gang of six called flambeaus. When Fr Navit was pastor (2004-2009) he had a similar group. They hold the lanterns during the consecration. The ones in the picture are just better dressed. “

What the occasion is and who is celebrating the mass are mysteries. It was in the winter, fur coats. The sisters did not routinely attend the 11:00 o’clock (solemn) mass. The master of ceremonies is not a familiar face meaning he might have come with the celebrant in a package deal.”

Fran Byers, another from-the-cradle parish historian, replied to this  “Wow, John,   I am really impressed.   We girls were not privy to any of this,” which is, itself,  notable. Ted notes that “Women were not allowed in the Sanctuary except for their wedding (Vatican rule).” What did girls do Pre-Vatican-II? John recalls that all SFDS School children, except those boys who were scheduled to serve or sing at the weekly solemn Mass, were required to attend a separate Sunday children’s service, where attendance was taken – parents had to send a written excuse for absence. Girls couldn’t serve at Mass or sing in the choir. Twice a year, they were invited to follow the boys in a Eucharistic procession, strewing flower petals, and girls were selected to perform the crowning of the Mary statue in the annual May Procession (which was led by the boy “popes” and altar servers). Their mothers joined the Sodality, a ladies’ organization devoted to prayer and good works.

SFDS Boy Choir: Wheels of Change

Recently surfaced choir documents offer a glimpse back into the years when proudly magnificent SFDS Parish was pressed between the rollers of Vatican II, neighbourhood change, and the Baby Boom “youthquake” of the 1960s.

The first cracks showed in 1966, as English began to replace Latin in the Mass, and Peter La Manna, Director of the renowned Boy Choir, had trouble finding suitable new music. He wrote to Monsignor Mitchell: “My dilemma is that I can’t find Masses in English which can compare with those masterpieces…The men in the choir are so reluctant to making a complete switch to English because of the obviously lower compositional standards.”

Some of La Manna’s challenges seem odd today. In 1967, he wrote to Monsignor Mitchell: “One of the things which I have been begging for is the erection of two announcement boards for the numbers of the hymns. I think that it was feared that it would cheapen the architecture of the church. This is not necessarily true, and something in good taste could be placed on the two pillars along the front of the church. I have also asked for an announcement before Mass concerning the hymns at Solemn Mass and the fact that people should join in the singing of the Our Father and the responses. I have had no luck with that request.”

Money became tight as the parish shrunk and La Manna fought for funds to pay the Men’s choir: “For forty-five years the men of the choir have been paid…Bishop McShea…paid all of the men a uniform fee of $20 per month…to help pay for their carfare and gas expenses…” He also begged for new uniforms for the boys: “We have been asked to make a telecast on December 14 for KYW-TV. If we do this we will have to borrow cassocks from the altar boys again because ours are not fit for color TV.” Another time, he lamented that “For over a year I have asked for new cassocks. The ones which we have are in shreds...” and “these ragged vestments are not good for the morale of the group…” La Manna made the case that the choir was a critical “binding force within the parish. Many families have postponed moving out of the parish because their sons were members of the choir…” though he did admit that “the attendance at Solemn Mass is very poor...”

SFDS Boy Choir in 1965

As baroque pageantry gave way to 1960s streamlining, La Manna mourned the new simplicity. He felt that that people needed to “see evidence of their contributions…in the beauty of their church, in the flowers on the altar, etc. …I heard many remarks…that there had never been such a dull and unmarked feast of Christ the King at de Sales as there was this year. Also that there has never been a novena to Our Lady when her altar looked so bare. I know that these are small things, but when I came here Father Curran said to me, de Sales has won her reputation by making small things important, and by providing the parishioners with a liturgy which is edifying and beautiful.” La Manna felt some of this was due to a lack of continuity in the Rectory, where, until recently, “there were always curates here who were ‘trained’ under the programs and policy of the past.” He also gently suggested to Monsignor Mitchell that “when I first came here the homily was limited to seven minutes at Solemn Mass. Now it goes as long as twenty minutes. Our attendance has dropped drastically because we are sometimes in there an hour and twenty minutes, and it used to be slightly over an hour.” In La Manna’s view, shortening the processionals was not an option.

Changing priorities. In truth, the decorations, sermon length, and pageantry probably were of little consequence. Between 1963 and 1973 the number of parish families dropped from 4,233 to 1,232, and school students from 1,158 to 621, as the Catholic population citywide shifted to the suburbs. And there was also the famously divisive Venturi renovation!

Bruce Shultz arrived at SFDS as organist in 1969 and gradually, under choir director Dr. Michael Geheb, and then Rev. Hermann Behrens, an inclusive group of men and women (and choir babies!) built a tradition of excellence for a new era. Today’s choir family, under the direction of Isabel Boston, offers a diverse repertoire from Latin Chant to Spirituals, and welcomes new members.

Color OUR Collections: SFDS Coloring Book Goes Online Feb, 7-11

Every February, the NY Academy of Medicine invites archives around the world to share free coloring books online based on materials in their collections. This year’s SFDS Parish Coloring Book celebrates neighborhood businesses advertised in the parish bulletins of the 1940s and 1950s. Check out all the offerings – from SFDS, to Drexel University, to the Vatican Libraries, to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and beyond, starting February 7 at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/

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

SFDS Boys Choir

SFDS Boys Choir in 1965

In 1967, Choir Director Peter LaManna penned a report on the renowned SFDS “Schola Cantorum,” which offers a curious window into the last days of a more stately age!

LaManna recalled the long history of the SFDS Boys Choir, founded when the church was built in 1911, and reaching “prominence and recognition” under choirmaster and organist Mr. Albert Dooner. In 1956, when Father Angelo Della Picca took over as choirmaster, under Bishop McShea, “the choir took on the nature of a choirschool…The repertory was developed until it was recognized as one of the largest in the United States.” Peter LaManna came on board in 1961, and was proud that “The choir is unique to the archdiocese of Philadelphia, and there are only a few others with the same program and training in the Catholic churches in the United States…” The music was, of course, in Latin, classical, and ornate – and decisively pre-Vatican II. Among its many outside engagements, the choir also recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra and sang with the Lyric Opera.

Running the choir was a major undertaking. LaManna reported that “The official size of the choir is twenty men and thirty boys…There is also a junior boychoir which has twenty-five boys, and which acts as a preparatory group for the senior boychoir. Two Sisters are appointed each year as ‘choir Sisters’ by Mother Superior. They have charge of vesting the boys before services, and accompany the boys on assignments away from the parish, i.e., Christmas programs, etc.” All the boys were chosen by audition from the Parish school (the boys who weren’t chosen became altar servers).

Each section of the group had its own rigorous schedule: “The men of the choir rehearse alone of Wednesday evening…The men rehearse on Friday evening with the senior boychoir, and again on Sunday morning forty-five minutes before Mass….The Senior Boychoir (Middle School boys at SFDS School)…rehearses every day from 3 to 4 PM…They also rehearse on most Saturday mornings, and with the men on Friday evening and Sunday morning before Solemn Mass. During the month of December they rehearse from 8 to 8:30 AM also. The Junior Boychoir…is chosen each year from the third grade boys, and acts as a preparatory choir for the senior boychoir. Most boys remain in this group for two years. They are in the processional and recessional at Solemn Mass, but they attend Mass in the pews rather than the choirloft. This group rehearses every day at 11 AM…They also attend a short rehearsal to go over the hymns for the processional and recessional on Sunday morning.

The Solemn Mass every Sunday was a carefully-orchestrated production: “10:00 AM — Senior Boys report to be vested; 10:15 – Senior Boys and Men rehearse. 10:30 — Junior Boys report for vesting; 10:45 – Junior Boys, Senior Boys, and Men rehearse the hymns for the Processional and Recessional – organist leaves for choirloft; 10:50 – Line-up for procession; 10:55 – Procession – Junior and Senior Boys (Men on Major Feasts and Holy Days); 11:00 AM Solemn Mass – Senior Boys and Men upstairs, Junior Boys downstairs.” The elaborate musical program was always highlighted in the Parish Monthly Bulletin.

Was all the effort appreciated? LaManna admitted that “the attendance at Solemn Mass is very poor…” but “most of the parishioners brag about the choir to others even though they don’t come to hear it weekly…” What a shock to the system it must have been when the ultramodern plexiglass Venturi sanctuary was inaugurated to the squeal of electric guitars just a few years later!

Peter LaManna

MBS Nativity

The Nativity scene that has graced the Rectory lawn in the Christmas season these past few years is a Most Blessed Sacrament Parish artifact with important St. Francis de Sales connections

The two-dimensional relief-carved Holy Family sculptures were commissioned by longtime MBS pastor, Father John Newns, in 1991. Aileen McGovern, wife of artist Bob McGovern, recalls that Father Newns “was renovating, and had old pews,” and that wood was used for the carvings. An accounting sheet lists these as MBS Upper Church pews, but the Lower Church was deconsecrated in 1987, and its furnishings put in storage, so that is also possible. In any case, Aileen recalls that “we chipped a lot of chewing gum off them” so the DNA of MBS – and generations of its young parishioners — is deeply embedded in that old oak.

The DNA of St. Francis de Sales Parish was in the blood of the artist, Bob McGovern, who was born into our parish in 1933, and whose family lived at 1239 Hansen St.  Bob attended the parish school, and was one of “Dooner’s Crooners” (Boys Choir under Choirmaster Albert Dooner). De Sales was central to his early development. Interviewing him in 2001, Robert Wuthnow wrote that “McGovern was still young when he recognized what he now calls ‘the double-edged scary and comforting business of spirituality’…the comforting part appeared in the daily and weekly religious rituals” that appealed to his poetic side – and SFDS had many of those. The scary side came in moments such as when “he remembers the nuns making him write ’I won’t talk in line’ in his notebook a thousand times, then going out in the rain, dropping his notebook, and seeing the words, written in soluble ink, disappear…” McGovern admitted to being a poor student at De Sales, more interested in art than academics. Monsignor Francis Carbine observes that McGovern’s artistic poetic sensibilities showed early at home: “As a young boy in the 1940’s, he drew a giant ear in chalk on Hansen Street in West Philadelphia. Next came a Christmas crèche made from wood of orange crates and grape boxes…

In 1947, at age 16, McGovern was struck with Polio and life instantly changed. Then attending West Philadelphia Public High School, he had to drop out and be tutored at home, “but through a state disability program was soon able to attend art school. ‘It was magical.’” Sally Downey reported that “He was encouraged to pursue his art and, while wearing full braces on both legs and using crutches, he commuted from his home to the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. Later he learned to drive a car with hand controls. After graduating from what is now the University of Arts, he was invited to join the faculty. For the next 43 years, he taught freshmen drawing and design as well as printmaking and other courses until retiring in 1999”

Bob continued to live in the neighborhood as an adult. Parishioner John Deady recalls visiting him at his parents’ house, at 4807 Kingsessing, where “he must have had a studio upstairs. I remember staying in the living room with his parents” while he printed an artwork. “Felt badly as I believe he was wearing braces and had to go up and down the stairs.” After Bob married Beverly at SFDS in 1963, the young McGoverns moved into the apartment house then owned by the Parish, on 47th Street between the convent and the Little School. Later, they moved to a more accessible place with a studio in Narberth – where Bob stayed after Beverly died and he married Aileen (also at SFDS!) in 1971. Bob and Aileen ultimately became members of both St Malachy and St, Margaret of Antioch in Narberth, so they had many church connections.

When Bob McGovern passed away in 2011, Lou Baldwin wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “So vast a number of McGovern’s woodcarvings, sculptures, wood and linoleum cuts, paintings and watercolors adorn churches, institutions and major museums in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and across the country (and Father Eric’s office) that his epitaph could well imitate that of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London: ‘If you seek his monument look around you.’’” We are privileged to be a part of his story.

Bob McGovern

Miracle at MBS

You may know Saint John Neumann (whose statue is in the former confessional by the door to the sacristy), as a hometown saint, but were you aware that a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish had a direct role in his canonization?

The story began in 1962, when a five-year-old boy named Michael Flanigan reportedly “bumped his shin against the doorstep of his parents’ home in West Philadelphia.” The MBS 1976 Diamond Jubilee Book notes that the family were “members of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish who resided at 5612 Beaumont Avenue” and explained that when the boy’s injuries didn’t heal, and he was admitted to Misericordia Hospital, “Doctors discovered that the injury had resulted in a form of bone infection. The boy underwent two operations. During the second operation a cancerous growth was discovered in the injured leg and it eventually spread into the child’s both lungs and lower jawbone. The boy was treated with radiation and drug therapy but these proved too toxic and the treatments were discontinued, at which time his condition worsened.”

The boy’s parents took their son to the Blessed John Neumann Shrine at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in July, 1963, and relic of the saintly fourth Bishop of Philadelphia were applied to the afflicted parts of his body. The symptoms disappeared in December of that year. The family and close friends considered the cure miraculous. Twelve years later, in December, 1975, the medical board of the Sacred Congregation of the Saints in Rome ruled that the cure had no ‘natural medical or scientific’ explanation, and the validation of the cure was submitted along with a petition to the Congregation to consider the canonization of Blessed John Neumann. The family now resides at Villas, near Wildwood, N.J.

A decade later, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “When Pope Paul VI convened canonization ceremonies for St. John Neumann in 1977, Michael Flanigan was one of the first invited to make the trip to Rome. When the young man and the Pope met, the pontiff embraced him and asked, ‘Please pray for me.’

Sadly, in October, 1986, Michael Flanigan – age 29 and married with two children – died suddenly one morning after complaining of sharp back pains.  “Family members said he had been well and had had no medical problems since his bout with cancer” but his hour had come.

So who is the saint he helped to canonize?

St. John Neumann (confusingly, a different saint from British John Henry Newman with a w, after whom College Newman Centers are named) was an immigrant from Bohemia (Czech Republic), who became the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States, and died in 1860.

Saint John Neumann’s road to sainthood was not straightforward: known as a “quiet, simple man who…devoted more time to tending the sick and teaching children than he did to diocesan affairs,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that his “91-year journey to sainthood was interrupted” in 1912, when it was decided that Bishop Neumann’s quiet steadfastness was not “heroic” enough to merit sainthood. Eventually, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV changed the definition of “heroism,” proclaiming that “Works, even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant of God,” and declared John Neumann “venerable.” He was beatified by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council on October 13, 1963, and canonized on June 19, 1977.

Today, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, with his remains visible below the altar stone, can be visited at 1019 North 5th Street.  Invoked as the patron of sick children and immigrants, his feast day is January 5 (Curiously, our statue, which is typical, looks very different from his actual photos – take a look!).

Saint Joseph’s Lily Staff

When our church was built, back around 1911, every detail inside was carefully designed – right down to the lily staffs surrounding the cross on the door of the Saint Joseph altar tabernacle.

What is a lily staff and why is it important?

We don’t know much about St. Joseph from the Bible. Stories of Mary’s betrothal come from the apocrypha (ancient books not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible). There, the Protoevangelium of James claims that when young Mary wanted to dedicate herself as a perpetual virgin at the Temple, the high priest prayed for direction. An angel then told him to gather all of the unmarried men of the area, and have each one bring his rod (generally thought to be a walking stick or staff) to the temple “and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be…and Joseph took his rod last; and behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord.’” The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew tells a similar story, stating that “the man from the point of whose rod a dove shall come forth, and fly towards heaven, and in whose hand the rod, when given back, shall exhibit this sign, to him let Mary be delivered to be kept.”

A new detail appeared centuries later, when the stories were gathered into the Medieval Wikipedia-like Golden Legend compilation of all knowledge: “And then Joseph by the commandment of the bishop brought forth his rod, and anon it flowered, and a dove descended from heaven thereupon, so that it was clearly the advice of every man that he should have the virgin.” Use of the word “flowered” is unclear – it can mean “come out into full development,” and the earlier stories seem to suggest that the dove “flowered” from the rod, rather than that the rod burst into bloom. In any case, artists were inspired by the botanical idea, and over time, the concept of a flowering rod seems to have further developed into a specific flower. The University of Dayton Archives observes “The lily is associated with St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, through an ancient legend that he was so chosen from among other men by the blossoming of his staff like a lily. Likewise, the biblical passage, ‘The just man shall blossom like the lily’ is applied to St. Joseph in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for his feastday, March 19.” The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that the lily is “The best known symbolic flower. It is the principal symbol of purity and thus associated with the Virgin Mary, especially in scenes of the Annunciation…Saint Joseph also frequently carries a lily…”

It’s actually more curious and complicated: the particular kind of lily on our tabernacle – often shown with St. Joseph in religious art — is a Calla Lily, native to Africa – an arum genus rather than a lilium – technically not a lily at all. Arums were associated with fertility in ancient cultures. At the same time, the rod of Joseph is not just a walking stick: the word was used in the Old Testament to mean genealogy — part of a family tree – such as the passage in Isaiah, thought to foretell the birth of Jesus: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (ISA 11:1). Mary has also sometimes been described as a rod, with Christ as the flower.

So, the lily staffs shown on our St. Joseph tabernacle, surrounding the symbol of a cross (which also is part of a tree) combine ancient natural symbols for integrity, belonging, and heritage, on a container for the sacred Eucharist. And one tiny artistic detail “blossoms” to connect and ground us through space, time, and history. The essence of our Catholic culture.

Seasonal Anniversaries

The end of the year seems to be hard on priests! Ten of our seventeen pastors have died since our founding in 1890; and of those, seven have their anniversaries within the next few weeks. This year, oddly, many of the dates happen to fall on Sundays or holy days, which feels like a sign that we should take a few moments to reflect on their special contributions to our story.

Monsignor John T. Mitchell, our seventh pastor (1967-1976), died on November 25, 1981, so his anniversary falls on Thanksgiving Day this year. He came to de Sales from St. Saint Ignatius Parish, where he founded St. Ignatius Nursing Home and was known for his civil rights activism and efforts for the black community. At de Sales, focused on social ministry, he worked to hold the neighborhood together in a time of great societal changes. The controversial Venturi neon lights renovation happened during his tenure.

Sunday, November 28 commemorates Bishop Joseph Mark McShea, our fifth pastor (1952-1961; died 1991). Bishop McShea was the last of the three bishops to serve at SFDS. He grew up in the shadow of our dome: in his youth, he was altar server to Bishop Crane and his family home on Farragut Terrace was one of those knocked down to build the addition to the school. The lower church was refurbished by the Dagit firm during his tenure, and the dome was re-tiled in an unsuccessful attempt to stop leaks. He also established St. Lucy’s School for the Blind in the building that today houses the IHM Literacy Center. Bishop McShea went on to become the first Bishop of Allentown.

Reverend Monsignor Joseph J. Anderlonis S.T.D., our sixteenth pastor (2016-2019), saw the need for stability in the parish. He promised that he would never abandon us; he’d have to be “carried out feet first.” And so he was, on December 6, 2019 – the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Monsignor Joe was our Lithuanian connection, having spent much of his career at Saint George Parish. Learned and sociable, he encouraged book clubs and educational and social gatherings to help bring our diverse community together.

Bishop Hugh Lamb, our fourth pastor (1936-1951; died 1959) has his anniversary on Wednesday, December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the official closing day for this Year of Saint Joseph. The middle of the three SFDS bishops, he is remembered for radio broadcasts, expanding parish activities, paying off the parish debt, and overseeing the 1940 Parish Jubilee. He became first Bishop of Greensburg, in Western PA.

Reverend Edward L. Gatens, our third pastor (1929-1936; died 1955), is commemorated Sunday, December 19. Rev. Gatens came to us from Pottsville, where he was known for defiantly building a Catholic high school, with a bold cross-shaped window, on the hill where the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan liked to burn its crosses. He arrived at SFDS just in time for the Great Depression and struggled to minister to the many in need among his flock. Due to a debilitating chronic health issue, he resigned his post in 1936.

Sunday, December 26 belongs to Bishop Michael J. Crane, our second pastor (1903-1928), who built our church and opened the school. Consecrated in 1921, he was the first of the three bishops to serve at SFDS. In addition to the church, he also built the convent and the addition to the school. Bishop Crane is buried on the Rectory lawn.

January 5 celebrates Monsignor Francis J. Fitzmaurice, our eighth pastor (1976-1977; died 2004), who was also Parish Administrator 1973-1976, when Reverend Mitchell’s health began to fail. When Father Fitzmaurice wrote his memoir for the parish 100th Anniversary, he recalled two exciting events: the glorious Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia and a scary break-in at the rectory – both emblematic of that interesting era. He went on to become pastor of St. Laurence, Highland Park/Upper Darby.                

Through good times and bad, our intricate parish tapestry is woven from the unique threads contributed by our succession of pastors. We are who we are today, in part, because of them.