Tag: 1900s

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?!


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.


J.J. MacDermott Wins the U.S. Open

A writer calling from Ireland with a research request, alerted us to a forgotten golf celebrity in our parish history!

J.J. would have been about four years old in 1895, when a group of local enthusiasts improvised a nine-hole golf course at the Belmont Cricket Club (then located at 49th and Chester). The first four holes – made from tomato cans — were on the cricket club grounds; the other five were in a field next door, on the other side of an eight-foot fence that determined golfers had to climb! The golfers formed their own Belmont Golf Association in 1896, and, in 1897, the new club moved to 52nd and Chester, where legend said the old barn used as the clubhouse, “had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town.” Little J.J. was fascinated, watching this strange new sport, and made his own golf course in his grandparents’ nearby orchard. At age 9, he “marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they ever had on the premises.” Walter Reynolds, the club professional, took a fancy to the plucky youngster and allowed him in.

                J.J. (John Joseph Jr.) MacDermott’s parents, John and Margaret, were married at St. James Parish (today St. Agatha St. James at 38th & Chestnut) on 15 November 1890. J.J. was born nine months later on 12 August 1891 – a year after our parish was founded – and was baptized in our parish that same month. His sisters Alice and Nora Gertrude were baptized here in 1893 and 1895. Their mother is supposed to have sung in the SFDS church choir, although we have no early records to confirm that. Their father was a mail carrier, and, reportedly, very strict. The MacDermotts lived at 1234 South 50th Street. Global Golf Post reports that J.J.’s grandparents, the Smiths, lived “a couple of streets over and a few blocks down.” According to records, they were also active parishioners. Young J.J. often stayed with them.

                When J.J.’s father wanted him to leave school in 1906, at age fifteen and begin working in a real trade, J.J. contrarily moved to Camden and took a job as assistant golf pro at the Camden Country Club, before becoming head professional at Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill a year later.        His career progressed quickly: in 1909, he finished 49th in the U.S. Open at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. In 1910, when the U.S. Open was at Philadelphia Cricket Club, he lost by 4. The following year, at Chicago Golf Club, “McDermott was 19 years old when he won the U.S. Open, making him the youngest winner in history, a record that still stands. He also was the first American to win the U.S. Open.” He won again in Buffalo, NY, in 1912 — a rare back-to-back victory.

                Sadly, J.J.’s rising star was a supernova. In 1913, in a burst of euphoria after winning the Shawnee Open, J.J., who had always been prone to odd, impulsive behavior, made a strange jarring speech scorning “British invaders” (boasting that Americans finally “owned” the U.S. Open), and then apologized, but his reputation was damaged. He still travelled to Britain for the British Open in June 1914, but he missed a boat, then his train was delayed, so he missed his qualifying tee time for the tournament. Returning across the English Channel, his ferry was struck by another ship and he had to board a lifeboat. Back home, misfortunes crowded upon him when his stock market investments failed. He had a nervous breakdown and moved back home with his parents (and back to the parish), before being committed to a mental hospital in Norristown in 1916. Formally diagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1920s, J.J. stayed in the institution until he died in 1971.

                The great theatre of world events upstaged J.J. MacDermott’s personal tragedy: World War I began in July 1914—just a month after his fateful British trip. And, as Doug Fraser has observed: “He’s like so many mentally ill people. It’s just easier to forget about them. It’s just easier to look away” — though perhaps J.J.’s hour is coming round at last as interest in his remarkable achievements seems to be suddenly renewed!

The Children’s Hour: First Communion 1911

The year 1911 was notable for the children of our parish – and not just because the newly-built church opened with great celebration and ceremony.

An old parish document states that “Nineteen hundred and eleven was a red letter year in the history of the school, for the children of St. Francis de Sales, shared with other children throughout the world the benefits of the new Decree of Pius X, making possible the reception of our dear Lord in Holy Communion at the early age of seven. Accordingly all the little ones who had reached that age received our Lord on the First Friday of May…

This was a big moment for the church. In October 1910, the Philadelphia Inquirer had reported Pope Pius X’s new decree that children should receive their first Communion at the “age of reason,” when they made their first Penance: “regarding the points of instruction, it will not be necessary for the child to know the whole catechism, as has been customary heretofore in the United States.” First Communion, which “completed” the sacraments of initiation, came after Confirmation in those days: Confirmation was regarded as a “strengthening sacrament,” rather than a “sacrament of maturity” (the order didn’t begin to change until 1932), and the Inquirer reported that before the 1910 ruling, “children making their first Communion were usually between the ages of ten and fourteen.

The 1911 ceremony – which may have been a combination Confirmation/First Communion — probably took place in the original chapel/school building, (the building that today contains the Parish Auditorium), since the new church would not be ready until November and we don’t know what “finishing touches” were still underway. Unfortunately, the Communion and Confirmation records for that year are unavailable, so we don’t know much about the actual ceremony, or the specific names of those receiving the sacraments — although we can guess that  the list might have included one of the Slattery boys — sons of the local coal wholesaler, who would help to “baptize” our bells in 1916; one of the Hasson girls — whose big brother Philip would be the first boy ordained from our parish; and perhaps one of the Dagits —  children of the architect, who may have modeled for our angel sculptures; among many others.

Reverend Crane chose a Friday for the 1911 First Communion, so that children could continue afterwards with “The Communion of Reparation, the receiving of Our Divine Savior, on the First Friday of every month for nine consecutive months….” A 1928 report noted that this “has ever been a devotion dear to the heart of the Pastor, and the children have responded joyously to the call of Christ, and the voice of their beloved shepherd…

Six years later, in 1917, when most of the children in the school were receiving Communion, they mobilized further with the entrance of the United States into World War I: “A Children’s Eucharistic League was formed, the principal duty of which was to receive our Lord frequently that He might bring peace to the war-ridden world….” This was part of a much larger movement, begun by Pope Pius X, who wanted everyone to take Communion more often, and promoted the special power of children’s eucharistic participation – especially in times of trouble.

Incidentally, our Father Eric wrote a thesis on the changed order of confirmation and First Communion, so we have our own “in-house expert” to take us full circle on this interesting historical subject!

An Ornament to the City

When Reverend Joseph O’Neill tried to buy land to build our first SFDS chapel in 1891, local property owners expressed concerns about the incoming Irish and German Catholic immigrants. By the time the handsome new church was finished in 1911, the building had become a local fixture.

1911 dedication

The media may have helped to bridge gaps and ease some of the tensions of the changing neighborhood, by opening windows into Catholic culture. Newspapers of the period liked to publish lengthy, detailed word-pictures of interesting events – as when, on November 13, 1911, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported how “Archbishop Prendergast, assisted by two other prelates of equal rank and a number  of priests of the archdiocese of Philadelphia, with appropriate and impressive ceremonies yesterday dedicated the new Catholic Church of St. Francis de Sales, Forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue.”

The Inquirer carefully described the scene: “The interior of the edifice had been transformed into a bower of beauty and light. Hundreds of candles and electric bulbs shed their rays through the auditorium and sanctuary, while the best skill of the florist and decorator was in evidence with the mass of multicolored autumn flowers that banked the altars with side walls. The church was crowded with a notable representation of the laity, which had gathered long before the hour set for the beginning of the ceremonies. Many unable to gain admission to the edifice stood about outside the church to see the imposing procession of prelates and priests which proceeded to the services.”

Two church dignitaries who assisted Archbishop Prendergast at the dedicatory exercises were Bishop Fitzmaurice of Erie, and Bishop Carroll, of Nueva Segovia, Philippine Islands. Promptly at 10.30 A. M. the procession of clergy and acolytes moved from the chapel of the school building and proceeded along Forty-seventh street to the main entrance of the church on Springfield avenue. As the cross bearer entered the wide door of the edifice the choir, accompanied by a large orchestra, sang a joyous anthem. The procession moved up the centre aisle. Here it divided, part going to the right and part to the left, allowing Bishop Prendergast and the other prelates, clothed in full pontifical robes, to ascend the altar when the simple ceremony of dedication took place.

1911 dedication cst (2)

For Catholic readers, The Catholic Standard and Times newspaper peered behind the scenes to list all the important names, then summarize the sermons and speeches. Pastor Reverend Crane spoke of construction concerns in our developing neighborhood, and how, when the plans of the building were first submitted to the men of the parish (no women, of course!), “At first all thought the church would be too expensive, but when it was pointed out that the neighborhood was one of the best residential sections of the city; that the Catholic church is the true house of God, and that God’s permanent home should be second to none, they began with confidence…” The project was complicated, with the Guastavino dome to be built atop the Dagit structure, so “Solemn High Mass was offered at the start for the intention that the work should be successful, and that no accident should occur...” Archbishop Prendergast addressed “all those who watched the progress of the work from the foundation until the cross surmounted the graceful and majestic dome, to those who that day saw for the first time the beauties of which they have so often read...” and described the resulting — “magnificent new temple” as a landmark that “charms the eye and is an ornament to the city.” It was also a permanent territorial marker for Catholicism in the area, with an interior “well fitted to serve the needs of those who for generations to come will assemble within its walls…”

Nine years later, after the construction debt was paid, the building was officially consecrated on November 13, 1920. The building that the neighbors once rejected had become a cornerstone of the neighborhood

Secret Garden Door

Door on East side of church as shown in architectural drawings

Have you ever noticed that there is no sculpture in the arch (tympanum) above the parking lot door outside Saint Francis de Sales Church? It looks a little bare, but that seems to have been intentional.

Henry Dagit’s original architectural plan for the church shows sculptures in the arches above the three front doors on Springfield Ave., and above the 47th Street door, but the Eastern Elevation drawing, showing the Rectory Side of the church, has an empty half-moon above the door, with no ornamentation planned for that side of the building.

                Why would that be?

SFDS shown on 1909 map

When our church was finished in 1911, that part of the building wasn’t a priority, since it wasn’t visible from the street! The eastern entrance to the church was tucked away in a “secret garden” courtyard, formed with the back of the  rectory on one side; the wall of the new church on another; the side of the school (with the alley space between the church and school, probably used for deliveries from 47th street) filling the third side; and the back fences of a row of houses along Farragut Terrace completing the enclosure. We have no record of whether the small, closed yard space was planted or paved, or how it was used. It was probably a laundry and utility area for the rectory, and/or a school playground; there was, as yet, no need for parking, since people didn’t have cars.

Needs and conditions changed over time and that side of the property became exposed in 1926, when the parish bought and demolished the two corner houses on Springfield Ave. (numbers 4615 and 4617) to create the corner rectory garden; and numbers 936 to 932 on Farragut Terrace to build the addition to the school. The church parking lot on Farragut Terrace was part of that development. The ramp to the church door was added in the late 1990s.

SFDS shown on 1927 map

Who owned the houses that were removed back in 1926? One familiar name is that of Roger A. McShea at 928 South Farragut Terrace – he was the father of future Bishop Joseph Mark McShea, who would grow up to become our Fifth pastor from 1952-1961. Number 932, incidentally, was owned by a gentleman named John Sanderson Trump – a terribly familiar last name, but, as far as we know, unrelated.

As to the “portal sculpture” — if a design had ever been proposed for that empty half-moon space above the eastern door, what could it have been? The scenes above the doors on the front of the church show the Annunciation, the Crowning of Mary, and the Pieta. The 47th street side of the church shows another Mary-related scene, the Nativity. The Assumption might have completed her story – and that would have been very suitable, since Bishop Crane, who built the church, had a special devotion to Mary and to the Rosary. He could even have placed a Mary garden in the courtyard — invoking the medieval idea of the hortus conclusis or enclosed garden representing Mary’s virginity and purity – looking much like today’s Rectory garden with the MBS statues.

Instead, it was left to imaginations (and perhaps to future parishioners) to complete the decorations on that side of the building. We are reminded yet again, that we, like our magnificent church, are all “unfinished business” – ever adapting to new circumstances, never complete on this earth, and never, ever perfect.

SFDS front doors as shown in architectural drawings

Building a Nation: Fourth of July 1908

oklahomaThe central event of the 1908 Philadelphia Fourth of July celebrations, reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, was “The presentation of an American flag by Philadelphia to the Baby State of the Union, Oklahoma, and a reciprocal presentation to this city.”

Oklahoma had voted to become the 46th state in November, 1907. When its representatives came East, to be welcomed at the “seat of American Independence” for their first American Fourth of July, the festival “Chairman Frank W. Lambrith…pointed to the clicking telegraph instrument ready to keep them in touch” via the latest technology, with crowds gathered 1,367 miles away in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

Festivities began with “a delegation of citizens from the new state, occupying a conspicuous place on the platform,” along with “a number of descendants of the signers of the Declaration. Both delegations proceeded to Independence Hall with a military escort.”

 Representatives of different religious and civic groups across Philadelphia – what would, in 1908, have been considered an exemplary diversity — were invited to participate, starting with Rabbi Martin Nathans, of Beth Israel Synagogue, who delivered the opening prayer, followed by songs from the Matthew Baldwin School Chorus.

 A series of back-and-forth Oklahoma  telegrams provided live commentary: “’Guthrie wants to know what we are doing,’ called Chairman Lambrith, looking at a telegram, and we have telegraphed back: ‘We are raising over Independence Hall the flag that will be given to Oklahoma.’ Oklahoma clicked back: ‘Very good.’”

 The celebration continued, as “Rev. C. Edgar Adamson, of St. Paul’s M.E. Church, invited all to rise and repeat the Lord’s Prayer….Then came the battle-scarred Oklahoman, (Civil War)  Col. T.H. Soward, who stepped to the front on his crutch to be greeted by tremendous cheering…His expressions of the Western peoples’ love for Independence Hall, and their wonder whether the people who had it in their keeping really understood how they loved it, thrilled his auditors…” He proclaimed “that the Liberty Bell spoke…not only to our own countrymen, but…the world is hearing and heeding the Cry of Liberty…”

 A graduate of Boys’ Central High School read aloud The Declaration of Independence, then a descendant of one of its Signers delivered a speech, and State flags were exchanged. “Then there were a few minutes of holding of watches, waiting for the first stroke of 12 o’clock. At the first call of the Bell, Mayor Reyburn clicked the telegraph to Guthrie and the salutes were fired and the bands and people began to render “The Star- Spangled Banner” in Philadelphia and Guthrie at once.

 After several minutes of joyous noises during forty-six strokes of the (Liberty) Bell, the people gathered into silence again and Rev. Joseph A. Whitaker of St. Francis de Sales pronounced the benediction.” (Bet you were wondering when Saint Francis de Sales Parish would come into the story!).