Tag: Adolfo de Nesti

House of Mary

The tabernacle below the crucifix on the old high altar is the one used at Mass most of the time, but the repository on the Blessed Mother altar has a special significance.

What is a tabernacle and why is the one on the Mary altar important?

A tabernacle is a “little house” of God. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the first tabernacle of the Old Testament was a “portable shrine to contain the Ark of the Covenant,” with the original stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments; while in churches today, “In Christian usage a tabernacle is a receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament.”

The tabernacle on our Mary altar has an added layer of symbolism, as a reminder that Mary, when she was pregnant, became a human “tabernacle” for Christ. Philip Kosloski of Aleteia notes that “This idea of Mary being the new “ark” or “tabernacle” of God is a long tradition. For example, the ancient Akathist hymn of the 6th century reads, “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! holy beyond all holy ones. Hail! ark gilded by the Holy Ghost. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.

Our Mary altar tabernacle is labeled “Mater Salvatoris” (Mother of the Savior) and the door is embellished with roses. The University of Dayton’s John Stokes Jr. archives provides insight into the meaning of the decorations: “the rose, queen of flowers, is an ancient and universal symbol of the Incarnation, of Mary, of her love of God, and of her spiritual beauty and fragrance, pleasing to God.” The roses on our tabernacle are “a wild rose typical of those known to the Christians of the Middle Ages and called by them, Mary’s Rose. It is also the rose adopted as the model for the central rose windows of the medieval cathedrals.”  Curiously, our patron Saint Francis de Sales had a slightly different idea of the symbolism, referring to Christ as Mary’s rose: “that Divine flower, our Lord, who came forth from the Blessed Virgin, as it had been foretold by Isaias that a flower should rise out of the root of Jesse.” The symbol of the rose on our tabernacle thus references both Mary encompassing the Christ child, and Christ contained within

Spiritually, Mary’s significance as a tabernacle in our church is not confined to her shrine: it’s part of the fabric of our building. One of the inscriptions, threaded around the sanctuary walls, reads “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth” (26th Psalm), with the Mary monogram placed above the words “the beauty of thy house” — perhaps as an acknowledgement that Mary is the “house” of Christ!  It goes further: above the front door of our church is an image of Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional entryway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin — with the Virgin being symbolic of the Church.” The verse inscribed around the image (2 Chronicles 7:15) is the Word of God at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, which contained the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant. So our front door welcomes us to Mother Church, which contains the precious tabernacle of Christ’s presence. Was the heavy symbolism accidental or intentional? We do know that Reverend Crane, who commissioned our church, had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, and chose to lay the cornerstone on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907.

Incidentally, the Mary altar and tabernacle have a surprising historical importance to our parish, in addition to the religious symbolism. The altar donor was Eleanor Donnelly, the female “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” a powerful feminine presence of the era. Descendants of architect Henry Dagit, also relate a family tale that one of Henry’s daughters was sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s model for the statue of Mary, providing a link back to the long-ago designers and builders of our church.

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Portal of Prayer

IMG_2318 sfds facade carving de nestiThe words and artwork above the doors of a church are intended to guide churchgoers as they move through the doorway, or portal, from the outdoor worldly world into sacred space.   At Saint Francis de Sales, that direction has long been hidden – and not just because it has been covered by scaffolding!

The message above the central door to our church is visible in photographs, but long misrepresented in writing. In almost every description of the church, since the beginning, only the first half of the inscribed verse is quoted: “My eyes will be open and my ears attentive.” Winding around a scene (carved by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti) usually described as “the Madonna and Christ Child” — an active toddler — this might easily be understood as a reminder to churchgoers of proper behavior as you enter the church: be still, be quiet; observe the magnificent decorations and the pageantry; listen carefully to the readings and the sermon.

This is only a partial quote, however. The actual phrase engraved above our doors is 2 Chronicles 7:15 “My eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of him that shall pray in this house,” which puts a different spin on things: these are the words that God the Father, spoke to Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, built to house the Ark of the Covenant. The verse in the Bible continues “For I have chosen, and have sanctified this place, that my name may be there for ever, and my eyes and my heart may remain there perpetually.” So instead of telling us how to behave in church, our church is likened to the fabled Holy Temple of King Solomon! This is reinforced in the image framed by the verse, which is not just the “Madonna and Christ Child,” but Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional French doorway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin…the Virgin being symbolic of the Church as well as being the Bride of Christ.”

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The association is not incidental. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that “A door is an obvious symbol of the way to salvation through the church, and for this reason the main door is usually directly opposite the altar.” In our church, the pose of the toddler Christ above the portal is echoed in the crucifixion mosaic above the altar and the doorway inscription theme continues up in the sanctuary, with two phrases threaded around the top of the walls. The first is from the 26th Psalm in which David – patriarch of Jesus’ lineage — says “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”  (note the Mary monogram above the words “beauty of thy house!”) The other quote, from Genesis 28:16, is part of what Jacob said upon awakening from his dream about angels climbing a ladder to heaven: “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” — in the Bible, the verse continues “and I knew it not….This is no other but the house of God and the gate of heaven.

Studying inscriptions in churches, and especially the words inscribed above ancient European church portals, Calvin B. Kendall noted that historically, “Inscriptions articulated the hopes and fears of monks and worshippers, spoke for them and to them, and in some cases may have functioned as talismans against lurking demons.” In 1911, our doorway inscription boldly identified our church as a holy place and acclaimed the benefits of prayer in that uncertain age leading up to the First World War.

For many years now, the front of our church has been wreathed in scaffolding that has concealed the portal decorations and offered a different message and symbolism. Scaffolding is human-built structure that provides support while keeping people safe. It’s also an emblem of “work in progress,” a very apt description of our parish! And, perhaps, there’s a warning: over time, is it possible to become so conditioned to rigid human framework, that we are in danger of letting it overwhelm the spiritual message of God’s love?

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The Statue in the Corner

de nesti sculptingStanding in the darkness, behind a noisy blowing fan in a corner of St. Francis de Sales  church, on the parking lot side, is a tall quiet statue of Jesus with broken fingers.

For the first few decades of our history, the statue took pride of place beside the altar, at the front of the church, clearly visible to the priest and congregation. Then, in the 1960s, the reforms of Vatican II called for the sanctuary to be “de-cluttered” to better focus on the modernized Communion ritual with its new forward-facing altar. The statue was moved, and moved again, until it found its current out-of-the-way resting place.

So what does the statue mean? Its upraised right hand, with two fingers and thumb outstretched, is a gesture of blessing – supposedly based on the ancient Roman orators’ gesture for “speaking.” Its wounded heart reveals “Jesus Christ′s physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity” — the crown of thorns showing that “the meaning of love in the life of Jesus was especially evident in His sufferings” and the flames representing “the transformative power of divine love.” Devotion to a representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – based on a vision experienced by a Visitation Sister in the 1670s — is a longstanding form of Catholic worship.

As to its place in our history: our statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was described as “a specimen of his best work” in an article about Adolfo de Nesti in 1915 – the last information we have about the Italian immigrant sculptor who created so many of our church decorations, before his “American dream” ended and he abruptly disappeared.

What is a metaphor? An online dictionary defines it as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” So our statue depicting the “divine love” of Jesus was moved away from a central location to a dusty corner. We took its existence for granted, as part of the church furnishings, and it received little attention – especially after the candle stand illuminating that corner was removed a few years ago. The statue has changed with age, since the fingers making its gesture of blessing – and “speaking” – have been broken and roughly mended. But it has always been a part of our church.

Now, in shadowed times, as we rediscover our history, our attention is pulled back to the statue and we are called to find inspiration once again in the light and power of  “divine love” that it represents.

Our Man in Washington

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Adolfo de Nesti

If you’re ever in Washington DC,  stroll over to the Wilson Building (home to the offices of the DC Mayor and Council at  1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW), look up at the facade, and say “Hi” to the artist who decorated our church!

Huh?

Before crafting statues and friezes inside and outside our 1911 church, sculptor Adolfo de Nesti was commissioned to design classical figures to adorn what was then called the Municipal Services Building in Washington. The Washington Post, July 3  1908, reported that his 26 white marble statues, each over nine feet tall, represented “the arts, sciences, commerce, statesmanship, and other conceptions.”  One of the statues, depicting “a graceful-appearing young man with bared arms and a loose-fitting robe draped about his shoulders is Art…and De Nesti, it is said, has used his own head and figure as the model…”

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Art by Adolfo de Nesti (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

De Nesti’s works were a small part of a much larger idea. In 1901, the MacMillan commission approved a development plan to re-make the nation’s capital as an idealized “City Beautiful” that would inspire “civic virtue…through important monumental architecture.” James Wasserman, author of a guide to Masonic Washington,  suggests that the many symbols incorporated in decorations throughout the city “silently communicate a curriculum designed to inspire, elevate, and teach eternal truth.

De Nesti, who came from Florence, Italy,  dreamed American in his Washington years. His business partner, Ernest Bairstow, would later be known  for his work on the Lincoln Memorial. De Nesti was on the Street Decoration Committee for the 1905 Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. And in 1906, he married Agnes Campbell Gordon Armistead – the Great Granddaughter of Colonel George Armistead, whose 1812 defense of Fort McHenry inspired our National Anthem.

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Statue of Our Lady by Adolfo de Nesti (Immaculata University)

In 1907, having finished his work on emblems of  “patriotic religion”  in Washington, de Nesti and his young wife began a new chapter of their lives in Philadelphia. Their son was born here in March 1908 and de Nesti began crafting inspirational symbols of Catholic faith in our church. In 1914, he sculpted a statue of the Blessed Virgin to top the dome at Immaculata University.

As far as we know, de Nesti  never became an American citizen, and likely returned to Italy in World War I. His wife remarried after a “tragedy” and divorce in 1921, at which point their son, Adolfo Napoleone Francesco de Nesti Junior changed his name to the all-American Armistead Greene.  Adolfo de Nesti’s American dream ended early but his sculptured likeness in Washington still wistfully overlooks every presidential inaugural parade. And Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, the city of our nation’s Founding Fathers, is his memorial.

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The Wilson Building, Washington DC (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

 

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God in the Details

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Our distinctive church is not an assembly line “cut out with a cookie cutter” structure (and hopefully, its marble ashlar-cut stones are more durable than cookie dough).

Perhaps we might think more often about its uniqueness. A filler article in a 1955 Parish Monthly Bulletin, at a time when new suburban churches were popping up across the country, offered some insight about church design from

a Polish friend who led the liturgical art underground classes while the Germans held his country…(He) told me that the American churches were built, the niches filled and the doors opened in the same manner as a grocer stocks his shelves. He explained that in Europe the people waited patiently until they got the money together and found just the right statue, or had it specially carved for every niche in their churches. So it took a century or two or three. Did that matter if the finished product was truly breathtakingly beautiful, a reflection of heaven?”

By those standards, our intricately-designed Byzantine Romanesque church was built too quickly, in just four years from 1907 to 1911. However, very little of our church was purchased “off the shelf” or mass-produced. Instead, every aspect was thoughtfully designed and hand crafted. The artwork is filled with symbolism and meaning, and bears the hand marks of individual artists, working with skill and inspiration – with an occasional upside-down stained glass inscription or improvised piece of flashing to remind us of human imperfections.

Your parish historians are slowly uncovering the stories of those artisans. Henry Dagit, the architect, was a parishioner. Adolfo de Nesti, an Italian immigrant who studied in Florence, carved many of the sculptures (a persistent rumour says that he used members of the Dagit family as models!). Our Altarpiece mosaic was designed by Frederick Henwood, an Englishman and local artist who converted to Catholicism shortly after working on our church. The windows, by celebrated Philadelphia stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo, were one of his first big commissions. And our dome, crafted by Rafael Guastavino’s renowned firm, is considered an exemplar of his work.

What is the purpose of art? In a church, it should evoke awe and contribute to a sense of mystery. It should make us feel connected and feed our souls. All are encouraged to enjoy the rich visual feast, because, ultimately, the artistry becomes a “reflection of heaven” only as it inspires those who sit in the pews.

A Bell Named Adolph

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Our church bells don’t ring out as often as they did in times past, but they’re still an important part of our church. Did you know that the largest bell weighs in at 2,500 pounds, which makes it bigger than the Liberty Bell (which is a mere 2,080 pounds, and cracked)!

According to the 1940 Parish Jubilee volume, the eleven bells up in the tower were “named after the following saints: Adolph, Michael, Elizabeth, Anthony, Cecilia, Theresa, Edmond, John, Thomas, Maurice, and Gervase.”

It’s an odd list. Among other things, one might wonder: why Adolph?

When the bells were consecrated in 1916, that was still a fairly common name. Several Saints are named Adolph: Saint Adolph of Osnabruck lived in Germany in the 1100s and was known as the “Almoner of the Poor;” there was also a 9th century Spanish martyr named Adolph; and Saint Adolph Ludigo-Mkasa, who was martyred in Uganda in the 1800s.

The name could be there for another reason, as well. The bells were bequeathed to the church by Mrs. Elizabeth Lippe, in honor of her late husband, William. A little research reveals that William’s Dad emigrated from Germany. His name was Dr. med. Adolph Graf zur Lippe Biesterfeld Weissenfeld, shortened to Dr. Adolph Lippe, and he was an important figure in the history of homeopathic medicine, holding the chair of “Materia Medica” at the Homeopathic College of Philadelphia (the origins of Hahnemann University Hospital) from 1863-1868.

The name could also be intended to honour Adolfo de Nesti, the Italian sculptor who created many of the statues in our church. (It may be additionally significant that Monsignor Michael J. Crane’s sister was a nun named Sister Mary Gervase; and his Assistant was the formerly-Anglican Reverend Maurice Cowl).

So, in the story of one church bell, we have represented Germany; Spain; Italy; England; Uganda; care for the poor; immigration; higher education; alternative medicine; Catholic history; Philadelphia landmarks; American history; fine art; and church music – an emblem of the rich tapestry of our Parish heritage!