The brass donation plaque on the front of our altar hints at a tale of how two parishes once moved in opposite directions in order to come together.
The story began in 1969, a year of transformational world events, during which local churches were directed to install forward-facing altars for the New Mass of Vatican II.
At Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Monsignor Daly, who had been Pastor since 1940 and would retire in 1970, selected a monumental piece of marble to become a permanent part of his church – emblazoned with symbols of wheat and grapes, and carved with an image of the apostles at the Last Supper. The traditional design reflected both the purpose of the altar – as a table for the congregation to symbolically gather around, like the apostles – and the identity of the parish, focused on the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Reassuringly, in time-honored fashion, parishioners old and new were asked to help fund the addition. The MBS February 1969 Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “Miss Margaret Brooks, our organist for many years, has donated the new altar for the upper church. She wishes this, in memory of her beloved parents, Joseph and Margaret (sic. Joseph and Sarah Brooks, who had lived at 1812 South 56th St.). The cost of the new altar is $3,000. The installation and additional marble will cost an extra $4,500. Miss Ada Schraeder, our housekeeper for many years, has donated $100 towards the alterations in our sanctuary...” The following month, contributions were reported of “$22 for top altar cloth and $50 for help in installing new altar, in memory of P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from Mother and Dad – Mr. & Mrs. Austin H. Gaughan, 5318 Grays Avenue” and “$22 altar cloth for new altar in memory of nephew P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from his Aunt & Uncle – Mr. & Mrs. Michael Hogan, 5348 Grays Avenue.“ (Austin Gaughan had died the year before, at age 19, in Vietnam). More contributions came, in months that followed, to cover the rest of the costs. Each one was individually acknowledged, since it represented a member of the parish, gathered for “supper” around the table. Those offerings and names became part of the MBS, and now our, parish heritage.
St. Francis de Sales, a few blocks away, took a different approach. There, under Monsignor Mitchell, a pastor focused on large social issues, idealistic young priests, recently assigned to the parish and filled with a sense of mission, embraced the new simplified English-language Mass, because it seemed accessible to all. With an evangelizing spirit, they invited world-renowned architect, Robert Venturi, to celebrate with a bold modern statement piece in the sanctuary – a plain, sleek plexiglass altar on a brightly-lit modern platform — symbolically highlighting the new order and thrusting the ornate high altar, and the “old-fashioned” ideas it represented, deep into the shadows. The renovation received a fair amount of press coverage, but parishioners, who did not understand the concept, and who were not involved in the planning or decision making, felt blindsided by the changes to their beloved church, which had been their haven in an age of upheaval. Hurt feelings were long lasting.
Jump ahead to 2007, when two small, diverse city parishes, weathered by time and circumstance, had to come together to survive. Like the neighborhood and the New Mass, the sanctuary of St. Francis de Sales had changed over time. The ultramodern Venturi altar eventually cracked and was quietly replaced by several temporary wooden altars under a succession of short-term pastors. When Saint Francis de Sales Parish became Saint Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, the sturdy marble altar from MBS, installed as a symbol of unity for the two churches, became a perfect fit for the space, looking as though it had always been there. Since its placement was a committee decision – agreed by the pastor and lay representatives of both parishes – it also offered a chance to come full circle at SFDS, heal an old wound, and open a way to a possible future of better communication between rectory and parishioners. It’s up to us, today, to move that forward!