It might be hard to get away from the city this summer, so let’s check out some distant worlds inside St. Francis de Sales church at 47th and Springfield!
We think of our 1911 church as old and elegant, but it was futuristic when it was built, decorated with the state-of-the-art fireproof tilework designed to sheath modern skyscrapers, and fully-wired for newfangled electricity. A 1922 photo of the church interior shows dramatic movie theatre light bulbs around all of the arches. Look closely: those antique back-to-the-future light fixtures are still embedded in the clay tiles!
Our church bells have some curious associations. An early American translation of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel of space travel, From the Earth to the Moon, used the name of the Meneely Bell Foundry – the same company that made our bells – for the manufacturer of the bell-shaped metal spacecraft in which astronauts were catapulted to the moon. One of our bells is named Gervase, probably after Bishop Crane’s sibling, who became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM. But there was also a medieval English monk named Gervase who was famous for describing a strange phenomenon in 1178 AD, when the horn of the moon split in two and “from the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals and sparks…” Scientists hypothesize that Gervase-the-monk could have observed the formation of a crater on the moon, or, more likely, an exploding meteor between the earth and the moon – an event to think about when our bells toll!
High in the tower on the East side of our church, is a window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light with radiant beams – or a tail. It may represent the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis. It could also have marked the arrival of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910. Though it appeared every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen and tabloids predicted the end of civilization. Our window-designer may have commemorated that fortunate escape.
Even the Bishop’s insignia of our patron Saint Francis de Sales has an other-worldly reference in the form of twin stars Castor and Pollux. These were added to the Sales family shield around 1310, after an ancestor, Pierre de Sales, observed “two flying lights appeared above the mast” during a fierce storm at sea. Other sailors were terrified, but Pierre correctly identified “Castor and Pollux” – a name used to describe a double jet of Saint Elmo’s Fire – an eerie sea-going weather phenomenon. He advised the ships to stay their course through the Mediterranean to aid the Knights of St. John at Rhodes, and as a result, was awarded the right to embellish his family shield. Francis de Sales incorporated the stars from his family emblem in his Bishop’s insignia in 1602, perhaps also thinking about St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, who sailed on an Alexandrian ship “whose sign was Castor and Pollux.”
Finally, back to earth, our Blessed Mother altar was donated in by Eleanor Donnelly, the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” in memory of her deceased family members — including her brother, Ignatius Donnelly, who taught her to write poetry. Ignatius, who was a Minnesota senator, is celebrated today for his 1882 book Atlantis: the Antediluvian World — a cult classic of undersea “Lost City of Atlantis” lore.
So, though you may have to take a “staycation” this summer due to covid; there’s plenty of room for your mind to wander, from outer space to the depths of the ocean, back at church!