Merry Christmas to All!
Click here for the printable SFDS Christmas Tour: SFDS tours — Christmas
Click here for the wordpress post: SFDS Christmas Tour
The builders of St. Francis de Sales Church left many messages for the faithful to decipher, but the symbols in the bottom part of the Nativity window (middle long window, St. Joseph side of church), are especially hard to puzzle out, since they were imperfectly formed in the glass.
Historic photos from the D’Ascenzo Archives at the Athenaeum are only a little sharper, but those seem to show the two lily-like decorations as anchors with crossbars, or anchor crosses. The blob between the crosses is a bird with long pointed wings and a forked tail — a swallow – a traditional complement to the Nativity scene above, and part of a unifying theme for the three bottom windows.
Swallows were mysterious birds because they disappeared in winter: until the early 1800s, it was believed that they hibernated, or slept, in mud at the bottom of ponds, and “returned to life” in the spring. Because of this annual “resurrection,” the swallow was used in art to represent the incarnation – the dual status of Christ as both divine and human.
(Incidentally, it was Edward Jenner, an English country doctor and naturalist, who marked individual birds, observed their behavior, and determined that they actually flew south in the winter and returned in the spring. Jenner is an interesting character, more famously credited with the invention of vaccination against smallpox).
The anchor crosses on either side of the swallow also fit nicely with the Nativity theme, since they are supposed to signify “hope” – and what could be more hopeful than the birth of the Savior! Why are they paired? All three bottom windows on that side of the church show variations of a double-cross (two crosses together, not a weasely form of cheating) – more emblems of Christ’s combined human and divine nature.
What’s the Santa secret? The anchor cross is an interesting cross choice for the Christmas window, since the anchor can also be a symbol for Saint Nicholas – the saint who inspired Santa Claus! His most famous legend relates to tossing bags of gold through a window to provide a dowry for young ladies. But he is also the patron saint of sailors and ships, since his prayers were thought to have calmed a fierce storm at sea as he returned by ship from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
So we are illuminated by our windows. We realize that like Saint Nicholas, we are on a pilgrimage through life, inspired by a divine mystery. The muddiness of the hand-crafted symbols in our glass offers an extra layer of meaning: reminding us of human imperfection, and our tendency to obscure the message of Hope that the season should represent.
Welcome to our blended parish of St. Francis de Sales United By The Most Blessed Sacrament. We hope you enjoy this Christmas Story, as told in the architectural decorations of our 1911 church (You can also find another more traditional tour in the Self-Guided Tour tab on this site).
Let’s start at the very beginning…at the high pulpit on the Mary side of the church. When the Mass was simplified after Vatican II, our pulpit survived as a part of the architecture, but it was not used for many years. Today, it is reserved for special occasions, as when the Nativity Proclamation is read just before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In the glittering light, the recitation of Jesus’ lineage connects us with all of the faithful down through the ages, while the eagle book rest – symbol of St. John’s Gospel – still reminds us that before everything, “In the beginning was the word…”
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Lk 1:31)
A few yards to the right is the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Above her head, note the three entwined circles and triangle in the mosaic half-circle lunette. These represent the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The upside-down dove in the center of this lunette represents the Holy Spirit – especially significant for Mary, who was filled with the Holy Spirit when Jesus was conceived.
The first long window on the Saint Joseph side of the church commemorates The Annunciation, when Mary learned she would have a child. At the top of the window is Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
(Crafted by D’Ascenzo Studios, the six long windows tell the story of the Life of Christ in the upper half, and that of our patron Saint Francis de Sales in the lower half. In the first window, young Francis is instructed in the catechism by his mother, Mme de Boisey in France in the 1570s, so both window sections highlight Motherhood and faith).
“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Lk 2:8-11)
The middle window on the Saint Joseph side of the church shows the Adoration of the Shepherds. The quote at the top is Micah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): “From you, O Bethlehem…shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The artistic double cross designs in the bottom panel of each window on that side of the church symbolize Christ’s Divine and Human nature.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!” (Lk 2:13,14)
At the back of the church, look for two angel sculptures above the holy water basins between the doors. Henry Dagit, the architect who designed our church, had his daughters, Josephine Leonide and Anna, model for these exquisite pieces by Adolfo de Nesti back around 1910 (It is rumored that Josephine Leonide was also the model for the Blessed Mother).
A proper Nativity scene needs some animals. Step into the foyer, turn right, and look for the stairwell to the loft which the choir ascends to form a “heavenly chorus.” The stairwell window features the image of a lamb – a perfect accompaniment to the shepherds, visiting the manger.
(Although this particular lamb, carrying a banner and perched on a book with seven seals, is a reference to the apocalypse – the end of the world — from the Book of Revelations).
Whew! That was intense. Now go back to the middle of the church and look up at the decorations in the triangular pendentives that support the Guastavino Dome. The four mystical creatures ( also, incidentally, from Revelations) represent the four Evangelists – the saints who wrote the Gospels. Luke, who penned the story of Jesus’ birth, is the Ox – a traditional sacrificial animal and a very fitting addition to our Nativity story!
(Matthew, who related the story of the Three Wise Men, is shown as an Angel, representing Christ’s human nature. Mark is the Lion who proclaims the dignity of Christ, since his Gospel begins with John the Baptist as a herald announcing the arrival of royalty. John employs the Eagle as the symbol of divinity because his Gospel begins in the heavens before Jesus came to earth..)
“And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9)
Observe the stars in the sky-like dome! The six-pointed star symbolizes the six days of creation. From the 18th century, it gained new significance as the “Magen David,” or “Shield of David,” representing the House of David – the lineage of Jesus. Enclosed in an eternal circle, our star of earthly lineage has a cross at its center, representing the Easter story, turned into an eight-pointed star — the Star of Bethlehem – of Jesus’ birth.
(Gershom Sholem, a Jewish scholar, suggests that, ironically, it was the infamous yellow badges of the Second World War – long decades after our church was built — which turned the Star of David into a universal Jewish symbol).
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2;1,2)
Near the 47th Street door, find the Builder’s Compass of Saint Thomas, the Apostle. One of Jesus’ original followers, Thomas is thought to have gone on to become a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tradition says Gondophares was Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany.
Above the Saint Thomas emblem, is a big round window showing Mary holding Baby Jesus in the middle, with Saint John the Evangelist on the right, and Saint Francis of Assisi on the left. Saint Francis of Assisi is remembered as the saint who loved animals. He is also credited with organizing the first ever Nativity scene and pageant in the countryside of Assisi, so that everyone could experience the sense of wonder that came from interacting with the story.
(Our window is based on a long-ago painting by Andrea del Sarto commonly known as “The Madonna of the Harpies.” . Why was the image chosen for our church? We don’t know for sure, but it is intriguing to note that the original painting was commissioned on May 14, 1515, and our parish was commissioned on May 14, 1890).
Finally, when you hear our eleven tower bells “on Christmas day, Their old familiar carols play,” listen for the tune “I heard the Bells” – based on an 1863 wartime poem of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — and join our prayers for peace on earth, goodwill to all this holiday season and always.
Step back in time, just after World War I, and imagine city streets filled with horse carriages and carts instead of motor vehicles. Miss Laura Blackburne (3808 Walnut; later 5038 Larchwood), an early donor to St. Francis de Sales Church, was also a board member of the Women’s SPCA (today’s Women’s Humane Society) and worked on the Dispensary Committee for a unique holiday event as reported in The Philadelphia Public Ledger, December 24, 1918:
There was great rejoicing in “animal circles” at the announcement that Santa Claus today would visit the stables and kennels of the poor horses, dogs, and cats, as well as the homes of real folks.
Through the agency of the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Santa gave Christmas dinners to more than 200 animals. The horses that have so nobly done double duty during the war were given especial notice.
There was a sort of thin, soupy mixture for the first course, mixed feed for the entree and carrots and big red apples for dessert. Dog biscuits were Rover’s share and there was catnip in prettily tied bunches for the kitties.
Ned, a staunch old dray horse who for the last year has been supporting a family of eleven, had the time of his long life. Ned’s master is sick and has been almost blind for many months. Ned’s steady work in hauling has furnished the only livelihood for the master, mistress and the nine children of the family.
Dan is another of the heroes who were decorated “inside and out” for his splendid services. He has been earning the living for an eighty year old man and his family.
Girl Scouts distributed the Christmas dinners for the animals from the Lighthouse at Second Street and Lehigh avenue, from the dispensary at 315 South Chadwick Street (near Rittenhouse), and from Lowry Home (for homeless dogs and cats), Eighty-Sixth and Eastwick Streets. Horses in the police van and traffic squad stables were remembered by the women too. The Christmas compliments were in the form of bright red apples.
Members of the dispensary committee of the women’s society investigate their “horse families” just as conscientiously and carefully as social workers investigate the homes of they city’s poor people. Wherever the people are poor and deserving of help, and their horse or animals are hungry, the society gives its aid…
The lighthearted article sounds reassuringly normal, considering that the Great Influenza Pandemic, which killed an estimated 12,191 people in Philadelphia alone, had finally slowed its brutal onslaught just the previous month! All schools and churches in the city — including ours — were closed down for three weeks, from October 6 to October 26, 1918, in an apparently successful effort to help stem the contagion.
Long ago, in a pre-9/11 world, our parish choir treasured a thank you letter from the White House in Washington DC.
In December 1998 and again in 1999, SFDS Parish Chorale represented the Great State of Pennsylvania, singing a short medley of traditional carols one evening to White House visitors. Each state sent a diverse musical delegation, for a total of over 2,600 performers through the holiday season. Other Pennsylvania groups included Renaissance of Dover; LanChester Chorus of Christiana; The Eric Mintel Quartet of Morrisville; and the Rankin Junior Tambouritzens of Pittsburgh.
When our choir arrived on a chartered bus, they were ushered into “A Winter Wonderland” — announced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the 1998 theme for the all-American holiday festivities. According to documents in The Clinton Library, the Blue Room tree that year featured snowman ornaments “designed by artists, recommended by the governors’ spouses in each of the fifty states.” Members of The Knitting Guild of America, from across the country, contributed little mittens and hats; and the Society of Decorative Painters crafted wooden decorations related to winter sports. An elaborate gingerbread house in the State Dining Room weighed over 150 pounds, and featured miniature versions of the Clintons’ cat Socks and dog Buddy frolicking in an intricate (and edible) snowy landscape.
The East Room, where our choir sang, was “ transformed into an enchanted glittering wonderland…decorated with eighteen soaring conical trees…” The press department noted that “The traditional White House creche,” or Nativity scene, which formed “the focal point of the East Room, was made in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century. It features 47 carved wood and terra cotta figures. The creche…has been displayed each year at the White House since it was presented in 1967” (a tradition which continues today). A hand-crafted menorah was displayed in the West Wing.
Times were very different then. Security seemed minimal: choir members just submitted social security numbers ahead of time, brought identification, and observed the expected protocols. Fran Byers does remember a heavy presence of the Secret Service at one of the concerts – bringing their spouses and children, for their departmental family holiday gathering!
There’s a pleasant nostalgia in thinking about snowmen and Christmas carols in the heat of the summer, and recalling a more optimistic time. This year, Philadelphia hosts a political convention, and, hopefully, we can be as welcoming.