Tag: Christmas

Half-Moon Holy Night

              A half-moon-shaped window above the middle doors at the back of the church is a simple architectural detail packed with meaning.

              The round medallion in the center recreates Mary and Baby Jesus from an oil painting called “Holy Night” by Antonio da Correggio around 1530 (about 37 years before our patron St. Francis de Sales was born).

In the original painting, Mother and Child were shown in a pool of light, with St. Joseph and a group of shepherds in the shadows just beyond. Light plays an important symbolic role in many Nativity depictions: the Glencairn Museum notes that  in Byzantine artistic tradition, “the cave of the Nativity represents the darkness into which Christ, the Light of the World, was born” and “according to the well-known mystical vision of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), when the Christ Child was born, the cave where the birth took place was filled with an ineffable divine light—a light that completely outshone the earthly light of Joseph’s candle…” Artists have tried to capture the effect ever since. The original Correggio painting was considered a masterpiece of the chiaroscuro technique, which uses strong contrasts of light and dark to tell its story. We get a slightly different variation with our window: Mother and Child are best seen illuminated from behind.

We don’t know who painted our Holy Night window or what shop put together the glass around 1910. Amy Valuck, President of the American Glass Guild, suggests that the round painted medallion was likely to have been made in one place, and the surrounding half-moon glass in another, and the two then pieced together. She observes that the glass in the lunette windows is mostly rolled glasswith black ladder-like borders that were stencilled on using a vitreous paint made with powdered ground glass and metal oxides, fired in a kiln to stabilize it, with silver nitrate then applied between the lines and fired again to get the yellow coloring – still crisp after a century of wear. “The narrow circular border around the painted medallion is rolled opalescent glass.” That could be a small origin clue: milky opalescent glass, made by mixing different metal oxides into the actual glass — was a technique pioneered in the late nineteenth century by several American studios – and most of the other handwork in our church is local.

The round medallion — which may have come from a company that supplied such ready-made work to other studios — was hand-painted with vitreous paint, mixed at the glass workshop. Our expert points out that “if the proportions of ground glass, oxide, and flux were not carefully measured, paint would be more likely to fail over time” and the white lines at the edges of Mary’s clothing and some flaking paint suggest that its glass was slightly under-fired – a very human touch, adding weight to the idea that the medallion and the surrounding window were by different artists, possibly from different studios, and reminding us that our magnificent church was built with the collective efforts of many individuals.

There’s one further curious note about the Correggio painting that inspired our medallion: commissioned for a church in northern Italy, it was treasured there until 1640, when the work was “carried off by night” by the Duke Francisco d’Este, for his private gallery – a common “disruptive phenomenon” in an age when devotional artwork in churches was especially meaningful to those whose homes were bare, but rich people felt entitled to hoard pretty things. Correggio’s picture was meant to be accessible. Today, on display in a museum in Dresden, Germany, with reproductions spread around the world, its inspirational light shines again for everyone.

              Back in our church, the origin story of our own little window is still a mystery (clues welcome!), but, when daylight shines through the image as the doors swing open at the end of Mass, it offers a small reminder that faith is active, and we are called to carry the light of the Christ child with us, in our hearts, as we go back out into the world.

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MBS Nativity

The Nativity scene that has graced the Rectory lawn in the Christmas season these past few years is a Most Blessed Sacrament Parish artifact with important St. Francis de Sales connections

The two-dimensional relief-carved Holy Family sculptures were commissioned by longtime MBS pastor, Father John Newns, in 1991. Aileen McGovern, wife of artist Bob McGovern, recalls that Father Newns “was renovating, and had old pews,” and that wood was used for the carvings. An accounting sheet lists these as MBS Upper Church pews, but the Lower Church was deconsecrated in 1987, and its furnishings put in storage, so that is also possible. In any case, Aileen recalls that “we chipped a lot of chewing gum off them” so the DNA of MBS – and generations of its young parishioners — is deeply embedded in that old oak.

The DNA of St. Francis de Sales Parish was in the blood of the artist, Bob McGovern, who was born into our parish in 1933, and whose family lived at 1239 Hansen St.  Bob attended the parish school, and was one of “Dooner’s Crooners” (Boys Choir under Choirmaster Albert Dooner). De Sales was central to his early development. Interviewing him in 2001, Robert Wuthnow wrote that “McGovern was still young when he recognized what he now calls ‘the double-edged scary and comforting business of spirituality’…the comforting part appeared in the daily and weekly religious rituals” that appealed to his poetic side – and SFDS had many of those. The scary side came in moments such as when “he remembers the nuns making him write ’I won’t talk in line’ in his notebook a thousand times, then going out in the rain, dropping his notebook, and seeing the words, written in soluble ink, disappear…” McGovern admitted to being a poor student at De Sales, more interested in art than academics. Monsignor Francis Carbine observes that McGovern’s artistic poetic sensibilities showed early at home: “As a young boy in the 1940’s, he drew a giant ear in chalk on Hansen Street in West Philadelphia. Next came a Christmas crèche made from wood of orange crates and grape boxes…

In 1947, at age 16, McGovern was struck with Polio and life instantly changed. Then attending West Philadelphia Public High School, he had to drop out and be tutored at home, “but through a state disability program was soon able to attend art school. ‘It was magical.’” Sally Downey reported that “He was encouraged to pursue his art and, while wearing full braces on both legs and using crutches, he commuted from his home to the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. Later he learned to drive a car with hand controls. After graduating from what is now the University of Arts, he was invited to join the faculty. For the next 43 years, he taught freshmen drawing and design as well as printmaking and other courses until retiring in 1999”

Bob continued to live in the neighborhood as an adult. Parishioner John Deady recalls visiting him at his parents’ house, at 4807 Kingsessing, where “he must have had a studio upstairs. I remember staying in the living room with his parents” while he printed an artwork. “Felt badly as I believe he was wearing braces and had to go up and down the stairs.” After Bob married Beverly at SFDS in 1963, the young McGoverns moved into the apartment house then owned by the Parish, on 47th Street between the convent and the Little School. Later, they moved to a more accessible place with a studio in Narberth – where Bob stayed after Beverly died and he married Aileen (also at SFDS!) in 1971. Bob and Aileen ultimately became members of both St Malachy and St, Margaret of Antioch in Narberth, so they had many church connections.

When Bob McGovern passed away in 2011, Lou Baldwin wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “So vast a number of McGovern’s woodcarvings, sculptures, wood and linoleum cuts, paintings and watercolors adorn churches, institutions and major museums in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and across the country (and Father Eric’s office) that his epitaph could well imitate that of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London: ‘If you seek his monument look around you.’’” We are privileged to be a part of his story.

Bob McGovern

The Nativity Portal: We Like Sheep

The Nativity scene is very weathered above the 47th Street door to our church, and today it’s hard to tell if the visitors to the Christ Child, are kings or shepherds!

Does it matter?

You might have expected that our “magnificent church” would have identified with the Three Kings, dressed in worldly finery, and offering splendid gifts to honor the Christ Child. And, indeed, the Adoration of the Magi is a traditional theme for doorway sculptures on many elaborate old churches.

Our church seems to have chosen a different route, though. A partial view of our sculpture, visible in several 1940 SFDS school photos, appears to confirm that the central visitor is a child shepherd with a sheep — and this is supported by the phrase around the scene, still readable as “The Word Was Made Flesh” rather than “They Offered Him Gifts…”

Why depict a shepherd?  Pope Francis observes that the arrival of the shepherds marks a critical moment in the story of Christ’s birth, since, after hearing from the angels, “the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation. It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation.”

Our doorway sculptures are part of an overall design theme in our church, based on John’s Gospel that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” This doctrine is central to faith: as the BBC concisely explains, “Through the incarnation of Jesus, humans were able to start repairing their damaged relationship with God. This relationship had been imperfect since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Through Jesus’ incarnation, God began the process of salvation from sin, making it possible for humans to have a full relationship with him and go to Heaven.

How does this appear in artwork? The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art states that “The Incarnation, i.e. God becoming man in the person of Christ, is…symbolized, either as the Annunciation (at Mary’s words ‘Let it be with me according to your word’), or as the Nativity.” So the Nativity depiction above the 47th street door represents the witness to God becoming human. On the front of the building, the Annunciation scene – another Incarnation –is shown above the left or “choir” door. The theme continues above the center door, with the Christ child shown standing with arms outstretched in the same pose as Christ on the crucifix above the altar inside – foreshadowing his future sacrifice. And on the right, the crucified Jesus is mourned by his mother – a human moment – with an inscription reminding that “Christ died for us” – emphasizing that God became human to save us.

The same theme is echoed inside, with the three Life of Christ windows on the parking lot side of the church. Like the first door on the front of our church, the first window shows the Annunciation. The middle window is another Nativity scene with humble shepherds as the human witnesses to the Incarnation. The third window shows young Jesus building a cross with his Dad – a family moment, parallel to the scene of his mother taking him down from the cross on the front of the church. Below all three windows are different artistic interpretations of double crosses — symbols of the dual nature of Christ, both human and divine.

Why are the outdoor scenes above the church doors important? The entryway, or “Portal,” frames the experience. Those who pass through the front doors into the church are reminded of the power of prayer and instructed to be aware that Christ died for our sins. At the side door, we are advised to approach with humility. If that “portal” includes a child shepherd, then the meaning is even more pointed, since Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And the sheep in the scene remind us that we are God’s flock, and he is both our shepherd and the sacrificial “Lamb of God.”

St. Francis de Sales School Sixth Grade, 1940

The Lesson of the Christ Child

Nativity scene shown in the December 1931 SFDS Parish Monthly Calendar

The Parish Monthly Calendar for Christmas 1929, probably printed early, made no mention of the October stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression, but it did urge parishioners “WE ASK YOU TO BE MORE GENEROUS THAN EVER IN YOUR CHRISTMAS OFFERING.”

A year later, the pastoral letter observed that “The world is in dire need of a spirit of optimism today…” and a small news item in the Parish Monthly Calendar mentioned that the Girls’ Corps (a Girl Scout-like parish organization) had gathered donations to put together “thirty-four well-filled baskets” of food for the poor of the parish, distributed in December 1930.

Another year passed and the Parish Monthly Calendar reported that on December 20, 1931, “members from the Girls’ Corps with girls from the Commercial Class (girls not planning to go  to High School) accepted donations at the door of the church” in the morning, then, held an afternoon Christ Child Party, in which “children and adults crowded the school auditorium and presented gifts of food and various articles of clothing for the poor in honor of the Christ-Child, the exemplar of poverty.” Ninety-six boxes of food thus gathered were then sent out to “the needy families of the parish” and “a consignment of clothing and shoes was distributed to the children whom the Sisters in school knew to be in need.

Troubles continued. The January 1933 Parish Monthly Calendar reported that De Sales Night – the much-anticipated annual church party at the luxurious Bellevue-Stratford Hotel – was canceled “because of the stress of the times” and a less costly entertainment would be held, instead, at the Byrd Movie Theatre, 47th and Baltimore. A full-page article praised the efforts of all who had helped with, or donated at, the 1932 charitable Christmas Christ-Child Party (run by the St. Vincent de Paul Conference). That year “The need was much greater: so much so that one fears to mention the number of families in our parish that had to be helped…

As the Great Depression settled in, through the 1930s, the threat of hunger and homelessness loomed very real for many parishioners.

What was in the charity boxes? They sound remarkably like Covid-era lockdown kits, consisting of bushels of potatoes; tins of vegetables and fruits; lots of dried beans (assorted kinds); onions; coffee; sugar; butter; milk (in tins); bread; jelly; and oatmeal. Scrapple and chicken were the meats. Oranges and a little hard candy were offered as a treat. No toys: gifts included stockings, underwear, blouses, shoes, and other items of clothing.

It doesn’t seem like a lot by today’s standards, but new underwear, shoes, or socks might have been welcomed by children in a large family, and potatoes with chicken could make a good Christmas dinner. People didn’t have as much, and they didn’t expect as much: outgrown clothing was “handed down” until it wore out; then the pieces were turned into quilts and other handcrafts. Moth-eaten sweaters could be unraveled and re-knitted into gloves. An old sock could be fashioned into a doll or stuffed animal, and a wooden grocery crate made a scooter or cart. Mothers were adept at turning unappetizing food scraps into satisfying meals; picky eaters went hungry.

Now, decades later, the wheel of fortune has turned again and some of those long-forgotten coping skills have been rediscovered as families learn to manage Covid lockdowns, unemployment, and shortages. We are more isolated because of contagion, but we do have internet and phones to connect, and snail-mail still works. And we are conscious that we need to be less wasteful in order to save our shared environment. Covid is a reminder, calling us back to core values. Looking at the Nativity scene, Pope Francis observed last year: “we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness….From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.

The December 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar explained the Christ Child Party
The January 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar reported on the December 1931 efforts

White Christmas: The Blizzard of 1966

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A dusting of snow brings a touch of magic to Christmas, but a blizzard is another story! Don Mc Dermot recalls the year that a winter storm dumped between 12 and 21 inches of snow in the Philadelphia area on Christmas Eve:

It started snowing December 23 early afternoon and the next morning the snow was waist high. I was working at Wyeth Labs in Radnor and was ‘off’. It was ridiculous watching the snow pile up. Mid-afternoon Mother Boniface called me asking if there was any way I could open a path across 47th St. from the convent to the church so that the Sisters would be able to get to Midnight Mass.”

“Of course, I said that I would see what could be done. I called the boys on Windsor Avenue: John Welding and Ed German, and they contacted: Frank and Paul Allen, Jim and John Hay and others. They met around 6 PM and shoveled a path from the Convent door straight across the street to the side sacristy door. I walked home, ate supper, dressed and struggled back to the church. Tom Magee was in the sacristy wondering if there would be Midnight Mass. I went into the rectory and it was decided that Mass would be held for whoever showed-up.”

It was around 10 PM that the altar boys, popes (the “popes” were little altar servers in training), choir boys and men began arriving, vested in the auditorium, and the Sisters made it to the auditorium and tied on the large ribbon ties: red for the altar boys, fuschia for the choir boys.  Monsignor Sefton was amazed and they (the rectory) called the Dairy Maid Bakery on 47th Street and arranged for some firemen to deliver all the donuts that they (the snowed-in bakery) would be unable to deliver to the auditorium. Some men started using the large coffee urns in the small kitchen on the stage making coffee. The church was already full of the parents and families of the boys.”

The Sisters crossed 47th St and entered by the sacristy entrance and were seated in front of St. Joseph altar; the Monsignor and priests took their seats in the sanctuary. The Bell Ringers started playing the bells at 10:30 PM. Around 10:50 the choir members lined up in the left side aisle, the altar boys lined up across the front aisle and the popes in the center aisle. The choir entered, singing their opening hymn as they processed in back of their Processional Crucifix, followed by the altar boys with the popes lining the front aisle in front of the Nativity scene which had only the star lit. The priests with the Monsignor walked at the back of the procession. The choir sang a full hour of Christmas hymns. Just before midnight, one of the popes carried the statue of the Christ Child to the Monsignor who went into the stable and placed the Christ Child statue into the manger. The organ blasted out as the choir sang, ‘Joy to the World’, and all the lights were turned on—Christmas had arrived at De Sales!”

After Midnight Mass, “The Monsignor invited everyone to go into the auditorium for coffee and donuts before walking home. In the Auditorium, the altar and choir boys were given Christmas gifts from the priests. The choir members played the piano and the singing went on to around 5 AM” when everyone presumably staggered home, exhausted, for family celebrations!

 

Christmas Past

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SFDS Monthly Parish Bulletin December 1924

Features and ads in St. Francis de Sales Parish Christmas Bulletins from the 1920s offer windows into a different age – when gifts might be hung on the Christmas tree and the Christmas stocking was a novelty!

THE CHRISTMAS STOCKING AND HOW TO FILL IT (1927)

“For some reason, the beloved Christmas stocking of our childhood is not as common as it once was.

Kiddies who do not enjoy the thrill of opening mysterious packages, rooted from the recesses of a stocking in the dawn’s early light, are missing something that is their inalienable right.

The sheerness, or delicate fabric of Mother’s stocking, may keep them from using hers, but a Christmas stocking of some kind should be the possession of every child.

The larger presents may be downstairs beneath the spruce or fir, but a little gift or two should be added to the fruit, nuts and candy that are carefully wrapped in crinky packages and placed in the stocking. The time-honored orange should be placed in the toe; the horn, the jumping jack or the whistle should stick from the top. Do not use rich candies or soft-shelled nuts as fillers, or the child’s breakfast appetite will be destroyed. Better wrap a few hard candies of some kind in tissue paper and use the various nuts that cannot be broken by little fingers.

A nickel, a dime and perhaps a quarter, wrapped in several wrappings, and possibly securely tied inside a box will furnish several minutes of intense excitement. An apple will be appreciated. A potato from the bin, carefully wrapped in colored paper and tied, will bring a squeal of delight.

By all means give the children their Christmas stockings.”

Our second Pastor, Bishop Crane, was from the Ashland, PA, coal mining area, and many parishioners had family connections in that region, so they probably appreciated the joke:

THE BEST IN THE CLASS  (1926)

Interested Neighbor: ‘You seem to be a bright little boy. I suppose you have a very good place in your class?’

Little Boy: ‘Oh, yes, I sit right by the stove.’

Teacher in Pennsylvania mining district: ‘Can any one of you tell me where the Savior was born?’

‘Allentown,’ shouted Gottlieb.

Teacher: ‘What, Allentown! I just told you yesterday the Savior was born in Bethlehem.’

Gottlieb: ‘That’s right! I knew it was somewhere along the Lehigh Valley railroad.’”

1925 ad
SFDS Monthly Parish Bulletin December 1925

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SFDS Monthly Parish Bulletin December 1925

1925 dec a.c. croff drugs
SFDS Monthly Parish Bulletin December 1925

1924 bulletin ad
SFDS Monthly Parish Bulletin December 1924

Secret Santa Window

swallowThe 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.

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SFDS Christmas Tour

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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).

De Sales Photos Binder 06 030 (2)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.

_MG_2621 (3)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)

T006 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).

lambA 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).

Image (21)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)

dome-starObserve 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)

DSCN4470 (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.

harpiesAbove 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.

 

 

Horse Party

horse partyStep 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.