Tag: dome

Windows of the Souls

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Symbols in the 24 windows of our Guastavino dome tell the story of Christ’s Passion, but there’s a hidden human layer of meaning. Imagine early parishioners forming a prayer circle in the middle of our church, then floating up to hover in front of the windows they donated – twenty donors, each with a different prayer intention. Who were they and what were their needs? Here are just a few:

dagit familyHenry D. Dagit (4529 Pine), architect, designed our church as his family monument. He rented a family pew and his daughters modeled for the angel statues in the rear. Dagit’s youngest daughter, Jane, was born in 1907; and his father, Charles (Karl), and his brother Frederick both died in 1908, so many Dagit thoughts and prayers were woven into the fabric of our church while it was under construction from 1907 to 1911.

A007 (2)General St. Clair Mulholland (4202 Chester), another pewholder, was a Union veteran from the American Civil War, who became the first Irish Catholic Police Chief of Philadelphia in 1868.  He had retired by the time our parish was founded, but participated in its activities and made the Parish speech at our Second Pastor, Father Crane’s 1902 Silver Jubilee. He died in 1910, just before the new church was finished, so his window is his memorial.

thomas slatteryThomas Slattery (4710 Baltimore), pewholder, helped out with de Sales Nights fundraisers, and would become one of the sponsors at the Baptism of our Church Bells in 1916. Slattery, a coal wholesaler, ran the Philadelphia office of his family business. It was profitable, but there was a family tragedy, when his 34-year-old brother James, who operated the coal mine at Tuscarora with another brother Daniel, is said to have shot himself in a moment of melancholy. James was buried in Holy Family Cemetery, Schuylkill County, in 1907.

Herman Vetterlein‘s brother was pewholder Joseph Smallwood Vetterlein, who lived at 4212 Spruce. The pair ran a very successful family cigar business. Herman was also an officer of the American Catholic Historical Society. What was he commemorating when he donated a window in our church in 1910? Thankfulness, perhaps, after a long drama with an ex-wife, a custody battle, and a second marriage. In 1911 Herman became the legal guardian of his 10-year-old grandson. Business prospered that year, and perhaps uncomfortable family situations were finally resolving.

Mrs. Catherine Slane (4931 Catharine) was a pewholder with a three-year-old child, when her older husband Felix – a saloon keeper — died in 1911 after a long illness. The window she donated was probably in her late husband’s memory.

Herman Feeser (510 South Forty-eighth Street) lived with his in-laws, the Ramspachers, and the relatives shared a pew in the church. Herman was a poultry dealer at 3rd and Front Streets. He and his wife Mary were married in 1905. Perhaps their window memorialized their first child who died – or the new baby just born in 1910. Mingled sadness and joy.

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Adolpho de Nesti (studio at 3919 Irving), a sculptor from Florence, Italy, carved most of the statuary in our church and the friezes on its facade. Our church would be his biggest project and his proudest achievement; he would disappear a few years later in 1916, probably called back to Italy by his government in the First World War, leaving behind his American wife and child, never to return.

A church is made of brick and stone – and also thoughts and prayers, wishes, memories, and dreams. Imagine generations of souls, gathered around the beacon of our dome – their long-ago intentions joined in concert with all our prayers today. A powerful beam towards the heavens.

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How the Domes Got Tiled

E013 july 1956 dome 2Parish-led renovations in the 1950s looked good at the time, but changed an historic church.

Contractor Charles Kain recalled a long-ago project at St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia: “Early in the 1950’s we were approached by Bishop Joseph McShea,..the pastor…, to resurface the domes. They were quite old, in poor condition, and leaking into the church…The Bishop was proud of the fact that the domes could be seen as part of the skyline from a distance in the city on the highways going north and he wanted to maintain the character of the domes as they existed…We assured him that we could renew them with ceramic tile.

We consulted a tile contractor, Belfi Brothers, with whom we had done work previously. They advised us that the common bathroom tile was not sufficiently durable under exterior conditions and directed us to a tile manufacturer in upper New York State who made the type of exterior tile which would be appropriate. Next, I performed the structural calculations necessary for a domed structure. We determined that we should leave the existing dome in place to serve as a base for the superstructure, cover this with a four-ply fabric and pitch roofing membrane for waterproofing, then place a 3-inch thick reinforced concrete layer to accommodate the loads of snow and wind, then install the finished tile layer. We also divided the surface into eight quadrants, designed artistic patterns similar to those in the existing dome, and used a herringbone pattern for installing the tile.

The old dome had a base structure of masonry tile which was adequate to carry the necessary roof loads. One question asked was how this structure could carry the additional loads of the new concrete and tile. We explained that the old structure would have to carry the added loads only on a temporary basis until the new concrete dome on top could harden and become the basic supporting structure of itself and the normal roof loads…When we presented our design… to the Bishop, he…called upon…a structural engineer…to re-check my calculations…The Bishop…had previously read Latin descriptions of how some of the Roman domes were constructed…this confirmed his approval of our work.”

In the process of construction…we designed a small steel frame to roll around the dome on wheels at the base and at the top, enabling the workmen to reach all areas of the dome. For the exterior tile work, the tile setters, accustomed to placing tile on bathroom walls, had to experiment to get the flat tiles in a herringbone pattern on a spherical surface. Obviously, they succeeded.”

Fifty years later, when the joint between the big dome and the lantern at the top leaked, and the veneer of modern tiles peeled off, Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner and her team from Historic Building Architects were called in to study the original Guastavino dome underneath – a unique historic structure not understood by the 1950s parish contractors — and the engineering complications created by the 1950s concrete overlay. After considerable research and consultation with a variety of experts, they determined that the best available option was to remove the hazardous modern tiles and confirm that the 1950s concrete was working well to prevent water leakage. The simplest and cheapest solution was to paint the concrete dome to match the original dome tile colors. Paint samples were tested and left in place for several years and they did very well. However, a different paint product was ultimately used and that has not adhered to the concrete and has faded over time. It’s under warranty. We’re working on resolving issues and hope to get the dome repainted in 2020. So, as St. Francis de Sales himself once said: “Let us await our advancement with patience.”

 

 

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The main dome with the 1950 tiles, as it looked in the 1990s.

A000 aerial view

The Lenten Dome

There’s a carefully arranged catechism with an interesting Lenten theme included in the twenty-four stained-glass windows of the Guastavino Dome at St. Francis de Sales Church, but since the windows are so high above the nave, few people are aware of it!

Imagine a cross made by connecting four compass points through the middle of the dome. The dome window to the North, showing three nails and the crown of thorns, would be at the “head” of the cross, its symbols representing the physical “sufferings of Christ.” At its “foot,” to the South, is a window showing the “hammer and tongs” that inflicted the wounds.

Now find the imaginary “crossbar.” To the West, is a window showing the “Scourges,” or whips, used in Christ’s humiliation. Exactly opposite, the Eastern window shows a “Lantern.” This was described in the 1911 and 1940 lists of dome window symbolism, as “the Light of Christian Doctrine which illuminates our pilgrim journey on earth.” An alternate reading, is as an emblem of Christ’s lonely nighttime agony and prayer vigil while his followers slept. Biblical symbolism sources note that “A lantern calls to mind nighttime activity, and it is used particularly as a symbol of Christ’s Passion, which began in the evening at the Garden of Gethsemane and continued under the cover of night” and “Lanterns were carried by the mob which arrested Jesus in Gethsemane.” The lantern completes the story of Christ’s suffering.

A previous column described another invisible cross in the dome – its axis running from the altar towards the back of the church, connecting the ascending and descending dove windows; and its crossbar stretching side-to-side linking the Papal Tiara window to St. Peter’s Keys.

The two groups of symbols encapsulate religious teaching: one set, defined by the building’s interior architecture, describes the structure of the Catholic church, showing the relationship between priest and pews; St. Peter and the Pope. The second cross, aligned to the strange forces represented by the compass and the sunrise, is about the central mystery of faith: Christ’s death and resurrection. Why is the lantern placed in the Eastern window? Think of the “Star of the East,” the beacon star, guiding wise travelers to Bethlehem. Also consider the direction of sunrise, when Jesus rose from the dead. Which leads us back to the original description of that holy lantern “which illuminates our pilgrim journey on earth.”

Our church decorations are quietly filled with layers of symbolism, which even its original parishioners likely did not fully appreciate (And we are still trying to find out more about the mysterious designer!).

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True Colors

dome paintingThe distinctive domes of St. Francis de Sales Church are a local landmark – and a work-in-progress.

The four small domes and one large one were constructed by the renowned Guastavino firm around 1910 – the only remaining Guastavino domes without exterior roofs in the U.S.

Their first renovation was in the 1950s. When Reverend (later Bishop) McShea became pastor in 1952, we are told that the domes were “in poor condition, and leaking into the church.” McShea, who “was proud…that the domes could be seen as part of the skyline from a distance  in the city…” specified that any fixes must “maintain the character”  of the domes. The chosen solution was to coat them with a layer of concrete to reinforce the structure, then cover them with new heavyweight glazed ceramic tiles in “artistic patterns similar to those in the existing dome.”

Fifty years later, the joint between the big dome and the lantern at the top let in water and the modern tiles were peeling off, so new repairs were needed. Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner and her team from Historic Building Architects studied the original Guastavino structure and the engineering complications created by the 1950s work, and determined that the best available option was to seal the concrete and paint it to match the original dome colors.

What were the original colors? Interesting question. The dome was resurfaced before the advent of color photography, so we don’t have that visual record. Guastavino archives yielded watercolour paintings from 1909 showing proposed decorations in green and gold. Then, core samples of original tiles, taken from under the concrete, provided solid evidence.

In 2011, Annabelle’s crew exactingly recreated the original colors and patterns of the domes using specially-formulated paint. It took about four weeks to prepare the surface and two weeks to paint,  and looked great when it was finished (with colors that differed somewhat from the more familiar 1950s tiles). But, over the next few years, the paint unexpectedly deteriorated, with greens turning yellow and flaking away like autumn leaves.

The paint, still under warranty, was re-evaluated exhaustively. A new test patch about four feet square was applied a year ago, and for now, we are “watching paint dry” – usually the definition of “unexciting,” but in this case, providing important data points, since we don’t know why the paint failed and it’s important to get it right. So in a hurried,  impatient age, our semi-painted dome, quietly waiting, is a reassuring reminder that there’s “a time for every purpose under heaven”!

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The Cross in the Dome

The careful arrangement of the symbols in the twenty-four windows of our church’s Guastavino dome generally goes unnoticed.

Imagine a cross, drawn through the centre of our dome. One line would connect the Keys in the dome window on the St. Joseph side of the church, with the Triple Crown on the St. Mary side. The other would go from the Descending Dove window in front of the altar, across the dome to its opposite, the Ascending Dove. The two lines would cross in the  triangle-in-a-trefoil window in the middle.

The meaning of the first part of the cross is easy to understand. The Keys are the emblem of Saint Peter, based on Matthew 16: “And I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven...” and the Tiara, or Triple Crown, across from it, is a symbol of the Pope. (The 1940 Anniversary Book explains that “the first circlet symbolizes the Pope’s universal episcopate, the second his supremacy of jurisdiction, and the third his temporal power”).

The other part gets complicated.

The dove pointing down, designed to be seen by people in the pews,  represents God’s presence and favour. The 1940 Anniversary Book reports that as “a symbol of the Holy Spirit it is specially connected with Baptism…

Across from it, the dove in flight was designed to be viewed by the priest and, in 1911, was thought to be “indicative of the graces which lift man up to God through the priesthood.” By 1940, it was re-interpreted as “the Ascension of Christ, or the entrance of Saints into glory.” But Henry Dagit’s original 1908 plan  suggested that half of the dome panels would relate to the  Old Testament, and half to the New, so it could also have a third meaning – recalling the story of Noah in the Old Testament, who looked for a sign of God’s presence, in the form of a dove at the window.

Imagine an invisible line through the dome, connecting prayers offered up in the sacrifice of the Mass, to the grace of the Holy Spirit descending on the parishioners. Now visualize a cross linking  Biblical promises of the Old Testament and New; intersected by the line of authority from Saint Peter to the Pope; with the “Eye of God”  at the centre of everything. That’s a neat description of Catholicism. (And the mystery remains: who imagined and put together all of the careful symbolism in our church: Henry Dagit; one of Dagit’s designers; or Reverend Crane himself?)_mg_2409

 

 

 

Byzantine Revival

Is our church modeled after Hagia Sophia, an ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey?

The claim has been repeated a number of times in recent years, but a look at the two buildings, side by side, does not show an extraordinary resemblance.

When Architect Henry Dagit wrote about our church under construction in 1908, he described his building as “Romanesque with Byzantine details.” That was also its representation in newspaper reports about the new church; in the 1911 Dedication booklet; and in the 1911 Short History of St. Francis de Sales Church. Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who commissioned our church, envisioned a building “in which the soul would be lifted up to exaltation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty; a church rich with storied windows...” with no mention of Istanbul or Constantinople.

Art historian Richard Stemp provides a clue to the mystery, when he discusses the fifth century innovation of Hagia Sophia: “so great was the impact of a central dome that almost all Eastern churches were modeled on it thereafter.” Hagia Sophia provided an early and famous example of a Byzantine dome — although Stemp reports that “the surviving works at Ravenna (5th and 6th century Italy) have become, by default, the best representations of the splendour of the Byzantine court.”

Byzantine influence spread from Constantinople across the Mediterranean. Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia,  suggests that our church actually  traces “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with rounded arches and vaults, rather than Gothic pointed arches and steeples. The Byzantine-style dome completed the thought.

Our 1911 church, honoring a French saint,  was probably inspired by that late 19th century European architectural movement, but Moss notes that our building is “more than a rare example of the Byzantine Revival style in Philadelphia. It is also one of our three landmark examples of Guastavino tile construction” with distinctive domes and vaults built using interlocking layers of terracotta tiles (The Penn Museum and Girard Bank — Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two local examples). Rafael Guastavino’s works are prized: Structural Engineer and Guastavino authority John Ochsendorf at MIT opines that the tile domes form “some of the most exceptional masonry structures in history.”

 

 

The Menorah in the Church Window

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It seemed like a simple question: “Why is there a menorah on one of our  dome windows?”

The 1940 St. Francis de Sales Parish Anniversary Book called it “the seven-branched candlestick of the Old Testament Tabernacle, a prophetic emblem of the sevenfold sacramental grace which would issue from the Church of Christ,” but that seemed vague and didn’t explain why the symbol was chosen.

The number seven – emblem of perfection — turns out to have many meanings in Catholicism, but its association with candlesticks is hazy. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia noted that seven candles carried by seven acolytes were used at Papal Masses. A Bishop could have seven candles on the altar if he were presiding at home; six if he were visiting outside his diocese. The kinds of candles to be used were strictly regulated (pure beeswax, except in Oceania, where sperm-whale candles were permitted), but little explanation was offered for the significance of the candle number.

Some have suggested that for Christians, a seven-branched candlestick could represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord). It could also invoke a vision of “heavenly worship” from Revelations, in which “Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God”  This is offered as a possible explanation for the Papal candles. Or our candlestick could reference Judaism in the Old Testament.

According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia – current when our church was built – the original seven-branched Jewish candlestick was made for the Temple in the time of Moses: “symbolically the menorah represented the creation of the universe in seven days, the center light symbolizing the Sabbath. The seven branches are the seven continents of the earth and the seven heavens, guided by the light of God. The Zohar (Jewish mystical Kabbalah) says: ‘These lamps, like the planets above, receive their light from the sun.’”

The windows in our dome are thematically arranged, in pairs and opposites. The pair for the Menorah (the light of the Old Testament), is the Chalice and Eucharist (“Jesus Christ, the light of the world”), to its right, skip one. Opposite the Menorah, on the other side of the dome,  is the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, signifying beginnings; the Omega, the last letter, is across from the Chalice. Thus, Alpha and Omega, a name for God, encompasses Creation and Redemption; Old Testament and New: a catechism in stained glass.

Guastavino Dome

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What do the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and SFDS all have in common?

Each one has a Guastavino tile Dome or vault as part of its architecture.

When you look up at the herringbone pattern in our dome, consider that Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, the founder of the R. Guastavino Company, started out working as a tailor, in the family business in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps the work of fastening fabric and linings smoothly together gave him a special affinity for knitting together the tile constructions that would one day become his life’s work!

At age 19, when he was already married. with two children, Guastavino went to Barcelona to study architecture. Seeking a better life for his family, he then moved to America in 1881, settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, and opened a construction business. There, he improved and patented a traditional Catalan technique for using interlocking tiles and thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without requiring expensive temporary interior framework and bracing. This construction method was not well known in America, and his business prospered.

Today, Guastavino’s tiles can be found on more than 600 buildings in 36 states. Our 90-foot high, 62-foot diameter dome is unique among them because it has no copper or other roofing above it. The distinctive appearance of the coloured dome has made it an  icon in our neighbourhood – with some of the same issues as other architectural icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s too-aptly named Fallingwater. It turns out that a construction method designed for use in sunny Spain is vulnerable when exposed to our region’s freeze and thaw winters.

The Guastavino firm was consulted about leaks in the 1920s and again in 1938. In the 1950s, the dome was topped with a layer of concrete and shiny ceramic “subway tiles” which held up for fifty years; today, the heavy, deteriorated tiles are gone, and the concrete shell is sealed and painted (and scheduled soon to be re-painted under warranty!) to match the original tile pattern – without the water-seeping gaps – for the next century.

Church Animals

On a Sunday near the feast of St. Francis of Assisi every year, neighbourhood pets of all faiths are welcomed to our parish (with their humans) for the Blessing of the Animals. But have you ever noticed how many animals are in our church already, incorporated in the decorations?!

Our church has a flock of Holy Spirit doves in its artwork: look for a dove in the mosaic lunette above the Mary Altar and another in the Trinity window behind the altarpiece. The dome windows feature descending and ascending doves (“the Holy Spirit among us” and “the graces that lift (humans) up to God through the religious life”). Yet another can be found representing the Annunciation in the first long window on the St. Joseph side.

Perched on the pulpit, halfway up the wall on the Mary side of the church, is a sculpted eagle representing Saint John – the author of the Gospel that begins “In the beginning, was the Word…” The eagle image is repeated on one of the pillars supporting the dome, along with the symbols for the other three Gospel writers: winged ox (Luke), winged lion (Mark), and the more human looking angel, representing Matthew.

Fish appear on one of the windows in the dome. ICTHUS, Latin for fish,  is also an acronym for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” Three fishes represent the Holy Trinity. A pelican is shown in another dome window. The pelican was said to pierce its breast with its beak, to feed its young from its own blood when other food was unavailable, and represents the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Yet another dome window features the phoenix: a mythological bird said to burst into flames and regenerate — a symbol of the Resurrection.

The window in the stairway to the choir loft in the back of the church shows the Lamb of God reclining on a book with seven seals — an image from the Book of Revelations, referencing the Second Coming!

At the tops of several of the columns in the church, you can just about identify carved limestone creatures that appear to be two-headed birds. The two-headed eagle was an emblem of Byzantium – fitting the design style of the church.

Live animals should feel at home here! This year’s Blessing of the Animals is Sunday, September 25 at 12:00 Noon.

Sacred Landscape

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Driving from the airport, down 47th Street, you know you’re home when you can see the dome of St. Francis de Sales — but how often do you really think about what it means?

Our church’s colorful tile dome has been a notable architectural feature in our neighborhood since the early nineteen hundreds. One of a group of structures by Rafael Guastavino, renowned for his unique patented building technique, it adds a note of distinction to the skyline, linking us with iconic buildings such as the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Supreme Court building, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, among others. Our cross-topped dome is unique among them because it  is not hidden under an exterior roof: look up Rafael Guastavino on Wikipedia, and you’ll see a picture of our church.

Why is our church important? Architectural historian Jon Cannon notes that “in most cultures throughout history the greatest buildings have been religious ones,” and “the modern world owes much more than it realizes to the ancient architectures of faith.”  Churches are more than architectural achievements, though. Each building represents a unique cultural chronicle. It also contains the local story of  all the generations that have lived in the surrounding neighborhood.

Religious architecture has a  deeper significance, too. Canon notes that religious monuments around the world “help to further a relationship between man and the divine…” Art Historian Richard Stemp observes that “highly visible towers, steeples and domes”  serve to “remind the faithful not only where they should go to worship, but also that they should go to worship.” At our 1911 dedication ceremony, the homilist  described  our church as a “beacon to all who pass by in this troubled world.” These are many different ways of saying that sacred  buildings in the landscape inspire, connect, and center us.

What happens when the links are broken? When people in Christchurch, New Zealand, struggled to decide whether to rebuild the iconic Anglican cathedral in the middle of town after the 2011 earthquakes, their former Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Anderton remarked “I have seen what happens when you don’t look after heritage. You lose more than just buildings, you lose a city’s soul.” Imagine our skyline with a drugstore or shopping plaza or tall apartment block built on once sacred ground. Let’s not take it for granted!