Tag: Eleanor Donnelly

House of Mary

The tabernacle below the crucifix on the old high altar is the one used at Mass most of the time, but the repository on the Blessed Mother altar has a special significance.

What is a tabernacle and why is the one on the Mary altar important?

A tabernacle is a “little house” of God. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the first tabernacle of the Old Testament was a “portable shrine to contain the Ark of the Covenant,” with the original stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments; while in churches today, “In Christian usage a tabernacle is a receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament.”

The tabernacle on our Mary altar has an added layer of symbolism, as a reminder that Mary, when she was pregnant, became a human “tabernacle” for Christ. Philip Kosloski of Aleteia notes that “This idea of Mary being the new “ark” or “tabernacle” of God is a long tradition. For example, the ancient Akathist hymn of the 6th century reads, “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! holy beyond all holy ones. Hail! ark gilded by the Holy Ghost. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.

Our Mary altar tabernacle is labeled “Mater Salvatoris” (Mother of the Savior) and the door is embellished with roses. The University of Dayton’s John Stokes Jr. archives provides insight into the meaning of the decorations: “the rose, queen of flowers, is an ancient and universal symbol of the Incarnation, of Mary, of her love of God, and of her spiritual beauty and fragrance, pleasing to God.” The roses on our tabernacle are “a wild rose typical of those known to the Christians of the Middle Ages and called by them, Mary’s Rose. It is also the rose adopted as the model for the central rose windows of the medieval cathedrals.”  Curiously, our patron Saint Francis de Sales had a slightly different idea of the symbolism, referring to Christ as Mary’s rose: “that Divine flower, our Lord, who came forth from the Blessed Virgin, as it had been foretold by Isaias that a flower should rise out of the root of Jesse.” The symbol of the rose on our tabernacle thus references both Mary encompassing the Christ child, and Christ contained within

Spiritually, Mary’s significance as a tabernacle in our church is not confined to her shrine: it’s part of the fabric of our building. One of the inscriptions, threaded around the sanctuary walls, reads “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth” (26th Psalm), with the Mary monogram placed above the words “the beauty of thy house” — perhaps as an acknowledgement that Mary is the “house” of Christ!  It goes further: above the front door of our church is an image of Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional entryway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin — with the Virgin being symbolic of the Church.” The verse inscribed around the image (2 Chronicles 7:15) is the Word of God at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, which contained the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant. So our front door welcomes us to Mother Church, which contains the precious tabernacle of Christ’s presence. Was the heavy symbolism accidental or intentional? We do know that Reverend Crane, who commissioned our church, had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, and chose to lay the cornerstone on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907.

Incidentally, the Mary altar and tabernacle have a surprising historical importance to our parish, in addition to the religious symbolism. The altar donor was Eleanor Donnelly, the female “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” a powerful feminine presence of the era. Descendants of architect Henry Dagit, also relate a family tale that one of Henry’s daughters was sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s model for the statue of Mary, providing a link back to the long-ago designers and builders of our church.

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God’s Geese Flock to the Satterlee Hospital

Sister Gonzaga

Eleanor Donnelly, the “Poet Laureate of the American Catholic Church,” donated our Blessed Mother altar and lived in the parish at 4502 Springfield Ave. She also penned a small tome in 1900, catchily titled: The Life of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul 1812-1897 – which includes several vivid chapters detailing Sister Gonzaga’s experiences as head nurse at the Satterlee Civil War Hospital, in our neighborhood, decades before our church was founded.

 The Sisters (or Daughters) of Charity was a religious order, founded in Paris in 1633, to aid the poor and the sick. Their traditional clothing was “one of the most conspicuous of Catholic Sisters,” as it included a large, winged cap called a “cornette” — based on traditional peasant clothing when the order was founded. Because of the distinctive cap, the sisters were sometimes referred to as “God’s Geese,” and the hats were a frequent subject of wonder.

Donnelly quotes from Sister Gonzaga’ own journal, to explain how the sisters came to be at Satterlee: “In the twenty-fifth of May, 1862, a requisition was made by Surgeon-General Hammond, through Dr. I. J. Hayes, for twenty-five Sisters of Charity, to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers in the West Philadelphia Hospital — afterwards known as the Satterlee Hospital, in honor of General Satterlee…Dr. Hayes (of Arctic-exploration fame) was appointed Surgeon-in-Charge.” Today, the location of the hospital is described as a “sixteen-acre plot bounded by present-day Baltimore Avenue and Pine, Forty-third, and Forty-sixth Street” with a memorial stone in Clark Park.

Eleanor Donnelly

Sister Gonzaga records that the Sisters were directed to be ready to move in to the still-under-construction hospital by June 9, 1862:

Accordingly, twenty-two Sisters arrived at 10 a. m., on that day. The place was so large that we could not find the entrance. The workmen looked at us in amazement, thinking, perhaps, that we belonged to ‘the flying artillery’ (because of the hats!)  After stepping over bricks and mortar, pipes, etc., we were ushered into an immense ward, while a good Irishman went in search of the Surgeon-in-Charge. He and his staff welcomed us and showed us to our quarters, and desired us to order dinner to suit ourselves. He then showed us through the Hospital, of which but eight wards were finished. The full number, when completed, was thirty-three, each accommodating seventy-five patients comfortably, with his separate table and chair.  Attached to each ward, were two small rooms; one for the chief nurse, the other for the Sisters to keep medicines, little delicacies, etc., at hand. The Hospital grounds covered an area of fifteen acres, giving our sick ample space to rove about and recreate themselves.”

“At 12 pm. we repaired to the kitchen for dinner, and we could not help smiling when we saw the tea served in wash pitchers, and the meat and potatoes in basins. There was neither knife, nor fork, nor spoon. Upon asking for them, the cook answered that he had only four for the officers’ use, but as they did not dine until later, he could lend them to us. We used them in turn. By the time we had finished dinner, we found they were bringing in some sick — about one hundred and fifty. All went to workhttps://archive.org/details/lifeofsistermary00donn to prepare some nourishment for the poor fellows, who looked at us in amazement, not knowing what manner of beings we were” (because of the hats!).

“On the sixteenth of August, over fifteen hundred sick and wounded soldiers were brought to the Hospital, most of them from the battle of Bull Run….The wards being now crowded, tents were erected…” Patients tried to show their appreciation for the Sisters’ tireless patient ministrations: one convalescent, “when ‘on leave,’ — ran all over town, seeking in every millinery shop for a new white cornette such as the Sisters wore (and which he did not know were never purchased in such quarters), to replace the old, and sometimes blood-bespattered bonnet that covered his faithful nurse’s head.”  Donnelly reports that “During the three years which the sisters passed at the Military Hospital of West Philadelphia, they attended over eighty thousand sick or wounded soldiers!”

Herline & Co. Lithographers [1869-70], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons