Tag: Henry D. Dagit

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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Walk in The Woodlands

DSCN4406A walk around The Woodlands Cemetery (40th and Woodland) offers interesting glimpses into odd corners of our long parish story.  Click here for the St. Francis de Sales Woodlands tour map

winthrop smith (2)Turning right on the main path after you enter the gates, approaching the old carriage house, look for a tall obelisk with the name of Winthrop Smith, publisher of the celebrated McGuffey Readers, on the front. His son, also named Winthrop Smith, is listed on the back, with his first wife, who died in 1911. Our parish connection is with this Winthrop’s scandalous second wife: when the couple married in 1913, the well-connected protestant Philadelphia financier and member of the Union League, was aged 67 and Miss Margaret McMenamin, of 4303 Baltimore Avenue, was a 33 year old Catholic stenographer from his old banking firm. They were married quietly, on a weekday, at St. Francis de Sales by Reverend Maurice Cowl, a former Episcopalian priest, recently converted to Catholicism. The couple later had a daughter also named Margaret; her husband, Lieutenant Cmmdr Charles Monk, is buried beside the obelisk, but the two Margarets were not included in the family plot.

vetterleinContinuing around the outer asphalt drive, in section N, you’ll pass the family plot of Emma and Joseph Smallwood Vetterlein, who achieved the “American Dream.” They rented a prominent pew on the main aisle of our church in the early 1900s, had a house at 4212 Spruce Street, and an estate called Knollhurst, built in Radnor in 1898. Joseph was a partner in the Vetterlein & Co. family cigar business started by his father, Theodore Vetterlein, who emigrated from Germany, “poor, without friends or relatives,” took a job in a tobacco shop, and ultimately saved enough money to go into business for himself. By 1864 he was renowned as a “leading merchant of Philadelphia.” His sons Joseph and Herman eventually took over the family business. Herman, an officer of the American Catholic Historical Society, donated one of our dome windows.

dandurand refectory4Esther Poquet Dandurand and (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand– are buried opposite the enormous Thomas Evans obelisk on the VA side of Woodlands. Esther Poquet left France in 1838 as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Upon reaching New York, she left service to join her fate with young French adventurer and cook (Pierre) Alexandre Dandurand. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street. When Alexandre died in 1849, Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise. What’s their connection with our parish? They were the grandparents of our church architect, Henry Dagit, and it may have been this family heritage that sparked Henry’s awareness of French Byzantine Revival architecture and our patron saint.

DSCN6292Sheltered under a yew tree behind the Thomas Evans Obelisk, is a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother, marking the grave of Rose-Marie Simonis, a much-beloved Haitian teacher at SFDS school, who died of breast cancer in 2004. She lived at 4811 Windsor Ave., and her French husband, Eric, was the well-respected Sacristan of the church for several years under 12th Pastor, Father Roland; and 13th Pastor, Father Navit. SFDS School’s annual marathon used to wind through the cemetery to pay tribute at her gravesite. It’s still a good place for quiet contemplation!

Finally, back on the main path, working your way towards the exit, you’ll find a monument for Josephine Dandurand who fell in love with Charles (Karl) Dagit, the German tenant who lived above her family restaurant in the 1850s. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit, who would design our church as his family parish – he lived at 4529 Pine, rented a family pew, donated two dome windows, and his daughters are memorialized as angel statues in the back of our church.

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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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A Little Bit of Ireland

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There’s a little bit of Ireland in the candlesticks that usually adorn our Altar – possibly the only bit of Ireland in our church!

When Reverend Crane hired architect Henry Dagit to remodel St. Malachy Church at 1429 north 11th St. “in the Byzantine style” in 1902 – their first project together — they created an exuberant  celebration of Irishness for a church named after an Irish patron saint, with an Irish congregation.

A few years later, in 1907, when the pair worked on plans for St. Francis de Sales Church, they envisioned something more cosmopolitan to reflect a different neighborhood and a different heritage. Our patron saint was from a European region once claimed by France and Italy, with part of his diocese in Switzerland. Early parishioners were a mix of Irish and German, among other nationalities (Henry Dagit was of German ancestry, and this was his home parish!). If you look around our church, you will find shields of Savoy; acanthus leaves and other European sculptural motifs; Byzantine-romanesque architectural inspiration from southern France; mosaics like Ravenna, Italy; and windows based on European paintings. Notably, there are no shamrocks, floridly Celtic crosses, or statues of Saint Patrick, though the color green – generally stylish for the era – is prominent in the molded tilework.

Our second Pastor, Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who built our church, was proud of his Irish family background, though, and there were many Irish parishioners, so Henry Dagit quietly incorporated Irish Connemara marble inlays to the design of his altar candlesticks. It’s a subtle but appropriate tribute: found only in Western Ireland, “many adherents claim that the rich green hues of Connemara marble imitate the sages, mosses, lichens, and grasses that flourish throughout Ireland.” The current owner of the Irish Connemara Marble Co notes that “Americans…like demonstrating their origins, but there are few quality products that are identifiably Irish with which they are able to do so…” and “Because of its scarcity, Connemara marble is also one of the rarest marbles still available.”  The marble has been used in many places in this country for its green accent color and also as a symbol of Irish heritage – perhaps most notably in our State Capitol building in Harrisburg.

Connemara marble is not just a piece of Ireland – the stone formed millions of years before St. Patrick, in the Precambrian age at the dawn of earth’s history. Created from “lime mud sediment deposited on a shallow sea floor around 650-750 million years ago, it was later subjected to high temperatures and pressures during a mountain building event” and ribboned with different minerals over time: “Connemara marble shows twisted and interlocking bands of serpentine in varying shades of green, sepia, and gray, punctuated with seams of crystalline and dolomite – each piece making its own statement.” The pretty stone is a piece of earth’s layered history. Its presence on the candlesticks which illuminate the altar, reminds us that the solidity of rock has been central to the Universal Church, since Jesus named Peter and announced “upon this rock I will build my church.”

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Doctors in the House

 

In 1908, when architect Henry Dagit wrote about the church he was starting to build at 47th and Springfield, he mentioned that its dome would be supported inside on four Columns topped with “marble mosaic emblems of the four Evangelists…and under them in sculptured niches will be statues of the four Doctors of the Church.

The statues were absent from descriptions of the finished interior in 1911, but they crept back into church descriptions written in 1928 and 1938, before vanishing again in 1940.

Who were the “Doctors of the Church” and why did they come and go?

Wikipedia defines the term as “a title given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing.” A document from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) notes that “The title was first given in the Middle Ages, and originally, there were four great Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, St. Augustine, 5th century bishop of Hippo, St. Gregory the Great, who was pope at the start of the 7th century, and St. Jerome, the 5th century biblical scholar and translator.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art identifies these as the four Latin Doctors and also lists four important Greek Doctors: St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostum, and St. Athanasius, who appear more often in mosaic artwork. Which doctors would have been most suited to our mosaic-filled Byzantine-styled church? Maybe that was the problem!

So many doctors! So many choices! And the list kept growing. The 2015 USCCB document notes that “Over the years the church has added about 30 (now 36) additional saints with the title ‘Doctor of the Church’… Since 1970….women have also been declared ‘Doctors of the Church’: St. Teresa of Avila; St. Catherine of Siena; St. Thérèse of Lisieux…, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.”

DSCN6373 (2)  DSCN6373 (3)In the end, the references to the Doctors in our church in 1928 and 1938 are likely mistakes from hastily recopying outdated text: the interior niches do not exist and we have no evidence that the statues were ever commissioned (though there are two full and two partial never-used niches on the 47th Street exterior!). We do have at least three Doctors “in the house,” though: our own patron Saint Francis de Sales was declared a Doctor in 1877. Saint Anthony of Padua (statue behind the mesh on the St. Joseph side of the church), became a Doctor in 1946; and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (statue in the former confessional by the parking lot door) was named in 1998 – both receiving the title long after our church was built. Our Saint Anthony statue – the patron of lost things — arrived in 1916 as a gift from Mrs. Elizabeth Lippe, who also bequeathed our bells (ironically, his correct pedestal is under St. Anne). St. Therese arrived near the time of her canonization in 1925 and was accompanied by a relic, venerated regularly through 1937.

In addition, parish records indicate that our church, located near several universities and medical centers, has always had a few medical doctors, PhDs, and probably some honorary titles among its congregation!

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.

 

 

A Woodlands Connection

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Two monuments at The Woodlands cemetery and two long-ago love stories offer family insights about the architect of our church.

In 1838, a rustic young Frenchwoman named Esther Poquet set sail for America as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Esther was not, perhaps, a model employee: upon reaching New York, she fell in love with a young French adventurer and cook named (Pierre) dandurand refectory4Alexandre Dandurand, left service, and the two were soon married. They moved to Baltimore, and, eventually, to Philadelphia. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street called Cafe Tortoni, described by one newspaper reporter as “The best eating-house in Philadelphia…much frequented by editors, authors and the better class of men about town”  and known for its excellent wine  cellar. When Alexandre died in 1849, his wife Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise.

What does any of this have to do with our church?

Another romance.

The Dandurands’ daughter Josephine fell in love with the family’s German tenant, Charles (Karl) Dagit, who lived above the  restaurant in the 1850s. Josephine’s very French mother did not approve of this French-German alliance, but the couple refused to be discouraged. They courted for several years, until they were finally allowed to marry in 1858. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit.

DSCN4409In the 1840s, when The Woodlands (former estate of William Hamilton, from a different Hamilton family) opened as a cemetery at 40th and Woodland Ave., it was promoted as “the most beautiful rural cemetery in the United States.” Henry Dagit’s grandmother Esther  must have been impressed, since she chose the location for her husband’s 1849 burial (Section G 332-334). When her daughter — Henry’s mother Josephine —  had to bury her three-year-old baby in 1882, she chose a spot at Woodlands not far from her own parents (Section I 555-557), and where she and her husband would both later be buried.

DSCN4406Perhaps visits to Woodlands through the years alerted Henry Dagit to the growing neighbourhoods on this side of the river, so that in 1904 he built a house at 4527 Pine Street for his own young family — and, a few years later, he embarked on the construction of our church. And perhaps his European family background gave Henry Dagit a particular affinity for the French and Swiss heritage of our patron saint – and inspired the many French and German artistic references in our church.

“That’s My Spot…” Pew Rents

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Cherish your right to choose a favorite seat!

When our church was first constructed, wealthy parishioners reserved their particular spots, renting them by the half year, with the pew rental fees contributing to the maintenance of the building. Non-renters had to squeeze into the remaining back rows or stand.

Some familiar names on the original Pew Rental List included important donors such as Mrs. William Lippe (who donated St. Anthony and the tower bells) in a prime spot on the odd side of the middle aisle in row 1, Jean Baptiste Revelli (Maitre’d at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel) in 15, church architect Henry D. Dagit and family in 19, General St. Clair Mulholland (Philadelphia Police Chief) and wife in 25; and on the even side, the Schwoerers (who donated the pulpit) in row 14 and  John Cooney (who donated the main altar) in row 16.

Pew rental was a controversial home-grown fundraising method in early American Protestant and Catholic churches. Why was it an issue? An 1840s tract criticizing the practice for Catholics suggested that emphasizing social stratification was “anticatholic,” and renting out the best seats to the wealthy was “calculated to pamper pride and a feeling of self- importance.”  Typically only about a quarter of Catholic parishioners paid rents and those who could not afford seats might feel less compelled to attend Mass. It could also enable discrimination.

In our church, pew rents seem to have gradually stopped after the church construction  debt was paid and the Parish basement was turned into an overflow chapel. Probably, as the parish grew and more services were added to the Sunday schedule, it became impractical to limit access to pews through all services. The Pew Rent Book was not regularly maintained after 1921. In 1924, The new Parish Monthly Bulletin began listing monthly contributions of all registered parishioners.

A few decades later, in 1964, as Vatican II came into effect, our church interior was “updated” for its 75th anniversary, and the original quarter-sawn oak pews, with their extendable brass “reserved pew” bars, were replaced with plain sleek modern pews crafted by New Holland Church Furniture in Lancaster County. All seats had equal status around the altar table, and parishioners at each Mass were free to choose their own number one spots — with their preferred perspective, with their desired cross breeze, and surrounded by a diversity of neighbours and friends in their own chosen places!

 

 

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A Tale of Two Parishes

It’s tempting to think that while our “Romanesque Church with Byzantine Details” was under construction between 1907 and 1911, architect Henry Dagit and contractors spent all their time busy on our site, planning and supervising, and obsessing over every magnificent detail.

Not true! And it turns out that de Sales and Most Blessed Sacrament have been connected longer than anyone may have realized.  While the designs for our church were still on his table, Architect Henry Dagit was also drawing plans for the combination school and chapel that would become Most Blessed Sacrament’s first permanent stone building (today Independence Charter School West at 5600 Chester), with Melody and Keating as the main contractor for both projects.

mbs mary knowlesGroundbreaking for our church was June 16, 1907, with Bishop Prendergast officiating. The smaller MBS chapel/school broke ground two weeks later on June 30  in a simpler ceremony, with the first sods cut by MBS Pastor Reverend McGinnis; two other priests; and a baby parishioner named Mary Katherine Knowles.

Construction preparations continued afterwards  at both sites. Bishop Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the MBS chapel/school building on September 15, 1907, in a ceremony described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Interesting;” he then  laid the cornerstone for St. Francis de Sales Church  a few weeks later on October 6,  in an “Impressive” ceremony with multiple bishops and dignitaries.

A relatively small project, the finished MBS school/chapel building was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan in September, 1908, in time for the start of the school year. Parish records say that the Protectory Band, the Paschalville Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Elmwood Band all played at the celebration.

SFDS church was finished and dedicated in elaborate ceremonies on November 11 and 12, 1911. Archbishop Prendergast presided at the Solemn High Mass on November 12 (having succeeded Archbishop Ryan in May of that year), with a number of priests assisting. Reverend Higgins, Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, acted as Deacon.

Meanwhile, the Guastavino firm, which designed and built our dome,  moved on to another local (secular) project, crafting the Harrison Rotunda at the Penn Museum, completed in 1915.

Most Blessed Sacrament School would grow to become  “the largest parochial school in the world” by the 1950s but closed in 2002 when attendance tapered. MBS Church, by architect Charles Willis Gilmore, was  built in 1922 and closed in 2007. Its standalone altar was moved to SFDS when the two parishes became one.

MBS aerial view
MBS historic aerial view

 

 

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