Tag: Henry D. Dagit

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. See ) 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

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

Baked Earth

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Some of the most decorative elements in our church are made of the humblest material. Look up at the sculpted details outlining the arches and walls, and around the windows. All of the colorful green and yellow decoration in our church is made of “terracotta,” which means “baked earth” clay.

In the early 1900s, terracotta was the fashionable material for the exterior decoration of metal skyscrapers. It was easy to mould; it was relatively lightweight; weatherproof; and, most importantly, having survived the heat of a kiln in its manufacture, it was considered fireproof.

The Atlantic Terracotta Company was formed in Perth Amboy New Jersey in the mid 1800s, and, for a time, was the biggest manufacturer of terracotta tile in the world. Headquartered later in Atlanta, it kept offices and manufacturing facilities in New Jersey, where the local clay, dug out of the ground,  was perfect for the tilework that would cover the steel skeletons of many of the important skyscrapers in New York City, as well as buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere — even Japan. Some notable structures that used Atlantic Terracotta included the Flat Iron Building and the Woolworth Building in New York; the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC; and, locally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Terracotta was popular, in part, because it could take any pattern or shape. Craftsmen made clay sculptures, from which were created plaster moulds. Clay slabs, pressed into the moulds, could then be removed, dried, decorated with glaze, and fired in a kiln. Finishes could look like clay or imitate marble, limestone, or granite. The green and yellow glazes were particularly popular.

Most terracotta was used on building exteriors, but an article in The Brickbuilder, in 1911, reported that:

“An interesting example of interior decoration is the St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, Henry D. Dagit, architect. The style is an adapted combination of the Byzantine and Romanesque. The colors are very brilliant but in the mellow light of the stained glass windows the tone is softened and the result restful.”

So, should you feel “restful” during the sermon, you may now blame the terracotta.

 

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