Tag: IHM Sisters

Border Mission: Sister Kathy’s Tale

Sister Kathy delivers supplies

Sister Kathy Benham, of the IHM Literacy Center, was among the first to volunteer for the IHM Border Mission last year – a combined operation of the three separate Monroe, Scranton, and Philadelphia branches of IHM sisters, offering humanitarian assistance during the refugee surge at the U.S. southern border after President Biden’s inauguration. That she was among those first IHMs to go for three weeks starting in April 2021, was due to chance or the Holy Spirit: when Catholic Relief Services asked for women religious volunteers, many of her Literacy Center pupils were observing the month-long Muslim season of Ramadan — a time when class attendance tends to be erratic — so it seemed a reasonable time to be away!

Sister Kathy was actually on the committee that chose the relatively remote site of El Centro CA, diocese of San Diego, for the mission. She went down with Sister Mary Elaine Anderson of the Scranton IHM Sisters – a nice reunion, since they had met years before – to set up. There, the two sisters employed their special skills as religious – with a heritage of hospitality and a talent for organization — to build an efficient operation. Sister Mary Elaine, who was able to stay for the full three months of the mission, even found use for her art therapy training to help anxious children!

Sister Kathy reports that immigrants to El Centro did not stream in, steadily, in long processions, as in some other areas. Instead, they crept across the border quietly, one family at a time. Many were desperately poor. Most, at the time, were Brasilians, fleeing the repressive Bolsonaro regime, hoping to find humble jobs to feed their families.  They went west to California because they hoped it would be easier to get in. Picked up there by the U.S. Border Patrol, they had no idea what to expect, and, since the Brasilians often spoke only Portuguese – no Spanish or English – language was an extra challenge.

Immigrant families were split up just inside the U.S. border, with men sent to one facility, and women and children to another, for covid testing and paperwork. Those with covid were then moved into quarantine in a large motel at Holtzville. Those who tested negative were taken to El Centro. Boys over 18 years old were considered independent adults and generally sent back across the border to Mexico, which was an incomprehensible and unexpected tragedy to those accustomed to living together in big multigenerational families; most had no phones and no way to keep in touch. The rest had no idea what would happen next, so they were surprised, and sometimes moved to tears, when they were reunited on a bus, enroute to a motel room in El Centro, to be met with the relief of a welcoming smile, clean beds and a bathroom, and meals. Once there, they had 48 hours to contact relatives in the United States who could pay for their plane tickets, and to get to the airport. Sister Kathy and her fellow volunteers organized a clothing room to provide clothing (since shoelaces had been confiscated at the border, these were especially prized!); distributed meals; and, muddling along in a mixture of Spanish and google translate, helped their charges to work through the English-language airport bureaucracy. The airport was an hour away from El Centro, so the nuns and volunteers drove families there in vans supplied by Catholic Charities. A knowledgeable former border patrol officer wisely advised them to explain to the families that the long bumpy ride would take them to the faraway airport, since they were in unfamiliar remote territory, with people they didn’t know, who spoke a different language, and the families were stressed, terrified, and confused about everything happening outside their control.

Sister Kathy highlights the amazing efforts of Catholic Relief Services to make a real difference, and feels humbled by her experience.  Now, the IHMs hope to return to the border! They are in the planning stages for a combined mission of all three IHM groups and the related Sisters of Providence. The hope is to set up a permanent “unretreat” center – a place where volunteers can come, not for solitary soulful meditation, but to offer their time and energy to help others. They have also received funding from SOAR – the funding for retired IHM religious – which hopes to involve retired sisters who still want to contribute.

Baltimore Avenue Amble

A short three-block stroll along Baltimore Avenue hints at how St. Francis de Sales Parish  is woven into the fabric of the neighbourhood.

cherry tree inn

Beginning at 46th Street, the Aksum Cafe at 4630 Baltimore stands on the site of the original yellow clapboard Cherry Tree Inn – a historic rest stop on the Baltimore Pike, named for an ancient cherry tree that once stood out front (a bar at 4540 — today’s Gojo — adopted the name as an homage in 1933, causing lasting confusion). Our first parish chapel/school building – now a wing of SFDS School — was built on the back section of the old inn’s property towards 47th Street in 1891.  Some records suggest that piece was once a lake – more likely, it was the water-accumulating “dip in the waffle” created by surrounding raised road construction. (Incidentally, the firm of James “Sunny Jim” McNichol, who donated our St. Joseph Altar, built and paved some of the larger roads in the city including Baltimore Ave., the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and Roosevelt Boulevard).

In the early 1900s, most of the 4700 block of Baltimore Ave over to Warrington was occupied by the Wilson farm which included a house, a barn, an orchard, and several cows. Our parish purchased the property in 1920, intending to build an annex to the school. Third grade and commercial classes were held at the farmhouse (approximately where the Warrington garden is today) for a couple of years, and several parish fairs were held on the grounds. In 1926, plans changed, and a wing was added to the school along Farragut Terrace, instead. The Wilson property was then sold to Brown & Sons Developers, who built the present block. This ad appeared in the Parish Monthly Bulletin:

47th & balt

 

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Byrd Theatre 4720 Baltimore Ave.

Dream of popcorn in today’s municipal parking lot at 4720. Or huskies pulling sleds? The Byrd Theatre, named after famous polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, opened in 1928 and was torn down in the 1960s. It was, reportedly,  never profitable as a movie venue, but in 1933, during the Great Depression, it had a moment of glory when SFDS held its de Sales Night gala there one year, instead of the usual big showy “do” at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel downtown:

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SFDS De Sales Night at the Byrd Theatre 1933

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While you are there, take a little time to admire the beautiful murals in the parking lot painted by David Guinn in 2008. He’s included a number of local landmarks – can you find our church?

 

sfds bookstore 1948
The SFDS Parish Bookstore was located at 4726 Baltimore Avenue

 

Now continue on to 4726 Baltimore Ave. Today, it’s part of Vientiane Cafe. Some folks might remember that Mariposa Food Co-Op used to be here (before it moved to 4824). Long before that, from 1944 to 1954, it was home to the SFDS Parish Bookstore and Lending Library – offering blockbusters such as Communism and the Conscience of the West by Fulton Sheen and Of Flight and Life, by Charles Lindbergh. Imagine the walls lined with bookshelves, and earnest customers choosing uplifting reading material through the general haze of cigarette and pipe smoke characteristic of the era.

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McHugh Realty was at 4800 Baltimore (where the Gold Standard now is) for over forty years. Gerald McHugh, Sr. represented the parish in many real estate matters, and went on to become the broker for the Archdiocese. The McHugh family has been in DeSales for four generations.

1955 mchugh realty

An old parish record notes that the IHM Sisters moved to a house at 4804 Baltimore Avenue for two months in 1915 while their original convent – a house at 47th and Windsor — was renovated (The present convent was built in 1926).

It’s an empty lot, today, behind a fence, but parishioner Henry Amlung’s fur store once stood at 4810 Baltimore Ave. His store made the news in 1919, when it was robbed by the “Motor Bandits” who were “terrorizing West Philadelphia” in a newfangled automobile. Under-equipped police eventually had to borrow a car to chase them! Here’s Amlung’s Parish Monthly Bulletin ad:

amlung furs

Last, but not least, number 4830 was the home of Ruane Electrical – started by current parishioner Joe Ruane’s Grandfather. Joe recalls delivering flyers and arranging the windows in the late 1940s, and he spotted a fire in the shared basement that once saved the block.1943 ruane baltimore ave

‘Nuff said for now: Parish stories are many, but time is short!

Find more stories of Baltimore Avenue on our sister website, https://streetofhistoryphiladelphia.wordpress.com/

A Bell Named Gervase

p1911-061Saint Gervase was an obscure early Roman martyr. Gervase of Canterbury was a 12th century British monk. So why does St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia have a tower bell named after St. Gervase?

Perhaps the answer lies a little closer to the heart of Second Pastor Bishop Crane, whose sister Bridget became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM.

The third of four children, Bridget was born to Irish immigrant parents Michael and Anne Crane in Ashland, PA coal country on September 8, 1861. Her little brother Michael – our future Bishop — was born two years later in 1863 and their father died soon after. Their mother eventually went to work in a “Dry Goods and Grocer” shop, according to census data, and the two older girls became seamstresses. Bridget started public school at age 8 and finished at age 18, in ninth grade: the late start and incomplete schooling were not unusual for the times.

In 1890, when she was 29, Bridget entered the IHM convent and received the name Sister Mary Gervase. She taught grades 1-4 in several schools from 1894 to 1906. (in those days secondary education was not required for elementary teaching).  Meanwhile, she attended classes and finished high school at Villa Maria in 1906. Later, she became Superior and Principal at St. Francis Xavier, St. Monica, then St. Rose of Lima in Philadelphia, while working towards her teaching certificate, which she obtained at Immaculata in 1926. In 1928, she was “missioned” to St. Aloysius Academy, in a wing of the Motherhouse. She died in 1944.

Referring to 12th century Gervase of Canterbury, the British Dictionary of National Biography notes “Gervase is not one of the great historians of his age, but he illustrates with fidelity the tone and temper of his monastic world.” That, perhaps, is also a fitting memorial for Mother Mary Gervase Crane, whose simple story of convent life has in it only one remembered drama, relating to a mysteriously disappearing and reappearing bedspread.

We do know that Mother Gervase was devoted to her little brother. One of the IHM sisters recalled that “each night, she made a pilgrimage to the picture of the bishop, her brother, Bishop Crane. Daily she bid him ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that she and her married sister were at his bedside when he died in our Rectory in 1928.  It seems fitting that our church bells named Michael and Gervase continue to peal together, in lasting memory of their family’s contribution to the religious life.

 

Literary Women of de Sales

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God’s Alphabet (Angelus Press)

Our parish has been home to a surprising number of distinguished authors over the years!

First among them, was Eleanor Donnelly, who donated our Blessed Mother Altar and wrote a poem for the Parish Dedication in 1911. She published almost fifty books in her lifetime – including Lyrics and Legends of Ancient Youth in 1906, dedicated to our parish; and The Life of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace, a fascinating biography of the head nurse at the Satterlee Civil War Hospital (once located at the edge of Clark Park).

Another early author was Wilhelmina (Minnie) Ruane, Joe Ruane’s Grandmother, who penned a religious alphabet book for children in 1938, with charming period illustrations by artist Janet Robson. The book, which sold in the Parish Bookstore for many years, is now back in print as God’s Alphabet, from Angelus Press.

The IHM Sisters at St. Francis de Sales School wrote the early versions of several still-standard school textbooks. The first volumes of the Voyages in English series for Loyola Press were written at SFDS School in 1941. Sister Rose Anita and Sister Francis Borgia were its coordinators in the 1950s. Mother Paulita Campbell, who was principal of the Parish School in the 1950s, authored the Progress in Arithmetic series for Sadlier. Examples and study questions in both series included names and situations straight from our parish!  

 Philadelphia playwright and author Constance O’Hara was associated for many years with the Hedgerow Theatre, which produced several of her plays, including  “The Years of the Locust,” (1932) about “an  enclosed convent caught in war.” It was later staged in New York and England. O’Hara’s 1955 memoir, Heaven Was Not Enough, addressed her struggles with faith in and out of our parish (which she describes in a particularly low point as “a great, ugly, gray pile”), and her ultimate return.

Today, longtime parishioner Ann de Forest looks outward and “recently completed an 18-month project…documenting the lives of 12 immigrant and refugee families for Al Bustan: Seeds of Culture. Ann is a contributing writer for Hidden City Philadelphia, editor of Extant, the magazine of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and author of Healing on the Homefront, a book of photo essays about the bonds forged between home health care providers and their patients.” She also publishes short stories, teaches poetry to the elderly at L.I.F.E. senior daycare, and wonders if our association with the patron saint of journalists might be our parish inspiration!

A Flying Nun

balloon          How did an IHM Sister wind up in a hot air balloon drifting over Clark Park in Philadelphia back in 1986?

When the United Nations declared an International Year of Peace that year, a plan was concocted to send a teacher from SFDS or St. Lucy School for the Blind (which shared a close relationship with the parish school), to drop leaflets, asking people to sign pledges for peace and return them to the school. Mary Brewster researched and tells the story:

          The crowd on the hillside was growing restless. The hot air balloon was ready to ascend but was short one passenger. “Run, run, if you want to go up.” This was not the Wizard of Oz speaking to Dorothy in the Emerald City: this was Sister Constance speaking to Sister Josette Marie in Clark Park during Catholic Schools Week in March, 1986.

           Sister Josette, now Sister Mary McKinley, taught fourth grade at Saint Francis de Sales School when she heard about the hot air balloon in Clark Park.  Sister Mary came to watch with several other Sisters after school, and shortly after they arrived, Sister Constance asked for volunteers to join the pilot and another teacher, Alice D’Gamma, on the ride.  This was not something Sister Mary planned to do, but her love of adventure took over, and without giving it a second thought she said “I’ll do it” and she ran down the hill. “They were trying to take off, and they literally threw me in,” she said.  As the other Sisters watched from the hillside, Sister Mary soon was airborne.

          Sister remembers floating from Clark Park over to West Chester Pike and seeing people below waving when they saw the balloon passing over them. She saw several trucks following the balloon ready to go in any direction to assist with the landing. Sister remembers being up in the air from about 4:00 to about 8:00, long enough to see the sunset as they floated along. Sister remembers how exciting it was to soar high above the rest of the world.  It was a smooth ride, the temperature was comfortable and Sister enjoyed the view.  

          When the balloon hit the ground on a field near Route 1, Sister saw 25-30 men struggling to hold the ropes as the wind dragged the balloon along the ground. They were trying to secure the balloon to allow the passengers to disembark safely.

Sister’s Peace adventure resonates in today’s unsettled world: is it time for a new excursion.