Tag: lighting


Have you ever noticed how your experience of our church changes, depending where you sit? Areas with more light are more sociable, friendlier, and it’s easier to read the missalette. The darker corners are more meditative: the light shimmering on the Byzantine-style glass mosaics makes them come alive, promoting a sense of awe and timeless connection to a greater presence.

Lighting effects have been important in our church since the beginning.  A newspaper description of the 1911 Dedication Mass, when the building officially opened, reported a careful mix of ancient and new lighting styles, signaling that our church was “top-of-the-line”: “The interior of the edifice had been transformed into a bower of beauty and light. Hundreds of candles and electric bulbs shed their rays through the auditorium and sanctuary, while the best skill of the florist and decorator was in evidence with the mass of multicolored autumn flowers….

Electricity was a “hot topic” when our church was built: a history of PECO notes that “Of Philadelphia’s 850 churches, five hundred were customers of Philadelphia Electric in 1912.” The technology was promoted as a way to enhance sacred spaces: a 1913 issue of The Lighting Journal observed that “it is the aim of the engineer to bring out the sublimity of the altar and cause the emotion of the worshipper to feel those lofty conceptions and reverence for this holy place...” At the same time, a colloquium at Dumbarton Oaks a few years ago observed that “Nineteenth century scholarship right at the advent of photography and electricity was keenly aware how the…presence of Byzantine art could be drained by these new technologies,” muting the sense of mystery.

Did we always keep the delicate balance between too little and too much light? A 1922 interior photo of the church shows it dazzling with rows of “vanity” light bulbs lining the arches, topping columns, around windows, and above the confessionals; and two electroliers, or round metal “wedding cake” stands of electric candles, in the sanctuary. The effect is startling – until you realize that the photographer probably enhanced the lighting for this photo, which, rather than showing off the church, was intended to capture the faces of the many members of the Holy Name Society filling its pews.  The 1911 newspaper photo of the church Dedication – too blurry to reproduce – shows a similar lighting setup, but the bulbs seem to highlight, rather than overwhelm the space, while flickering candles build atmosphere.

Church lighting was adjusted a few times over the years for different emphasis. A 1954 photo shows elegant sconces on the side walls, instead of bare bulbs, and plain lights hanging from the ceiling. Joe Ruane recalls his electrician father installing the two long rectangular hanging lamps at the front of the church under Bishop McShea – who also replaced a massive cross-shaped candle lamp in the middle of the sanctuary with the two smaller sanctuary lamps, one on each side. Those big round metal chandeliers, now suspended unevenly from the ceiling in the main body of the church, were installed by Monsignor Sefton in 1965, when the wall sconces were removed and the side walls of the church covered with blue “bathroom tiles.” Then came the famous Venturi renovation of the Sanctuary, under Monsignor Mitchell, with the short-lived “neon halo” shining boldly above the new front-facing altar of Vatican II – its brash intensity thrusting everything behind it into shadows, “erasing the past” in its glare, and causing sensory overload for parishioners used to a more contemplative experience.

Now, as we plan a new lighting system for a new century – more on that later – and our present congregation is poised to add its own careful signature to our historic church, let’s think about the power of light to guide our way forward, and how illumination can symbolize hope and renewal!



DSCN4869 (2)What are those oddly-shaped dark stains to the left and right on the back wall of the sanctuary behind the old altar?

They mark the places where two “dedication” or “consecration crosses” used to be mounted. You’ll find six cross-shaped candle brackets still arranged at eye-level around the inside walls of our church, and four more empty spaces.

What do they mean?

The crosses, originally twelve in number, represent a very old tradition of blessing the walls of a church – usually after its construction debt is paid.

Our church was officially consecrated by on November 13, 1920. The Catholic Standard and Times reported Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Dougherty’s speech, describing the ceremony, at the official celebratory Mass the next day: “three times the consecrator encircled the outer walls with holy water and invoking the Most Blessed Trinity. The inner walls were also blessed with the triple blessing of holy water. Then, the floor of the church, from the main entrance to the chancel rail, was sanctified with holy water and prayer. The inside walls were anointed with sacred chrism at the twelve places where brackets have been set up to hold lighted candles. By this consecration, the church has been lifted up into a higher order. It has been set apart in perpetuity for the worship of God…”

What was the symbolism? Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the “triple sprinkling and circuit of the walls…symbolizes the triple immersion at holy baptism…” According to Father Edward McNamara of Regina Apostolorum University, “in keeping with liturgical tradition, there are twelve anointings…as a symbol that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem…The twelve candles stem from the symbolic use of this number in biblical tradition. The 12 stones used by Moses to build the altar of the covenant represented the 12 tribes of Israel. There are 12 gates of the New Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Revelation…Likewise, there are the 12 apostles…” The lighting of the church “reminds us that Christ is a ‘light to enlighten the nations’” and “the anointing of the church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship…”


The symbolism would be meaningless in an empty church. At the 1920 Consecration, Archbishop Dougherty highlighted the role of parishioners: “that your church was ready for consecration within thirty years after the establishment of your parish, is a subject for wonder…and a sign that parishioners were fully-involved in parish life. Today, the ghosts of those missing candle brackets call out for our greater engagement and spiritual re-dedication.

Neon Halo

In 1969, an astronaut stepped onto the moon; the New Mass of Vatican II came into full effect; and Robert Venturi renovated the sanctuary of our church. Nothing has been quite the same since.

De Sales had already weathered a number of alterations: Monsignor Sefton, who was pastor from 1961 to 1967, and assistant for 12 years before that, had provided continuity through the remodeling of the Lower Church, the re-tiling of the domes, and the blue-tile-wall modernization of 1965 (the blue tiles were removed from the nave in the 1990s, but remnants can still be seen above the sacristy doorway). But then he moved on, and the radical New Liturgy of Vatican II was ushered in by new faces in the rectory, just as the parish population was shrinking and its demographics changed.

As with every Catholic church across the country, the sanctuary of de Sales had to be opened up and reconfigured to include a permanent free-standing altar for the New Mass. Father McNamee recommended a friend-of-a- friend, world-renowned architect Robert Venturi to do the work at our church, and months of  planning and discussion followed with pastor Monsignor Mitchell and priests and architects — but, as was typical in those days, without input from the congregation.

Parishioners attending the inaugural folk guitar Mass were startled to find their familiar, ornate, back-facing marble altar thrust into the shadows, “cancelled out” by a ghostly neon halo hovering in front of Jesus’ feet. The white cathode tubing highlighted an elevated platform. Upon this bright vinyl island stood a plain modern altar table made of milk-white plexiglas, as smoothly curved as “bent butter;” a sleek plexiglas lectern; and a presider’s chair upholstered in shiny white patent leather. The center section of altar rail was gone, opening up the space to symbolically welcome priest and people together around the table.

The boldly original design and concept were intended to highlight the spare, simple, modern ideas in the New Liturgy, while paying homage to the past.

The New Mass and the new design were equally controversial.

The Venturi renovation proved, in fact, to be the most divisive episode in the history of our parish! College students, some of whom studied under Venturi, were electrified by the bright new look and the energy it represented. Architectural publications praised the design. Longtime parishioners did not. This was one renovation too many. The neon lights were blamed for migraines and removed as soon as the school year ended. The other furnishings disappeared from the  sanctuary piece by piece over time.

Ironically, in retrospect, Venturi saved our church. Vatican directives said that two altars must not compete for attention. In the 1960s, ” old-fashioned” ornate back altars were often altered,  removed, or covered. Venturi believed our history was important, though, so he left the old fittings in place and used the band of neon light as a form of “electric demolition” or “an editor’s pencil” to cancel them out visually. The old altar remained intact in the shadows, giving substance to the new.

It’s still there today, long after his renovations were removed. And now that the New Mass is old news, and the current forward-facing altar from MBS church symbolizes a new reality for our parish, we’ve restored this interesting chapter to our history.

In 2015, the Parish invited the Society of Architectural Historians to bring Father McNamee (pastor emeritus at St. Malachy) and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown to come back and talk about the long-ago renovations. Feelings still ran strong: longtime parishioners were passionate about the attempt to change the character of their church; while Denise Scott Brown, recalled every carefully considered detail of the design and the pain of losing it: “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.”  But after almost half a century, those involved found common ground in the perspective of time and age, and a whole new group of parishioners, neighbors, and friends heard the story for the first time.




What does our church have in common with silent films?

“High-Tech” is not an adjective that immediately comes to mind to describe our church, but it was when it was built in 1911.

Electricity was a hot topic at that time: a history of PECO notes that “Of Philadelphia’s 850 churches, five hundred were customers of Philadelphia Electric in 1912.” The new technology was promoted as an enhancement to sacred spaces: a typical article in a 1913 issue of The Lighting Journal observed that “it is the aim of the engineer to bring out the sublimity of the altar and cause the emotion of the worshipper to feel those lofty conceptions and reverence for this holy place...”

Our church was built for electricity. A 1922 interior photo shows rows of light bulbs lining the arches on the side walls, on the columns,  around windows, and above the doors and confessionals. The sockets are embedded in the terracotta tiles. Original lighting also included electric sconces below the round windows on the side walls, and two electroliers, or round metal stands of electric candles, in the sanctuary.

So who designed the original lighting system?

A recently-discovered ad for Edward L. Simons, Mechanical and Electrical Engineer and Contractor, operating out of Lansdowne, PA, references his work for our parish — along with St. Philomena of Lansdowne, Immaculate Conception and Visitation in Philadelphia, and others — but we don’t know if he worked on our original chapel/school (today’s auditorium) or the church.

We do know that church work provided a natural career progression for Simons, who is better-remembered today as a pioneer in dramatic set lighting for movies at Sigmund Lubin’s Lubinville (20th and Indiana)  and Betzwood (near Valley Forge) silent film studios around 1911. Initially, films were made outdoors using hand-cranked cameras on location around Philadelphia and on the studio rooftop downtown. When Lubin wanted to continue filming in bad weather, Simons re-created the sun indoors for him at Betzwood with a massive  rig of “112  four-foot mercury vapor tubes and 20 aristo arc lights.”  It was noted that  “the heat produced by the 144,000 candle-power lights bordered on the lethal,” and “on occasion those who remained close to the lights for too long suffered blisters on their eyeballs.”

The lights in our church, calibrated for quiet meditation, have never been quite so bright – even in the brief neon period in 1969 — something for which we didn’t know we needed  to be thankful!