Tag: MBS

A Moving Story

MBS Chapel shown circa 1917

Usually, we expect an old building to stay solidly, reliably, fixed in one place, but the ever-adaptable MBS chapel has kept on moving with the times!

Its story began in 1885, when Reverend M.J. Lawler of newly established St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, in the rapidly growing Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, received city planning permission to build a “temporary frame chapel” at 17th and Morris Street to serve the then mostly Irish immigrant population. Completed and dedicated in November 1889, the wooden structure was used until December 1901, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “…Father Lawler started to build a church which, when finished, will be one of the largest in the city.”

The chapel had to be removed in order to make space for the new construction, so “it was carefully taken apart by workmen, and…presented to Father Burke” of the newly established Most Blessed Sacrament Parish at 56th and Chester. Father Burke then invited Father Lawler, who had said the first Mass in the chapel when it was dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, to say the first Mass at the dedication of the same chapel as Most Blessed Sacrament on December 22, 1901 (Incidentally, Reverend Joseph O’Neill of St. Francis de Sales was the Deacon for the dedication Mass, and the St. Francis de Sales Choir provided the music, so, fittingly, MBS and SFDS — destined to be combined as one in 2007 — celebrated their connection from the very beginning!).

A 1917 parish history provides a poetic description of those early MBS days: “Memory calls up the little wooden Chapel among the trees in all the glory of its rustic setting on a Sunday morning in Spring. Over the fields, up the lane and through the main thoroughfare, came these worshippers…” A forest of row houses quickly replaced the trees, though, as that corner of the city grew, and a bigger worship space was soon needed to accommodate the mostly immigrant laborers spreading out from South Philadelphia. A stone chapel/school building was dedicated in 1908, and the cornerstone was laid for the church in 1922. Meanwhile, the little wooden building clung bravely to its corner, becoming the MBS Parish Assembly Hall.

In 1925, as the neighborhood continued to expand, Good Shepherd Parish formed at 67th and Chester Ave. The “small frame structure” from MBS found a new purpose: dismantled, moved, reconstructed, and repaired, it became the temporary new chapel, where, “on Sunday, July 26, 1925, the first Mass at Good Shepherd Parish was celebrated at 6:00 AM on the feast of St. Anne…” The little building happily served that Parish until their new church was consecrated in 1951 (Good Shepherd was consolidated into Divine Mercy Parish in 2004).

Chapel at Good Shepherd 1925-1951

The sturdy little chapel’s travels weren’t over! In 1951, Rev. Christopher Purcell, of the newly-formed St. Christopher Parish in Somerton, wrote to Cardinal Dougherty, that “Through the kindness of Father Hammill, Pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Phila., (who had, incidentally, assisted at SFDS 1934-1939) we have been given the temporary chapel at Good Shepherd Parish and its equipment which he no longer needs.” The St. Christopher’s Parish website notes that the chapel was used until the present church was built in 1978,then “The original church was converted to a hall, and re-named as Trainer Hall.” It’s still there on the St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) parish grounds as they work on a capital campaign to expand their 1978 church!

Trainer Hall at St. Christopher Parish 1951-Present

John Deady likes to call this column “Have Chapel, Will Travel,” referencing a long-ago TV series about a man who moved around the American frontier, forever finding new adventures. Maybe he’s right about this plucky little chapel: next stop “Space, the final frontier”??!

The Last Supper Altar

the_last_supper_-_leonardo_da_vinci_-_high_resolution_32x16Have you ever really studied the freestanding altar at St. Francis de Sales?

The frieze carved on the front is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 15th century painting of the Last Supper, which seems appropriate, though, curiously, the scene, as Leonardo painted it, was intended to represent the moment when Jesus told his apostles that one of them would betray him! It’s not an exact copy: our anonymous altar sculptor made some significant design choices where details were unclear, but it’s pretty close.

Leonardo’s ancient planning notes identify the first three people on the left in the scene as Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus (James the Less), and Andrew, all looking astonished at the betrayal. In Leonardo’s original plan, which he later changed, one of those apostles is so surprised, that he “blows his mouthful” — a very human, but possibly too distracting image!

Next comes Judas, the villain in the piece. A 19th century analysis of Leonardo’s artwork notes that Judas “is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone” in the scene. He is shown “clutching a small bag…He is also tipping over the salt cellar” – said to be a symbol of betrayal. Intriguingly, in Jewish religion, salt also signified God’s (Old-Testament) covenant.

A bread knife in a hand behind Judas has caused much speculation through the ages. Leonardo’s original notes describe a character later identified as Peter who “speaks into his neighbour’s (John’s) ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and in the other the loaf half cut through by the knife.” Carefully read, this convoluted sentence suggests that Leonardo originally intended John to hold the knife, although Peter is more usually credited, and our altar sculptor has chosen Peter.

Why is John a more interesting possibility? Here’s a thought: in Renaissance art, a “loaf with a knife in it” symbolized the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice. It seems like John, the beloved disciple, on hearing the news of betrayal, might instinctively try to yank the knife from the loaf and cast it away, to symbolically stop Jesus’ suffering. Peter, future head of the church, might grab his arm to stop him, knowing that Jesus must die as foretold. And Judas spills the salt.

Jesus, in the center, studiously ignores the drama, since he knows what must happen.

On his other side, Thomas points heavenward, while James the Greater gestures to Jesus and Philip points to himself, questioning. Matthew, Thaddeus (Jude) and Simon confer together at the far end of the table.

Our altar, by the way, has a story of its own. The ultramodern streamlined acrylic freestanding altar installed at SFDS to celebrate the new ideas of Vatican II and the 1960s proved to be too brittle, and it cracked. It was replaced several times by sturdier, less austere wooden substitutes (much like the adjustments to the New Mass). In 2007, the MBS altar was moved and installed here to commemorate the merging of the two parishes, symbolically gathering everyone around the same table. Its marble  was a perfect match — restoring the traditional look of the sanctuary and fitting in as though it has always been here!

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