A pair of evocative photos turned up recently in the Archdiocesan CHRC Archives, capturing our church in solemn and celebratory moods long ago.
The first is labeled on the reverse “The altar at St. Francis de Sales’ Church arranged for Solemn Pontifical Mass November 12th, 1916. Presented by Father Lallouto A.C.H.S.” (American Catholic Historical Soc.) The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the dedication of the Church, and Father Lallou, of St. John the Evangelist Church, gave the sermon. Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, D.D., rector of the Catholic University, presided, assisted by Rev. James T. Higgins, pastor of MBS. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted at the time that “All the officers of the mass are alumni of the Catholic University.” Our Pastor, Rev. Michael J. Crane, and Rev. Higgins – both now memorialized on our rectory lawn – had graduated together, among its first alumni. The exuberant electric lighting (imagine climbing up to replace those burnt-out bulbs!) is a reminder of how much clean, bright electricity – the new light of knowledge — was prized in 1916.
The second photo, showing the rear of the church, is unlabeled but also very early, and captures the magnificent serenity of the church at rest.
Look around you and compare these photos with our church today — eerily the same and different. Check out the old full altar rail, the big hanging cross-shaped sanctuary lamp, the “cake stand” electric candle stands, and the early view of the organ. The old church was both darker, with the ornate dark pews and old flooring, and brighter with its multitude of light stands and bare bulbs.
Pope Francis quotes composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future,” adding “It is not a museum piece. It is what gives us life, as long as it makes you grow.” Our parish treasures its past, while continuing to move ahead: trying new ideas to engage families, planning updates to facilities for modern energy awareness, and looking at feasibility of adding wheelchair cuts to our 1960s pews to make the church more accessible. The shared sacrament of the Eucharist is what anchors us, connecting our past, present, and future.
In 1869 Archbishop Wood of Philadelphia invited the Little Sisters of the Poor from France to come and assist in caring for the vast numbers of elderly poor in the city regardless of race or religious beliefs. The Charism of the Foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, serving the poorest in simplicity, humility, and trust in Divine Providence (begging), imbued them with the gift of fortitude for over 150 years in Philadelphia through faithfully observing their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and hospitality, while personally assisting the dying with the firm belief that, as St. Jeanne said – “It is Jesus Himself whom you are serving in the Poor.”
Did you know the Little Sisters of the Poor have been quietly serving the needs of the poor and the elderly in our neighborhood for 120 years? They’ve been here almost as long as SFDS (1890) and MBS (1901). And now, in a new age of need, our combined parish has a chance to renew connections with the Little Sisters that make us all stronger together.
The story of the Little Sisters of the Poor in this part of the city began in July 1902, when five Sisters “opened a non-sectarian house for the aged, southwest corner of Forty-second street and Baltimore avenue” in what appears to have been a four-story house (today an apartment building stands on the site), within the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales Parish. A mendicant order, relying entirely on charitable donations, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “the Sisters in their new quarters commenced with literally nothing. Now twenty feeble old persons are under their care, and there are moments when the next meal is a serious problem. The only support derived by the home is that secured by personal solicitation from door to door…”
Many neighbors and others did want to be a part of the worthy effort, so that the following year, on November 2, 1903, Bishop Prendergast was able to lay the cornerstone for the “new house of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Fifty-fourth and Chester avenue,” within the boundaries of the recently established (1901) Most Blessed Sacrament Parish. The Inquirer noted that “The ceremony, solemn in itself, was rendered all the more effective by a procession of the children of the parish of the (Most) Blessed Sacrament, carrying silk banners of various hues, representing the sodalities of the church.” When the finished building was dedicated in 1905, Bishop Prendergast was “assisted by Rev. M.J. Crane, of the Church of St. Frances De Sales (sic!)…The altar boys were from the Church of the Gesu, (Most) Blessed Sacrament, and St. Francis de Sales,” so the local parishes continued to affirm their support.
Since it was just a few blocks away, Most Blessed Sacrament Parish School, at 56th and Chester, would develop a particularly positive relationship with the Sisters over the years, and some youthful helpers even returned later to serve as adults. Jim Dengler, a volunteer and former Advisory Board Member, recalls how, in his youth, fellow MBS students “would volunteer in the home’s kitchen or laundry room, or help assist the Little Sisters in taking care of the Residents, and some of the boys would serve as altar boys at Mass. But I would bet none of them left without something good to eat, for the Little Sisters’ hospitality is the best.” Don Carter, retired Director of Plant Operations & Maintenance at the home, also recalls that “My first experience with the Little Sisters was when I was in first or second grade at Most Blessed Sacrament School. The school was having a canned good drive for the Little Sisters Home down the street. I wondered how the Sisters could live off tomato soup because that was all that mom would part with. Little did I know that one day I would be helping stack all the canned goods that would be coming in on food drives!”
Through good times and bad, the Little Sisters welcomed the “poor elderly” at Sacred Heart and two other facilities in the city until the Sacred Heart building closed in 1969 “to make way for a more modern facility.” A new building, combining all three Philadelphia homes (St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s and Sacred Heart) in one place, “opened on the same location on April 13, 1973, and was dedicated to the Holy Family.” Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it continued to change. MBS School would close its doors in 2002. MBS Parish combined with SFDS in 2007, and, with a dizzying succession of pastors, the combined parish lost track of some of its old neighborhood connections.
Today, still focused on their mission, the Little Sisters recognize that “Material deprivation is only one form of poverty. Others that weigh heavily upon a person are: isolation, insecurity, the anguish of feeling that one is a burden on others, or being unwanted, seeing one’s self become weaker and weaker, and in some cases, being abandoned…” They still rely upon volunteers and charitable donations for their work, so that “with the help of a dedicated staff, the Sisters care for Residents in Independent Apartments and Skilled Nursing Units.” The Sisters have started a capital campaign to upgrade yet again on the same site. Here’s an opportunity to see what we can do to help!
The brass donation plaque on the front of our altar hints at a tale of how two parishes once moved in opposite directions in order to come together.
The story began in 1969, a year of transformational world events, during which local churches were directed to install forward-facing altars for the New Mass of Vatican II.
At Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Monsignor Daly, who had been Pastor since 1940 and would retire in 1970, selected a monumental piece of marble to become a permanent part of his church – emblazoned with symbols of wheat and grapes, and carved with an image of the apostles at the Last Supper. The traditional design reflected both the purpose of the altar – as a table for the congregation to symbolically gather around, like the apostles – and the identity of the parish, focused on the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Reassuringly, in time-honored fashion, parishioners old and new were asked to help fund the addition. The MBS February 1969 Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “Miss Margaret Brooks, our organist for many years, has donated the new altar for the upper church. She wishes this, in memory of her beloved parents, Joseph and Margaret (sic. Joseph and Sarah Brooks, who had lived at 1812 South 56th St.). The cost of the new altar is $3,000. The installation and additional marble will cost an extra $4,500. Miss Ada Schraeder, our housekeeper for many years, has donated $100 towards the alterations in our sanctuary...” The following month, contributions were reported of “$22 for top altar cloth and $50 for help in installing new altar, in memory of P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from Mother and Dad – Mr. & Mrs. Austin H. Gaughan, 5318 Grays Avenue” and “$22 altar cloth for new altar in memory of nephew P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from his Aunt & Uncle – Mr. & Mrs. Michael Hogan, 5348 Grays Avenue.“ (Austin Gaughan had died the year before, at age 19, in Vietnam). More contributions came, in months that followed, to cover the rest of the costs. Each one was individually acknowledged, since it represented a member of the parish, gathered for “supper” around the table. Those offerings and names became part of the MBS, and now our, parish heritage.
St. Francis de Sales, a few blocks away, took a different approach. There, under Monsignor Mitchell, a pastor focused on large social issues, idealistic young priests, recently assigned to the parish and filled with a sense of mission, embraced the new simplified English-language Mass, because it seemed accessible to all. With an evangelizing spirit, they invited world-renowned architect, Robert Venturi, to celebrate with a bold modern statement piece in the sanctuary – a plain, sleek plexiglass altar on a brightly-lit modern platform — symbolically highlighting the new order and thrusting the ornate high altar, and the “old-fashioned” ideas it represented, deep into the shadows. The renovation received a fair amount of press coverage, but parishioners, who did not understand the concept, and who were not involved in the planning or decision making, felt blindsided by the changes to their beloved church, which had been their haven in an age of upheaval. Hurt feelings were long lasting.
Jump ahead to 2007, when two small, diverse city parishes, weathered by time and circumstance, had to come together to survive. Like the neighborhood and the New Mass, the sanctuary of St. Francis de Sales had changed over time. The ultramodern Venturi altar eventually cracked and was quietly replaced by several temporary wooden altars under a succession of short-term pastors. When Saint Francis de Sales Parish became Saint Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, the sturdy marble altar from MBS, installed as a symbol of unity for the two churches, became a perfect fit for the space, looking as though it had always been there. Since its placement was a committee decision – agreed by the pastor and lay representatives of both parishes – it also offered a chance to come full circle at SFDS, heal an old wound, and open a way to a possible future of better communication between rectory and parishioners. It’s up to us, today, to move that forward!
Ask any expectant parent, perusing a book of baby names, why the ritual is important: a name is the first gift that forms the heart of identity.
Why did Reverend Joseph O’Neill choose to name our new parish Saint Francis de Sales in 1890? The Centennial book for the Parish of Saint James the Greater: Mother Parish of West Philadelphia, suggests that Joseph may have chosen the name to honor his brother, the Reverend Francis O’Neill – the fifth pastor of St. James — who began to build the church at 38th and Chestnut (it became the combined parish of St. Agatha-St. James in 1976) and who died suddenly in 1882, ostensibly worn-out by the effort.
It seems plausible. The brothers were reportedly close, and Joseph assisted Francis at St. James, so a saint named “Francis” could have been a quiet tribute to a beloved brother, while the particular choice of Francis de Sales – a learned Doctor of the Church – connected the new church with its university-bordered parent. The Bishop of Geneva, exiled to Savoy, was also a good patron saint for a new parish whose early donors and pew-holders included those of German and Irish descent, as well as French and other Europeans. Our parish, though proud, never was a cathedral – any more than Saint Alice or Saint Malachy, also homes to assistant bishops in their day.
Nearly a decade after SFDS was founded, Reverend Patrick Burke (who also came from St. James), looked out at the farmland of his newly assigned patch at the southwestern edge of St. Francis de Sales, and all the new row houses for immigrants churning up through the mud around it, and threatened, smilingly, to name his parish “Agony in the Garden,” after the first sorrowful mystery of the rosary; Bishop Ryan is said to have responded “ you have here a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come…” Most Blessed SacramentParish was founded in May 1901, close to the feast of Corpus Christi. Reverend Burke “was known at the time as one of the clearest expounders of Catholic doctrine and had a large following of converts,” so his chosen focus on the “Real Presence” was a missionary banner for his “garden.”
Decades passed, and by the time both parishes celebrated their centennials, parish identities were distinct, congregations were small and circumstances were changing. In 2007, representatives from the two old rivals SFDS and MBS, sat down together to agree upon the name “Saint Francis de Sales Parish United By the Most Blessed Sacrament” for a new parish that would unite the remnants of two diverse communities in one building. Its emblem would include a monstrance and a dome, symbols of the two groups, with the name of the newly-formed parish – a careful combination of both old parish names — sheltered underneath.
Today’s combined parish contains all that is left of Most Blessed Sacrament and we are responsible for preserving its memory, alongside that of the old Saint Francis de Sales Parish. It is easier to identify with Saint Francis de Sales, since we worship in its building, where the layers of history are embedded in the walls. Most Blessed Sacrament – with its strong social mission, and a school once heralded as the “largest parochial school in the world” – has left behind fewer written records.
The Third Eucharistic Prayer says “You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name...” Our parish name contains an arc of history – a perfect rainbow – that stretches all the way across the neighborhood, from our parent church of Saint James, at 38th and Chestnut, near the University of Pennsylvania, to the “garden” where MBS once cultivated a heritage of education and service at 56th and Chester, and where globally-focused Independence Charter School West stands today. Our full identity is encompassed in the spread – and in order to make that pure sacrifice, we need to draw sustenance from all of our traditions.
In 2007, Most Blessed Sacrament and Saint Francis de Sales parishes officially merged as one parish, known as “Saint Francis de Sales Parish United by the Most Blessed Sacrament.” The somewhat cumbersome name turns out to be peculiarly appropriate, due to an original design element in our church.
Specially-chosen Ushers, long ago, carried a richly-brocaded portable cloth canopy, called a baldachin, raised above the Most Blessed Sacrament in processions. The canopy, decorated with symbols of the Passion and Resurrection, sheltered and drew attention to the monstrance — the magnificent golden sun-shaped vessel with the round window displaying the Holy Eucharist. At Benediction, the Priest then used a special folding footstool to lift the monstrance and place it, for solemn contemplation, in the little alcove atop the tabernacle in our church.
The word “baldachin” is said to be derived from “Baghdad,” the ancient city in Iraq where the ornate canopy fabric, opulently embroidered with silk and gold thread, was first produced. The term is also used in architecture to describe a stone arch or canopy supported on a framework of columns, that protects and highlights an important place in a church. The most famous of all architectural baldachins is a sculptural masterpiece by Bernini, which stands above the High Altar and the Tomb of Saint Peter, at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
In our church, marble columns and an arch form an architectural baldachin above our 1911 High Altar. The white marble arch is inlaid with golden tiles to resemble brocaded fabric, decorated with a crown, symbolizing Christ the King, and the flowing “fountain of the living water.” The baldachin shelters and highlights our beautiful Byzantine-style glass mosaic Crucifixion mural. Look carefully at the mural and its golden tiles form the abstract shape of a monstrance, with the head of Christ framed in the large round double halo “window”. On Holy Days, the actual monstrance, in the small arch at its base, would mirror the scene above, emphasizing the connection.
An alternate name for an architectural baldachin is a “ciborium” – the same term used to describe a lidded container for the Eucharist – yet another association. Thus, the Most Blessed Sacrament has always been the central design focus of our church! And so we discover that from its very beginning, a hundred years before anyone could have anticipated, our church building was made a fitting future home for our blended parish.