Tag: philadelphia

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.

 

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Tuberculosis

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Rev. William Canney

Reverend William Canney graduated from Saint Francis de Sales School; his mother and sisters lived at 4722 Upland Street; and ten of his fourteen years as a priest — from 1924 to 1934 — were spent assisting at de Sales. His dedication to our parish was whole-hearted – and may have cost his life.

William Canney’s nickname was “Will E? Can E!” because of his joyous energy. One of five priests at the de Sales rectory, he was Spiritual Director of the Sodality (a parish women’s organization) and author of the Parish News column in the monthly bulletin. He was also Chaplain for the College of Osteopathy at 48th and Spruce, and, reportedly, unofficial chaplain for the firehouse at 50th and Baltimore – chasing the fire engines whenever the alarm sounded. In his spare time, he wrote lyrics for songs and dramatic sketches for parish events, and organized outings for parish school children.

Above all, Canney’s 1933 parish profile reported his real strength at the sickbed: “Many a soul tortured by sickness and infirmity has been comforted by his faithful and sympathetic ministrations.” This could have been his downfall: in 1935, a year after transfer to St. Leo’s in Tacony, Canney went on Sick Leave at the “Philadelphia Jewish Sanatorium for Consumptives” in Eagleville — a Tuberculosis hospital for poor people. He died there a year later, at age 41, and his obituary in the Catholic Standard quoted portions of a lengthy sad brave poem he wrote during that final year: “Weave every little cross I bear/ Into the garland of a prayer…” He was buried from our church.

“Consumption,” or Tuberculosis, was a serious lung disease and leading cause of death in the United States up into the 1940s. Philadelphia Catholic physician Lawrence Flick was tuberculosisone of a group (later renamed the American Lung Association) which began, in the 1890s, to raise public awareness that the disease was contagious. Health campaigns against spitting, and unshielded coughing and sneezing, formed part of the effort to stop transmission. Germs were also found in unpasteurized milk, so pasteurization gradually became standard. Those who attended at sickbeds were especially vulnerable to infection, so the archdiocese established a Tuberculosis sanatorium for priests in 1947 – just as Streptomycin antibiotic came to market as an effective cure. Danger over, the building was repurposed as a mental health institute.

Today, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, like many formerly-controllable diseases, is on the uptick: it is estimated that a third of the world’s population may be infected or carriers.

Reverend Canney lives on at our parish in his rediscovered writings.

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A Place For Hope

 

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Reverend Thomas J. Hilferty      (9th Pastor 1977-1989)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city churches faced tough times as population shifted to the suburbs. At St. Francis de Sales, registration dropped steadily from 4,233 families in 1963, to just 831 families by 1983, raising serious concerns about our finances and our future.

But a church is not a container for ancient rituals; it’s a meeting place for people striving to live their faith. So our small parish ignored its own worries for a larger sense of purpose, when wave after wave of desperately fleeing refugees swept into Philadelphia after the Vietnam War.

Our Lower Church became the archdiocesan “Mother Church” for incoming Vietnamese Catholics, with Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh, himself a refugee, as chaplain. Our then Pastor, Father Hilferty, who had been a travelling Navy chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years, understood the needs of the new arrivals. He also had a military-trained practical outlook, so that in 1980, Philadelphia Magazine reported that “Over the last five years this parish has become one of the most successful centers for Indo-Chinese refugee resettlement in the area.”

Philadelphia Magazine singled out longtime parishioner Betty Allen as “a one-woman resettlement agency” with a goal to “get the immigrants employed and off welfare and out of Stoneleigh Court (an underheated, barely livable shelter at 46th and Walnut) as fast as they can.” In 2012, Liz Campion recalled that Betty Allen’s “spiritual life was connected to the refugees of every major war or famine over the past forty years. She also volunteered services to the mentally ill, people recovering from addiction and to folks who needed job training after prison. She helped open a school to teach English as a second (or third, or fourth) language to her beloved refugees. She made sure the curriculum included classes to help parents better help their school-age children with homework.” And she invited people to use their various talents to get involved.

Lloyd Romero was point-person for Catholic Social Services. Liz recalls the work of local realtor Arthur Kane, who “moved people into affordable housing and through to home and business ownership and a stake in the American Dream.” Philadelphia Magazine mentions the efforts of “Woodland Presbyterian Church…and the West Philly Refugee Center of the Living Word Community on Chester Avenue,” as well as a “Jewish businessman who recently put up $1,000 for a Christmas party and blankets…” Joint efforts to help immigrants of all faiths, brought the neighborhood together.

Today, our parish is still relatively small, and the budget is tight, but as the world changes yet again, new needs are out there. Do we still have heart?

A Well-Connected Family

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John and Wilhelmina Ruane (center) celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1956, with their children and their spouses and the 20 grandchildren at that time. Joe is fourth from the right, at the edge of the door in the back row.

Longtime parishioners Joe and Nancy Ruane are “well-connected” at Saint Francis de Sales parish. Joe’s grandparents were early parishioners, and Joe’s electrician father and grandfather worked on our electrical connections – including installing the two long chandeliers at the front of the church and the first sound system.

1943 ruane baltimore aveJohn F. Ruane and Wilhelmina Halberstadt Ruane married in 1906 and appear to have moved to the parish sometime before 1920. Joe writes that by the 1930s, “the couple lived at 720 S. 49th Street, and had an electrical shop at 4830 Baltimore Avenue…” He notes that his father became a partner in the business after the Second World War, and “took over the business when my grandfather retired in the late 50’s. They did a lot of the electrical work for De Sales when Bishop Lamb was pastor” from 1936 to 1951.

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The SFDS Parish Bookstore was located at 4726 Baltimore Avenue

Joe says “My grandmother worked one day in their store keeping the books, and worked other days at a religious goods store in 4700 block of Baltimore Ave, next to the then Byrd theater (this could have been the SFDS Parish Bookstore and Lending Library at 4726 Baltimore – today’s Vientiane Restaurant).  She was the author of a book sold there, “A is for Angels” which went through the alphabet with a religious word for each letter.”

Joe further recalls “My parents lived in Delaware County after they got married and raised our family in Collingdale, but as an infant, after being baptized in the hospital, the sacrament of baptism was supplied, or completed, at St. Francis de Sales a few weeks later. As children my parents used to bring us into the city to watch the De Sales May Procession during the time of Bishop Lamb.”

Joe’s guardian angel moment came when he helped in the family electrical store in 1947/1948: “One day I dropped a screw from a toaster on the floor” and  “noticed through a crack in the floor a fire in the basement. Luckily the fire was taken care of quickly by the fire station at 50th and Baltimore (today’s Dock Street Brewing Co.) since three stores on the corner of 49th and Baltimore all shared the same basement, divided by thin wooden partitions.

Joe notes that as an adult, “ I moved to the parish in late 1968, married and moved to Roxborough in 1971, and returned here in 1973, where Nancy and I raised our daughter who was married in St. Francis De Sales in 2000” — connecting our parish through multiple generations!

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Joe’s grandfather, John F Ruane and grandmother, Wilhelmina Halberstadt Ruane at their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 1956. The priest on the left is Rev. Philip Bruckner, C.M., of the Miraculous Medal Association in Germantown, Joe’s cousin and nephew of his grandmother; the priest on the right is Msgr. Charles B. McGinley, pastor of Holy Child parish, north Broad Street, now Our Lady of Hope where Sr. Gertrude Borres R.A, is Director of Evangelization. Ruane Electric had done the electrical work, including lighting, for the Holy Child Shrine of the Nativity.

Bishop’s Chair

DSCN4849 (2)What’s the difference between a bishop’s chair and a throne, and which one is in our Saint Francis de Sales Church sanctuary?

Theologically, every active Catholic diocese or archdiocese has only one Diocesan Bishop, one cathedral, and one cathedra or throne. According to Denis McNamara, Associate Director at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary – and expert on ecclesiastical furniture — “the cathedra is really a theological concept (seat of authority for a diocese) that gets externalized (cathedra).” Like the throne of a monarch, it’s a physical object that represents an idea. The cathedral is the church that houses the cathedra.

Our chair is not the Philadelphia archdiocesan cathedra. So what is it?

At consecration, each new bishop is appointed to his own unique diocese. All three of our long-ago bishops (Bishop Crane, Bishop Lamb, Bishop McShea) were titular bishops, which means each received the title to an inactive ancient diocese without associated duties, territory, cathedral, or throne. He could then assist in the Philadelphia Archdiocese but was not, by technicality, a local bishop.

But all bishops — even those holding title to obsolete districts — still need to sit down from time to time! McNamara remarks that “you often see chairs with a bishop’s coats of arms on them…in his office or home… (they were very fond of doing this in the 1920s). But that did not replace the one cathedra in the diocese.” He further notes that “Cardinal Mundelein’s dining room chair here on campus has his coat of arms on it. And it’s just where he ate dinner!”

Our mystery chair bears the insignia of Bishop Crane, our second pastor, who became Titular Bishop of Curium (ancient Cyprus) in 1921. Its crosses and scrollwork  match the ornamentation of our church, and a scallop-shell design on the front, just below the seat cushion, resembles decorations in the original parish Baptistry (today’s Adoration Chapel). This decoration suggests  a possible purpose, recalling that ancient European baptistries were sometimes furnished with a special chair to be used by a bishop administering the sacrament of Confirmation.

Our church is just one of several bishop-associated churches in Philadelphia. Before coming to Saint Francis de Sales in 1903, our Reverend Crane was assistant priest to Bishop Prendergast at St. Malachy. Bishop McCormick became Bishop while at St. Stephen’s in 1947 – our then pastor Bishop Lamb attended the consecration. Bishop Gerald McDevitt served at St. Alice in Upper Darby from 1962, and subsequent bishops have found their homes at various suburban churches.

Historical context: it makes a difference!

Our Man in Washington

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Adolfo de Nesti

If you’re ever in Washington DC,  stroll over to the Wilson Building (home to the offices of the DC Mayor and Council at  1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW), look up at the facade, and say “Hi” to the artist who decorated our church!

Huh?

Before crafting statues and friezes inside and outside our 1911 church, sculptor Adolfo de Nesti was commissioned to design classical figures to adorn what was then called the Municipal Services Building in Washington. The Washington Post, July 3  1908, reported that his 26 white marble statues, each over nine feet tall, represented “the arts, sciences, commerce, statesmanship, and other conceptions.”  One of the statues, depicting “a graceful-appearing young man with bared arms and a loose-fitting robe draped about his shoulders is Art…and De Nesti, it is said, has used his own head and figure as the model…”

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Art by Adolfo de Nesti (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

De Nesti’s works were a small part of a much larger idea. In 1901, the MacMillan commission approved a development plan to re-make the nation’s capital as an idealized “City Beautiful” that would inspire “civic virtue…through important monumental architecture.” James Wasserman, author of a guide to Masonic Washington,  suggests that the many symbols incorporated in decorations throughout the city “silently communicate a curriculum designed to inspire, elevate, and teach eternal truth.

De Nesti, who came from Florence, Italy,  dreamed American in his Washington years. His business partner, Ernest Bairstow, would later be known  for his work on the Lincoln Memorial. De Nesti was on the Street Decoration Committee for the 1905 Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. And in 1906, he married Agnes Campbell Gordon Armistead – the Great Granddaughter of Colonel George Armistead, whose 1812 defense of Fort McHenry inspired our National Anthem.

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Statue of Our Lady by Adolfo de Nesti (Immaculata University)

In 1907, having finished his work on emblems of  “patriotic religion”  in Washington, de Nesti and his young wife began a new chapter of their lives in Philadelphia. Their son was born here in March 1908 and de Nesti began crafting inspirational symbols of Catholic faith in our church. In 1914, he sculpted a statue of the Blessed Virgin to top the dome at Immaculata University.

As far as we know, de Nesti  never became an American citizen, and likely returned to Italy in World War I. His wife remarried after a “tragedy” and divorce in 1921, at which point their son, Adolfo Napoleone Francesco de Nesti Junior changed his name to the all-American Armistead Greene.  Adolfo de Nesti’s American dream ended early but his sculptured likeness in Washington still wistfully overlooks every presidential inaugural parade. And Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, the city of our nation’s Founding Fathers, is his memorial.

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The Wilson Building, Washington DC (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

 

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Eyes on the Skies

DSCN4599 (2)Look up and you never know what you might find — like this artwork near the roofline on the Farragut Terrace side of Saint Francis de Sales School!

The January 1927 St. Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin explained its symbolism when the building addition (by Henry Dagit’s firm) was newly-constructed:

Image (82)“The cross…is the sign of our faith, and it is used on all Catholic Churches and Buildings…”

“The two large carved limestone panels on the front facade of the School are emblematic of the spirit of the School. The panel on the south side represents Saint Francis de Sales, the teacher, teaching the boys the arts and sciences as the foundation of learning. It also illustrates the life and virtue of the patron Saint of the Parish, Saint Francis de Sales. The panel on the north side…represents the modern nun, the symbol of virtue, the guide and foundation of our schools, teaching the girls the arts of domestic science and training. The girl holding the vase represents the perpetual truths of the faith.”

OK, perhaps that reads as a little sexist nowadays, though the basic message of sound academics and Catholic values still stands.

DSCN4585“The carved limestone symbols at the top of the buttresses are emblematic of Knowledge, Astronomy, and Science, signifying the use and purpose of the building. The shield…(with) the open book and the torch represents the symbol of Knowledge. The Torch of Learning must be used to give light in order to (access) the knowledge in the book, and also to give light to our understanding.”

DSCN4581 (3)“The lined sphere with the zodiac…resting on the books, and the instruments about it, represent the study of Astronomy, and the study of the Universe and Geography.”

school emblemThe Lamp of Science, with the sun in back of it, represents the light given…upon all subjects by the study of the sciences. The lamp, resting upon the books, signifies the attempt to equal the light of the sun by the study of the sciences.

Why so much science? People were excited about new discoveries in the 1920s. Study of the heavens especially interested the church, which described a special star at Christmas and used the equinox to calculate the date for Easter. Guy Consolmagno, Astronomer to current Pope Francis, notes that the Vatican Observatory was founded in the 1890s, in part “to show that science and religion were not opposed to one another,” and further observes that “the reigning Big Bang theory of cosmology was devised by a Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître” in 1927. So keep looking up!

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SFDS Christmas Tour

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Welcome to our blended parish of St. Francis de Sales United By The Most Blessed Sacrament. We hope you enjoy this Christmas Story, as told in the architectural decorations of our 1911 church (You can also find another more traditional tour in the Self-Guided Tour tab on this site).

De Sales Photos Binder 06 030 (2)Let’s start at the very beginning…at the high pulpit on the Mary side of the church. When the Mass was simplified after Vatican II, our pulpit survived as a part of the architecture, but it was not used for many years. Today, it is reserved for special occasions, as when the Nativity Proclamation is read just before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In the glittering light, the recitation of Jesus’ lineage connects us with all of the faithful down through the ages, while the eagle book rest – symbol of St. John’s Gospel – still reminds us that before everything, In the beginning was the word…”

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Lk 1:31)

A few yards to the right is the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Above her head, note the three entwined circles and triangle in the mosaic half-circle lunette. These represent the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The upside-down dove in the center of this lunette represents the Holy Spirit – especially significant for Mary, who was filled with the Holy Spirit when Jesus was conceived.

_MG_2621 (3)The first long window on the Saint Joseph side of the church commemorates The Annunciation, when Mary learned she would have a child. At the top of the window is Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): Behold, a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

(Crafted by D’Ascenzo Studios, the six long windows tell the story of the Life of Christ in the upper half, and that of our patron Saint Francis de Sales in the lower half. In the first window, young Francis is instructed in the catechism by his mother, Mme de Boisey in France in the 1570s, so both window sections highlight Motherhood and faith).

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Lk 2:8-11)

The middle window on the Saint Joseph side of the church shows the Adoration of the Shepherds. The quote at the top is Micah’s Old Testament prophecy (in Latin): “From you, O Bethlehem…shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The artistic double cross designs in the bottom panel of each window on that side of the church symbolize Christ’s Divine and Human nature.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!” (Lk 2:13,14)

T006 At the back of the church, look for two angel sculptures above the holy water basins between the  doors. Henry Dagit, the architect who designed our church, had his daughters, Josephine Leonide and Anna, model for these exquisite pieces by Adolfo de Nesti back around 1910 (It is rumored that Josephine Leonide was also the model for the Blessed Mother).

lambA proper Nativity scene needs some animals. Step into the foyer, turn right, and look for the stairwell to the loft which the choir ascends to form a heavenly chorus.” The stairwell window features the image of a lamb – a perfect accompaniment to the shepherds, visiting the manger.

(Although this particular lamb, carrying a banner and perched on a book with seven seals, is a reference to the apocalypse – the end of the world — from the Book of Revelations).

Image (21)Whew! That was intense. Now go back to the middle of the church and look up at the decorations in the triangular pendentives that support the  Guastavino Dome. The four mystical creatures  ( also, incidentally, from Revelations) represent the four Evangelists – the saints who wrote the Gospels. Luke, who penned the story of Jesus’ birth, is the Ox – a traditional sacrificial animal and a very fitting addition to our Nativity story!

(Matthew, who related the story of the Three Wise Men,  is shown as an Angel, representing Christ’s human nature. Mark is the Lion who proclaims the dignity of Christ, since his Gospel begins with John the Baptist as a herald announcing the arrival of royalty.  John employs  the Eagle as the symbol of divinity because his Gospel begins in the heavens before Jesus came to earth..)

“And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9)

dome-starObserve the stars in the sky-like dome! The six-pointed star  symbolizes the six days of creation. From the 18th century, it gained new significance as the “Magen David,” or “Shield of David,” representing the House of David – the lineage of Jesus. Enclosed in an eternal circle, our star of earthly lineage has a cross at its center, representing the Easter story,  turned into an eight-pointed star — the Star of Bethlehem – of Jesus’ birth.

(Gershom Sholem, a Jewish scholar, suggests that, ironically, it was the infamous yellow badges of the Second World War – long decades after our church was built —  which turned the Star of David into a universal Jewish symbol).

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2;1,2)

DSCN4470 (2)Near the 47th Street door, find the Builder’s Compass of Saint Thomas, the Apostle. One of Jesus’ original followers, Thomas is thought to have gone on to become a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tradition says Gondophares was Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany.

harpiesAbove the Saint Thomas emblem, is a big round window showing Mary holding Baby Jesus in the middle, with Saint John the Evangelist on the right, and Saint Francis of Assisi on the left. Saint Francis of Assisi is remembered as the saint who loved animals. He is also  credited with organizing the first ever Nativity scene and pageant in the countryside of Assisi, so that everyone could experience the sense of wonder that came from interacting with the story.

(Our window is based on a long-ago painting by Andrea del Sarto commonly known as “The Madonna of the Harpies.” .  Why was the image chosen for our church? We don’t know for sure, but it is intriguing to note that the original painting was commissioned on May 14, 1515, and our parish was commissioned on May 14, 1890).

Finally, when you hear our eleven tower bells “on Christmas day, Their old  familiar carols play,” listen for the tune “I heard the Bells” based on an 1863 wartime poem of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — and join our prayers for peace on earth, goodwill to all this holiday season and always.

 

 

Horse Party

horse partyStep back in time, just after World War I,  and imagine city streets filled with horse carriages and carts instead of motor vehicles. Miss Laura Blackburne (3808 Walnut; later 5038 Larchwood), an early donor to St. Francis de Sales Church, was also a board member of  the Women’s SPCA (today’s Women’s Humane Society) and worked on the Dispensary Committee for a unique holiday event as reported in The Philadelphia Public Ledger, December 24, 1918:

There was great rejoicing in “animal circles” at the announcement that Santa Claus today would visit the stables and kennels of the poor horses, dogs, and cats, as well as the homes of real folks. 

            Through the agency of the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Santa gave Christmas dinners to more than 200 animals. The horses that have so nobly done double duty during the war were given especial notice. 

            There was a sort of thin, soupy mixture for the first course, mixed feed for the entree and carrots and big red apples for dessert. Dog biscuits were Rover’s share and there was catnip in prettily tied bunches for the kitties. 

            Ned, a staunch old dray horse who for the last year has been supporting a family of eleven, had the time of his long life. Ned’s master is sick and has been almost blind for many months. Ned’s steady work in hauling has furnished the only livelihood for the master, mistress and the nine children of the family. 

            Dan is another of the heroes who were decorated “inside and out” for his splendid services. He has been earning the living for an eighty year old man and his family. 

            Girl Scouts distributed the Christmas dinners for the animals from the Lighthouse at Second Street and Lehigh avenue, from the dispensary at 315 South Chadwick Street (near Rittenhouse), and from Lowry Home (for homeless dogs and cats), Eighty-Sixth and Eastwick Streets. Horses in the police van and traffic squad stables were remembered by the women too. The Christmas compliments were in the form of bright red apples. 

            Members of the dispensary committee of the women’s society investigate their “horse families” just as conscientiously and carefully as social workers investigate the homes of they city’s poor people. Wherever the people are poor and deserving of help, and their horse or animals are hungry, the society gives its aid…

            The lighthearted article sounds reassuringly normal, considering that the Great Influenza Pandemic, which killed an estimated 12,191 people in Philadelphia alone, had finally slowed its brutal onslaught just the previous month! All schools and churches in the city — including ours — were closed down for three weeks, from October 6 to October 26, 1918, in an apparently successful effort to help stem the contagion.

 

The Art of the Kneel

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Who are these four people and what has brought them to their knees in the middle window on the St. Mary side of St. Francis de Sales Church?

Crafted around 1910, the long stained glass windows at the back of the church were one of Philadelphia stained glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions. Episodes from the life of St. Francis de Sales in the lower part of each window, were carefully synchronized to the life of Christ above them, and with an Old Testament prophecy at the top. But only a few of the Jesus windows have captions so we have to use other clues to find their meanings.

david (3)The prophecy above the middle window, from the psalms of David, translates: “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And the bottom part of the window shows St. Francis de Sales establishing the cloistered Sisters of the Visitation: “giving  St. Jeanne de Chantal and her first two companions the rules of visitation” (D’Ascenzo conveniently copyrighted that design with its description). The associated Jesus scene should, therefore, relate to religious life.

The four kneeling figures in the Jesus window have halos, so they are saints — and they are men, so probably apostles — and the picture represents a significant event between the Sermon on the Mount and the Agony in the garden. Why do they kneel? Wikipedia helpfully observes that  “Kneeling, similar to bowing, is associated with reverence,  submission and  obeisance, particularly if one kneels before a person who is standing or sitting: the kneeling position renders a person defenseless and unable to flee. For this reason, in some religions, in particular by  Christians and Muslims, kneeling is used as a position for prayer.

When Jesus lays his hand on the head of one of the respectful  men — like a monarch bestowing a knighthood – the meaning becomes clear: he is saying “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church….” (Mt 16:18)

The early 1900s, when our church was built, were troubled times of local religious intolerance and rising European hostility to Pope Pius X – part of the simmering global unrest that led up to World War I. Our window reassured parishioners of their faith’s deep roots and enduring history. Further, it offered a social example. The 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, current when our church was built,  suggested that kneeling and standing were both acceptable prayer postures, but the ancient gesture of bending the knee had a more profound significance as an expression of reverence, humility, and trust.