Tag: philadelphia

Early Parishioners

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Undated letter shown in 1940 Parish Jubilee book

 

 

 

 

SFDS Parish legend suggests that a long-ago letter written to Archbishop Ryan by an Irish servant girl inspired the creation of our parish. The original of that undated letter has long since vanished, and the name Mary Bryan is common enough to be so far untraceable in available archives. A careful reading of early histories shows that the letter was always considered more of a heartwarming artifact than a mandate.

 

So who really were our original parishioners?

They are said to have been Irish immigrants, and this is largely true — including a few militant Irish nationalists. However, Philadelphia also had a large Germanic population before the First World War, reflected in parish names such as Dagit, Lippe, Schwoerer, Engel, Vetterlein, and Speckman. Most Blessed Sacrament was mostly Irish and Italian: their 1917 history book notes that the pastor could speak to Italians “in their native tongue.” Photographs show African Americans in both parishes from early days.

Many houses in our immediate neighbourhood were constructed for middle-class professionals. Early parishioners included our church architect; the Maitre’d at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel; a renowned female poet; the owner of a fleet of oyster schooners; an electrician (Joe Ruane’s grandfather!); a railroad  foreman; a police chief; a movie theatre magnate; a liquor wholesaler; and several doctors, construction contractors, bankers, and realtors. We also had teachers, saloon keepers, and store owners.

Professions of younger parishioners, just starting out,  are a little more mystifying in the modern world: milliner (made hats);  milk salesman (delivered milk door-to-door); coal wholesaler (houses were heated by coal-fired burners); gas inspector (light fixtures were often dual-purpose gas-over-electric, since electricity was still new); telephone company auditor (landlines were new technology); stenographer (used special handwriting called shorthand to write down dictated information). And then there were the many local live-in servant girls.

What did all these folks do in their spare time?

In days before television, tablets, and smartphones, people socialized more. The parish was a community centre, at times offering religious clubs, bowling, roller skating, and radio and movie parties. Newspapers reported frequent “Euchre” card parties in the neighbourhood. Every institution seemed to have “Lawn Fetes” or other fundraisers during the year, and Catholics enthusiastically supported Catholic institutions from hospitals, to schools and nursing homes. The school offered youth organizations and activities. With fewer cars, people found entertainment nearby, and friendly rivalries among local churches helped to knit together a large, strong community – just as the dropped stitches of lost parishes and modern distractions have left holes today.

Little Chapel in the Big Woods

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Reverend P.F. Burke, First Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament

In June, 1901, eleven years after Saint Francis de Sales Parish was founded, Archbishop Ryan saw need for an additional parish further west. Reverend Patrick Burke, appointed its first pastor, imagined all the challenges ahead and suggested jokingly to the Archbishop that his new parish be named “The Agony in the Garden.” “Ah,” said his Grace, with a knowing smile, “Yes, Father Burke, you have a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come.”

Most Blessed Sacrament Parish was a “fine garden” back then. Its first Chapel, a temporary wooden building at 56th and Chester Ave., was dedicated in December 1901. A 1917 parish history provides a lyrical description of the landscape, when “the very ground now hallowed by the erection of our Chapel and School was part of a vast woodland…To the south and east the Schuylkill, teeming with its myriads of fish, wound through sylvan glades to meet the lordly Delaware, while on the western slope of this section…Cobb’s Creek (was a ) variegated ribbon in and out among the trees…But  “the busy march of progress” was turning forest into farmland and placing mills and factories along the waterways. When immigrant workers – many of them Catholic — needed housing, green fields further transformed into “long imposing thoroughfares lined with blocks of houses.”

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Rev. John Walsh, First Assistat at Most Blessed Sacrament

Conditions were primitive as the neighbourhood developed, and Father Burke suffered “many privations…. Gray’s Lane was at times almost a trough of yellow mud and he had to walk from 55th and Woodland Avenue to the Chapel. Some of the most public-spirited among the parishioners at their own expense had a part of the lane filled in and a cinder path laid. Once in a while, a good soul would provide a carriage to convey the delicate priest to Mass.” Father John Walsh came to assist in 1902, but Father Burke had already exhausted his frail health trying to build the parish and died in 1906, while the chapel/school and permanent church were still being planned.

The 1917 writer was already nostalgic: “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 worshipers, eagerly and happily.  At the door smiling and buoyant stood Father John  welcoming the newcomers, learning the names of the children, and by his subtle charm winning souls and also gaining workers for the new church…”

Different times!

Fireworks

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Here’s a long-ago neighbourhood tale for the holiday weekend.

Did you know that our church had an important connection with the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel before our annual  De Sales Night event existed?

Jean Baptiste Revelli, from France, was an early “pew holder” (parishioner who rented a specific seat) in our parish. Known simply as “Baptiste,” he was also the Assistant Manager and Maitre d’Hotel at the Bellevue from its earliest days.

When the Bellevue Hotel became the Bellevue-Stratford in 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a fulsome article, reassuring everyone that: “Baptiste Revelli will still be manager of all the large dinners and look after the menu. ‘Baptiste’ is a personal friend of every society man, woman, and child in the city…In addition to knowing the men and women of prominence here, Baptiste is a walking social register of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities and he is familiar with most of the titled persons of Europe who visit America or have social connections here. He has the reputation of knowing more of what is needed to make a private dinner or public banquet pass off successfully than any man in America, and his ideas as regards table decorations have won him worldwide fame.

Baptiste was married in our parish in August, 1910 – around the time that he donated one of the tall stained glass windows to the ongoing church construction. His bride, Miss Catherine Hayes, was his second wife; his first wife had died thirteen years previously. They lived at 4609 Cedar Avenue.

Sadly, being a star did not protect against flying stars. On July 8, 1926, the Reading Times reported that “Jean Baptiste Revelli came to Philadelphia in the Centennial year of American Independence and met death at an event commemorating the Sesquicentennial Anniversary…when an aerial bomb (rocket) struck him in the chest at the close of a fireworks display in Clark Park.”

Aged 75, the “genial white-haired” Baptiste  had retired from the Bellevue just a year before. In his time, he had “waited on kings and presidents… from President Arthur to President Wilson, General Pershing, King Albert and Queen Elizabeth, of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, Lloyd George and Clemenceau.” He was buried from our church.

A Woodlands Connection

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Two monuments at The Woodlands cemetery and two long-ago love stories offer family insights about the architect of our church.

In 1838, a rustic young Frenchwoman named Esther Poquet set sail for America as the shipboard servant of Mary Hamilton, daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). Esther was not, perhaps, a model employee: upon reaching New York, she fell in love with a young French adventurer and cook named (Pierre) dandurand refectory4Alexandre Dandurand, left service, and the two were soon married. They moved to Baltimore, and, eventually, to Philadelphia. In the early 1840s, they opened a French restaurant at 165 Chestnut Street called Cafe Tortoni, described by one newspaper reporter as “The best eating-house in Philadelphia…much frequented by editors, authors and the better class of men about town”  and known for its excellent wine  cellar. When Alexandre died in 1849, his wife Esther continued the business as Madame E. Dandurand’s Restaurant Francaise.

What does any of this have to do with our church?

Another romance.

The Dandurands’ daughter Josephine fell in love with the family’s German tenant, Charles (Karl) Dagit, who lived above the  restaurant in the 1850s. Josephine’s very French mother did not approve of this French-German alliance, but the couple refused to be discouraged. They courted for several years, until they were finally allowed to marry in 1858. Their long marriage produced seven children – among them, future architect Henry Dandurand Dagit.

DSCN4409In the 1840s, when The Woodlands (former estate of William Hamilton, from a different Hamilton family) opened as a cemetery at 40th and Woodland Ave., it was promoted as “the most beautiful rural cemetery in the United States.” Henry Dagit’s grandmother Esther  must have been impressed, since she chose the location for her husband’s 1849 burial (Section G 332-334). When her daughter — Henry’s mother Josephine —  had to bury her three-year-old baby in 1882, she chose a spot at Woodlands not far from her own parents (Section I 555-557), and where she and her husband would both later be buried.

DSCN4406Perhaps visits to Woodlands through the years alerted Henry Dagit to the growing neighbourhoods on this side of the river, so that in 1904 he built a house at 4527 Pine Street for his own young family — and, a few years later, he embarked on the construction of our church. And perhaps his European family background gave Henry Dagit a particular affinity for the French and Swiss heritage of our patron saint – and inspired the many French and German artistic references in our church.

“That’s My Spot…” Pew Rents

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Cherish your right to choose a favorite seat!

When our church was first constructed, wealthy parishioners reserved their particular spots, renting them by the half year, with the pew rental fees contributing to the maintenance of the building. Non-renters had to squeeze into the remaining back rows or stand.

Some familiar names on the original Pew Rental List included important donors such as Mrs. William Lippe (who donated St. Anthony and the tower bells) in a prime spot on the odd side of the middle aisle in row 1, Jean Baptiste Revelli (Maitre’d at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel) in 15, church architect Henry D. Dagit and family in 19, General St. Clair Mulholland (Philadelphia Police Chief) and wife in 25; and on the even side, the Schwoerers (who donated the pulpit) in row 14 and  John Cooney (who donated the main altar) in row 16.

Pew rental was a controversial home-grown fundraising method in early American Protestant and Catholic churches. Why was it an issue? An 1840s tract criticizing the practice for Catholics suggested that emphasizing social stratification was “anticatholic,” and renting out the best seats to the wealthy was “calculated to pamper pride and a feeling of self- importance.”  Typically only about a quarter of Catholic parishioners paid rents and those who could not afford seats might feel less compelled to attend Mass. It could also enable discrimination.

In our church, pew rents seem to have gradually stopped after the church construction  debt was paid and the Parish basement was turned into an overflow chapel. Probably, as the parish grew and more services were added to the Sunday schedule, it became impractical to limit access to pews through all services. The Pew Rent Book was not regularly maintained after 1921. In 1924, The new Parish Monthly Bulletin began listing monthly contributions of all registered parishioners.

A few decades later, in 1964, as Vatican II came into effect, our church interior was “updated” for its 75th anniversary, and the original quarter-sawn oak pews, with their extendable brass “reserved pew” bars, were replaced with plain sleek modern pews crafted by New Holland Church Furniture in Lancaster County. All seats had equal status around the altar table, and parishioners at each Mass were free to choose their own number one spots — with their preferred perspective, with their desired cross breeze, and surrounded by a diversity of neighbours and friends in their own chosen places!

 

 

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Three Bishops

The Catholic Encyclopedia re-states Church law that “there shall be but one bishop of each diocese…” and “there is only one cathedral.”

Philadelphia’s cathedral is downtown on the Parkway, but our church has, in its history, been home to three bishops. How can this be?

All three of our bishops were titular bishops, which means that at consecration, each was assigned the title of an early Christian diocese that, by modern times, had “neither clergy nor people.” One reason was to preserve the memory of those “once venerable and important but now, desolate, sees.” Another, was the practical reason that, since there were no pastoral duties in an ancient inactive diocese, its bishop would be free to help out in a large modern district, such as the Philadelphia Archdiocese, that had grown too big to be managed by one bishop. A titular bishop could live locally and help with bishop’s tasks, but was not, by technicality, a local bishop with a competing cathedral.

Who were our bishops and what were their connections?

Our second Pastor, Reverend Michael J. Crane, became Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia under Cardinal Dougherty and Titular Bishop of Curium, Cyprus (aka Kourion – site of an important University of Pennsylvania archaeological excavation!)  while serving at our church in 1921. The Titular Bishop of the ancient see of Helos (or Elos, near ancient Sparta), was fourth Pastor Auxiliary Bishop Hugh Lamb, stationed at our parish from 1935 to 1951.  Reverend Joseph Mark McShea became Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia and Titular Bishop of Mina (aka Mauretania Caesariensis in Algeria), while serving as our fifth Pastor, in 1952.

What is the role of a titular bishop? It’s complicated. As Auxiliary Bishop, he reports to the local diocesan Bishop, who delegates a variety of pastoral tasks and “functions that require the sacramental power of a bishop.” In his own diocese-in-title, his power is entirely “potential:” the Pope is in charge, and the titular bishop waits forever in reserve “just in case.”

What happened to our SFDS bishops?  Bishop Crane, who built our church, died in 1928 and is buried on the rectory lawn. Bishop Lamb became diocesan Bishop of Greensburg in Western PA in 1951. Bishop McShea was appointed first Bishop of the newly created Allentown Diocese in 1961. His departure opened a new era in the Philadelphia Archdiocese when his replacement, Bishop Gerald McDevitt, opted to follow the 1960s population shift to live in the suburbs.

The Assumption of Mary Vietnamese Community

In 2016, the Vietnamese Community celebrated their fortieth anniversary at St. Francis de Sales.

Their history (translated) recalls that: “On April 30, 1975, with the collapse of South Vietnam, more than 130,000 Vietnamese left their homeland to seek freedom. Vietnamese refugees came to Philadelphia from refugee camps in Florida, Arkansas, California and Pennsylvania. Most came to Philadelphia from Indiantown Gap Camp, PA” (near Hershey).

The Philadelphia Archdiocese sponsored seven Vietnamese priests, who “were invited to St. Charles Seminary to learn American customs and English language, so that after three months of study, they could be appointed to the parishes they would serve.”

I002 IOct 5 1978 Father Annthony Vu Nu Huynh
Rev. Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh

In December 1975, Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh was appointed Assistant Priest at St. Francis de Sales Parish and Director of the Vietnamese Apostolate for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. His Vietnamese ministry started first at de Sales. Then, “in 1976, as the number of refugees grew, he began establishing communities in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties. Once his diocese was stabilized, he then helped small communities in neighboring locations, such as Wilmington, Reading, Allentown, Atlantic City and Camden.”

It was not an easy time: “in the early days, when everyone was a new refugee, the language was foreign, transportation was not available, many had to depend on American sponsors, there was a shortage of  Vietnamese food, Vietnamese markets were not available, and the communication between Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese was difficult.” A reunion Mass at St. Charles Seminary that first Christmas was bittersweet, with happy faces and sad memories to share.

Our parish helped with resettlement efforts. Monsignor Hilferty, who became Pastor in 1977, had served as Military Chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years from 1957 to 1977, so he understood the needs of immigrants and the challenges of starting over in a new place. Parishioner Betty Allen worked tirelessly to find housing for Vietnamese families – as well as newly-arriving Laotians, Cambodians, Koreans, and H’mong – many of whom were not Catholic. The Parish School began an ESL (English as a Second Language) program for children, who were soon able to participate in regular classes.

Until he passed away suddenly in 1990, Father Anthony worked diligently to insure that Vietnamese heritage survived in a new land, and children continued to learn their culture, religion, language, and customs. Today’s flourishing community of over 300 faithful from the tri-state area is a tribute to the success of his early efforts, as is the ordination of eight Vietnamese  priests and a deacon.

Snake in the Glass

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_MG_2611The third long window on the St. Mary side of our church is an Easter theme with a Christmas puzzle.

At the top, Jeremiah prophesies “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord...” The sections below show Jesus comforted by an angel during the Agony in the Garden, and the Death of St. Francis de Sales – two stories about the end of life. So how does the Star of David at the bottom – a symbol of Jesus’ family lineage and of his birth at Bethlehem — fit this theme?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t.

Long ago, someone restored several panels and put them back incorrectly. A photo at the Athenaeum shows the windows just after they were installed in 1910. At that time, the bottom part of the Agony in the Garden window featured the wreath-with-a-passion-flower-and-snakes currently under the middle window.

That makes more sense! The passion flower is said to represent “faith and suffering.” The laurel wreath surrounding it is a traditional symbol of victory, creating  an Easter message of triumph over death. According to Heilmeyer’s Language of Flowers, the passion flower can also represent “a hankering for a long-lost paradise.” Two snakes nibbling at crosses represent original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the reason we need a Savior.

Worries about lost paradise form a subtle undercurrent in the Agony in the Garden window. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth notes that “D’Ascenzo’s composition …appears to have been derived from an etching of the Agony in the Garden by Rembrandt. But D’Ascenzo has changed Rembrandt’s composition with the introduction of an olive tree, which forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” William Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, medieval, hand-crafted, nature-inspired worldview. His ideas were popular when our church was built and D’Ascenzo admired him. The world in 1910 was experiencing rapid change – our church had modern electricity, a state-of-the-art Guastavino dome, and fireproof tiles made for skyscrapers  — new “fruit from the tree of knowledge” that was both exciting and unnerving. D’Ascenzo, like Morris, looked backwards to a simpler, more natural age.

Curiously, the accident of the mixed-up windows has changed their mood from melancholy reflection on change, to a reassuring meditation on continuity: moving clockwise around the church, the Star of David — the symbol of Jesus’ family lineage — below the Agony in the Garden heralds the next window in the eternal cycle — the Annunciation across the aisle, followed by Jesus’ Birth.

A Tale of Two Parishes

It’s tempting to think that while our “Romanesque Church with Byzantine Details” was under construction between 1907 and 1911, architect Henry Dagit and contractors spent all their time busy on our site, planning and supervising, and obsessing over every magnificent detail.

Not true! And it turns out that de Sales and Most Blessed Sacrament have been connected longer than anyone may have realized.  While the designs for our church were still on his table, Architect Henry Dagit was also drawing plans for the combination school and chapel that would become Most Blessed Sacrament’s first permanent stone building (today Independence Charter School West at 5600 Chester), with Melody and Keating as the main contractor for both projects.

mbs mary knowlesGroundbreaking for our church was June 16, 1907, with Bishop Prendergast officiating. The smaller MBS chapel/school broke ground two weeks later on June 30  in a simpler ceremony, with the first sods cut by MBS Pastor Reverend McGinnis; two other priests; and a baby parishioner named Mary Katherine Knowles.

Construction preparations continued afterwards  at both sites. Bishop Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the MBS chapel/school building on September 15, 1907, in a ceremony described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Interesting;” he then  laid the cornerstone for St. Francis de Sales Church  a few weeks later on October 6,  in an “Impressive” ceremony with multiple bishops and dignitaries.

A relatively small project, the finished MBS school/chapel building was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan in September, 1908, in time for the start of the school year. Parish records say that the Protectory Band, the Paschalville Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Elmwood Band all played at the celebration.

SFDS church was finished and dedicated in elaborate ceremonies on November 11 and 12, 1911. Archbishop Prendergast presided at the Solemn High Mass on November 12 (having succeeded Archbishop Ryan in May of that year), with a number of priests assisting. Reverend Higgins, Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, acted as Deacon.

Meanwhile, the Guastavino firm, which designed and built our dome,  moved on to another local (secular) project, crafting the Harrison Rotunda at the Penn Museum, completed in 1915.

Most Blessed Sacrament School would grow to become  “the largest parochial school in the world” by the 1950s but closed in 2002 when attendance tapered. MBS Church, by architect Charles Willis Gilmore, was  built in 1922 and closed in 2007. Its standalone altar was moved to SFDS when the two parishes became one.

MBS aerial view
MBS historic aerial view