Tag: space

Halley’s Comet 1910


High in the tower on the East side of St. Francis de Sales church, is a hidden window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light. Why is it there and what does it mean?

One possibility is that it celebrates the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis:  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light…”

Alternatively, though not quite star-shaped, it could be intended to represent the Star in the East that heralded Christ’s birth.

Another thought is more topical. The appearance of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910, was much like Y2K in the year 2000. Though it came into view every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen.

The tabloids were inspired to predict all sorts of catastrophes: a belt of poison gas, disruption in electrical systems, and the end of civilization. The mainstream press consulted scientists, who suggested that there might be a beautiful light show – like the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights – either during the day, or around the moon at night. Pope Pius X, who had recently updated the scientific instruments in the Vatican Observatory, believed it would be neither spectacular nor dangerous, and scolded Italians for hoarding emergency oxygen cylinders “just in case.”

Our parish records are skimpy for that period, since our church was under construction (the cornerstone was laid on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907 and the building would not be officially completed until 1911). We do know that our three round and six long signed D’Ascenzo stained glass windows were crafted in 1910. We are not entirely certain who designed the others, but they were probably made that same year.

IMG_2477 (2)Halley’s Comet was supposed to be “at its closest, therefore its brightest, between May 14 and 22” 1910. Our parish celebrated its twentieth anniversary that year on May 14, 1910, so it’s possible that the ball of light shown in our eastern tower window celebrates the “sunrise” of the world, while at the same time offering a nod to the comet as an auspicious omen for our parish anniversary. The window exactly opposite appears to be a “burning bush” – another heavenly sign



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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War of the Worlds

war of the worlds

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make…. Incredible as it may seem, those strange beings who landed in New Jersey to-night are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars…At this moment martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania…People are now holding service below us in the Cathedral…This is the end. Black smoke is drifting over the city…”

          The doors of St. Francis de Sales swung open, and a phalanx of men and boys – one account says two thousand – processed slowly out into the darkness, rank upon rank, chanting solemnly and carrying candles.

          Neighbours were unnerved.

          The date was Sunday, October 30, 1938. Orson Welles was just closing his famous radio drama, and police stations and newspaper offices nationwide were overwhelmed by telephone calls. Panicked civilians jammed traffic, fleeing the fictional invasion.

          Meanwhile, away from the radio, St. Francis de Sales Parish celebrated the feast of Christ the King. Under Bishop Lamb, the feast was celebrated in a day-long series of events culminating in a gathering of men and boys of the parish: “This Holy Hour and its attendant Eucharistic Procession of men is singular to this parish. It is a thrilling sight to see the men and the boys of the parish, carrying lighted candles walking before the Blessed Sacrament…” It “provides a splendid opportunity for father and son to walk with Christ…”

          The feast was relatively new, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to be held on the last Sunday of October (moved later to the last Sunday of the church year). A response to growing nationalism and secularism, it was reported that “Pope Pius XI sought, through the establishment of this feast, to restore Christ to his rightful, pre-eminent place in both the minds and wills of men...” In 1939, The Catholic Standard noted that “If his efforts had been universally successful, the rampant hatred which stalks across the world today would have been fettered, and world powers would not now be locked in terrible conflict….”

          Weird delusions. World’s Wars. Culture Wars. What’s changed!