Tag: Statues

Miracle at MBS

You may know Saint John Neumann (whose statue is in the former confessional by the door to the sacristy), as a hometown saint, but were you aware that a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish had a direct role in his canonization?

The story began in 1962, when a five-year-old boy named Michael Flanigan reportedly “bumped his shin against the doorstep of his parents’ home in West Philadelphia.” The MBS 1976 Diamond Jubilee Book notes that the family were “members of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish who resided at 5612 Beaumont Avenue” and explained that when the boy’s injuries didn’t heal, and he was admitted to Misericordia Hospital, “Doctors discovered that the injury had resulted in a form of bone infection. The boy underwent two operations. During the second operation a cancerous growth was discovered in the injured leg and it eventually spread into the child’s both lungs and lower jawbone. The boy was treated with radiation and drug therapy but these proved too toxic and the treatments were discontinued, at which time his condition worsened.”

The boy’s parents took their son to the Blessed John Neumann Shrine at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in July, 1963, and relic of the saintly fourth Bishop of Philadelphia were applied to the afflicted parts of his body. The symptoms disappeared in December of that year. The family and close friends considered the cure miraculous. Twelve years later, in December, 1975, the medical board of the Sacred Congregation of the Saints in Rome ruled that the cure had no ‘natural medical or scientific’ explanation, and the validation of the cure was submitted along with a petition to the Congregation to consider the canonization of Blessed John Neumann. The family now resides at Villas, near Wildwood, N.J.

A decade later, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “When Pope Paul VI convened canonization ceremonies for St. John Neumann in 1977, Michael Flanigan was one of the first invited to make the trip to Rome. When the young man and the Pope met, the pontiff embraced him and asked, ‘Please pray for me.’

Sadly, in October, 1986, Michael Flanigan – age 29 and married with two children – died suddenly one morning after complaining of sharp back pains.  “Family members said he had been well and had had no medical problems since his bout with cancer” but his hour had come.

So who is the saint he helped to canonize?

St. John Neumann (confusingly, a different saint from British John Henry Newman with a w, after whom College Newman Centers are named) was an immigrant from Bohemia (Czech Republic), who became the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States, and died in 1860.

Saint John Neumann’s road to sainthood was not straightforward: known as a “quiet, simple man who…devoted more time to tending the sick and teaching children than he did to diocesan affairs,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that his “91-year journey to sainthood was interrupted” in 1912, when it was decided that Bishop Neumann’s quiet steadfastness was not “heroic” enough to merit sainthood. Eventually, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV changed the definition of “heroism,” proclaiming that “Works, even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant of God,” and declared John Neumann “venerable.” He was beatified by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council on October 13, 1963, and canonized on June 19, 1977.

Today, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, with his remains visible below the altar stone, can be visited at 1019 North 5th Street.  Invoked as the patron of sick children and immigrants, his feast day is January 5 (Curiously, our statue, which is typical, looks very different from his actual photos – take a look!).

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Doctors in the House

 

In 1908, when architect Henry Dagit wrote about the church he was starting to build at 47th and Springfield, he mentioned that its dome would be supported inside on four Columns topped with “marble mosaic emblems of the four Evangelists…and under them in sculptured niches will be statues of the four Doctors of the Church.

The statues were absent from descriptions of the finished interior in 1911, but they crept back into church descriptions written in 1928 and 1938, before vanishing again in 1940.

Who were the “Doctors of the Church” and why did they come and go?

Wikipedia defines the term as “a title given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing.” A document from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) notes that “The title was first given in the Middle Ages, and originally, there were four great Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, St. Augustine, 5th century bishop of Hippo, St. Gregory the Great, who was pope at the start of the 7th century, and St. Jerome, the 5th century biblical scholar and translator.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art identifies these as the four Latin Doctors and also lists four important Greek Doctors: St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostum, and St. Athanasius, who appear more often in mosaic artwork. Which doctors would have been most suited to our mosaic-filled Byzantine-styled church? Maybe that was the problem!

So many doctors! So many choices! And the list kept growing. The 2015 USCCB document notes that “Over the years the church has added about 30 (now 36) additional saints with the title ‘Doctor of the Church’… Since 1970….women have also been declared ‘Doctors of the Church’: St. Teresa of Avila; St. Catherine of Siena; St. Thérèse of Lisieux…, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.”

DSCN6373 (2)  DSCN6373 (3)In the end, the references to the Doctors in our church in 1928 and 1938 are likely mistakes from hastily recopying outdated text: the interior niches do not exist and we have no evidence that the statues were ever commissioned (though there are two full and two partial never-used niches on the 47th Street exterior!). We do have at least three Doctors “in the house,” though: our own patron Saint Francis de Sales was declared a Doctor in 1877. Saint Anthony of Padua (statue behind the mesh on the St. Joseph side of the church), became a Doctor in 1946; and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (statue in the former confessional by the parking lot door) was named in 1998 – both receiving the title long after our church was built. Our Saint Anthony statue – the patron of lost things — arrived in 1916 as a gift from Mrs. Elizabeth Lippe, who also bequeathed our bells (ironically, his correct pedestal is under St. Anne). St. Therese arrived near the time of her canonization in 1925 and was accompanied by a relic, venerated regularly through 1937.

In addition, parish records indicate that our church, located near several universities and medical centers, has always had a few medical doctors, PhDs, and probably some honorary titles among its congregation!

The Statue in the Corner

de nesti sculptingStanding in the darkness, behind a noisy blowing fan in a corner of St. Francis de Sales  church, on the parking lot side, is a tall quiet statue of Jesus with broken fingers.

For the first few decades of our history, the statue took pride of place beside the altar, at the front of the church, clearly visible to the priest and congregation. Then, in the 1960s, the reforms of Vatican II called for the sanctuary to be “de-cluttered” to better focus on the modernized Communion ritual with its new forward-facing altar. The statue was moved, and moved again, until it found its current out-of-the-way resting place.

So what does the statue mean? Its upraised right hand, with two fingers and thumb outstretched, is a gesture of blessing – supposedly based on the ancient Roman orators’ gesture for “speaking.” Its wounded heart reveals “Jesus Christ′s physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity” — the crown of thorns showing that “the meaning of love in the life of Jesus was especially evident in His sufferings” and the flames representing “the transformative power of divine love.” Devotion to a representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – based on a vision experienced by a Visitation Sister in the 1670s — is a longstanding form of Catholic worship.

As to its place in our history: our statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was described as “a specimen of his best work” in an article about Adolfo de Nesti in 1915 – the last information we have about the Italian immigrant sculptor who created so many of our church decorations, before his “American dream” ended and he abruptly disappeared.

What is a metaphor? An online dictionary defines it as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” So our statue depicting the “divine love” of Jesus was moved away from a central location to a dusty corner. We took its existence for granted, as part of the church furnishings, and it received little attention – especially after the candle stand illuminating that corner was removed a few years ago. The statue has changed with age, since the fingers making its gesture of blessing – and “speaking” – have been broken and roughly mended. But it has always been a part of our church.

Now, in shadowed times, as we rediscover our history, our attention is pulled back to the statue and we are called to find inspiration once again in the light and power of  “divine love” that it represents.