The St. Francis de Sales Parish rectory often helps people trying to research family history through parish birth, marriage, or death records, but every now and then, there’s an unusual request — as when someone, last year, hoped to find out about a long-ago religious relative who simply shared the same name as our Parish.
Jeannie obligingly checked our books and found no record here of a Sister Francis de Sales. Monsignor Joe, who happened to be in the office, thought the address on her death certificate — 225 North Camac Street (near today’s Convention Center) – might be the historic home of the Visitation Sisters when they first came to Philadelphia. With that clue, we spent a pleasant morning pooling our knowledge and resources to uncover an interesting corner of Philadelphia history.
The Sisters of the Visitation were founded in Savoy (France), in 1610, by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Chantal, as shown in the middle long window on the 47th street side of our church. The order opened a monastery in the United States, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1833. In 1898, they were invited to start a monastery and school in Mexico, where they were joined by several Mexican Sisters – among them, a young Mexican-Italian woman named Sister Francis de Sales Bortoni.
Political unrest in Mexico in early 1926 endangered the American Sisters and they fled back to the United States, bringing the Mexican Sisters with them as part of the community. It was a difficult time for everyone, and a letter from one of the Sisters reported “When our community was forced to leave Coyoacan under such painful circumstances our dear Sister Francis de Sales contracted a severe cold…from that time we noted a decline in her health…”
Sister Francis de Sales made her final vows later that year in the crowded Alabama convent, while the Mother Superior was “in Philadelphia preparing a home for our exiled family.” That October, the Sisters moved in to a property on Camac Street (where the order had run a mission and school from 1848 to 1852, which closed during a period of anti-Catholic riots), under the protection of Cardinal Dougherty, who headed the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The Cardinal decided that the nuns, who had been teachers, would not open a school in Philadelphia because the Mexican sisters did not speak English; instead, they would live in a cloister as contemplatives.
The letter offers clues about that life, noting that Sister Francis de Sales had special devotions for “our dear Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and for Our Lady of the Rosary.” Although she was aide “in the Sacristy and in the Dispensary for short periods, and also in the woolen wardrobery, our dear Sister did such exquisite embroidery that during the last years of her life, as long as she was able, she worked for the Service of the Tabernacle.” She never recovered, however, from that initial illness, and eventually, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis: “her heart action became very painful and her sufferings from asphyxia were heartrending” but she united “her sufferings to those of our Blessed Lord” and claimed her soul was “in perfect peace” when she died at age 35.
The Camac Street location was unhealthy, and around 1940, Cardinal Dougherty became concerned that many of the sisters were tubercular. This was a common, deadly, contagious illness in those days: antibiotics were not available to treat it until the late 1940s (Reverend William Canney, of SFDS, died of tuberculosis in 1936) and “fresh air” was the chief treatment. When the order shrunk from 44 to 28 members, the Cardinal found them a new, airier home next to his residence just outside the city at 5820 City Line Avenue – paid for in part with funds from his Jubilee — but by then, Sister Francis de Sales, was long dead from the disease. The Visitation Sisters remain at that address today, though the Cardinal’s residence was sold to St. Joe’s University in 2012.
Color OUR Collections! From February 3 to 7, 2020, libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world are sharing free coloring sheets and books online based on materials in their collections. Last year, our SFDS parish history archives contributed a selection of stained-glass windows and other church details to color; this year, we feature 1920s parish bulletin advertising art to click and print. Check out all the offerings – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond — at ColorOurCollections.org