Tag: Tuberculosis

A Sister Named Francis de Sales

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.

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St. Francis de Sales institutes the Order of the Vistiation with St. Jane Chantal in 1610 (detail of a window by Nicola D’ascenzo. St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia).

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.

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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

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The Story Between the Lines

mccarron kitchen (2)An apparently routine notation in the parish Baptismal register hides a sad neighborhood tale of long ago.

It began with a classic parenting dilemma of breastfeeding versus bottle. In the early 1900s, the advertisement of new easy-to-clean glass bottles with soft rubber nipples, coupled with ready access to dairy milk, made bottle feeding seem like the “modern” way. However, public health campaigns advised that fresh cow milk – unregulated, unprocessed, and potentially infected with tuberculosis  — could be unsafe: “a few bacteria in milk as it leaves the farm can become millions by the time it reaches the consumer in the city…“ so mothers were warned that milk must always be heated in order to “pasteurize it at home to kill the germs it contains.

On Monday, May 13, 1907, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “Mrs. William McCarron, 25 years old, was awakened by the cries of her baby early in the morning. The mother went herself to the kitchen of her home at 1424 Hanson Street (near 49th and Woodland), and made preparations to heat a bottle of milk. The fire on the stove was low, so she decided to expedite matters by using coal oil (kerosene!). Clinging to her skirts, her two-year-old son William heard a loud shriek and… he was pushed out of the way of the blaze. Mrs. McCarron…attempted to run to the front door, but she tripped over her skirt and fell in the kitchen doorway. Just at that moment, her husband who is a motorman (trolley driver), entered the house…He ran to a bedroom and filled his arms with quilts and blankets. These he threw over his wife, extinguishing the flames. She was hurried in a patrol of the Sixty-fifth Street and Woodland avenue station to the University Hospital, where she is in critical condition.

 During a temporary return of consciousness, she murmured to her husband, sitting anxiously at her bedside, ‘Have the baby christened today, for fear something should happen to him.’ This wish was accordingly carried out yesterday afternoon, (May 12), when the child received the name of David in the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church…” Before the age of antibiotics, there was little that doctors could do for the mother’s wounds. She died on May 21, 1907, and was buried from our parish a few months before the cornerstone was laid for the present church building.

The family appears to have moved elsewhere in the city after that, but a cross-reference, neatly penned below baby  David’s baptismal record, notes that he was back, living at 5140 Catherine Street, when he married Amelia Nigro of 1140 South Wilton Street at SFDS in 1938. Today, the house where the long-ago fire occurred, is an empty lot, and a family’s tragedy and resilience lie buried in a bland two-line Latin record in a dusty parish ledger. How many other stories does it contain?

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.

De Sales Photos 010 canney funeral feb 1937