Tag: Visitation Sisters

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 Passing of Saint Francis de Sales

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The long stained-glass window on the 47th Street side of our church, showing the final moments of our patron St. Francis de Sales (by Nicola D’Ascenzo in 1911), features a detail of a small green plant on the mantel as a reminder of his connection to God through the natural world.

An 1871 biography notes that after years of defending the Faith, Francis, Bishop of Geneva, “began to feel worn and weary” at age 55 (old in the 1600s), and dreamed of retiring “to a quiet spot on the Lake of Annecy,”  (Duchy of Savoy; part of France today) to spend his final years writing books, close to nature. Francis was in poor health: “his legs swelled painfully, so that he could scarcely walk, and they were also covered with sores;” and his chest pains were “distressing.

In May 1622, Pope Gregory XV, nonetheless, ordered him to travel to Turin (Savoy then; Italy today) to settle a religious dispute. There, after Francis fainted in the church, he stayed on to recover, returning to Annecy in August, after he heard that crops at home had failed, and people were suffering. Francis decided “I will sell my mitre and crosier (hat and staff), and my garments themselves, to relieve my poor people.” He got rid of everything he could – including a valuable diamond ring he had just received from the princess in Turin. Upon hearing this, some of his flock bought it back for him, then he sold it again: “This happened several times, till it became a popular saying that it was the beggars’ ring rather than the Bishop’s.”

Francis made one final journey that November. The Duke of Savoy planned to meet French King Louis XIII at Avignon and accompany him on a royal tour. The Duke’s daughter-in-law, the Princess of Piedmont, wanted to bring the Bishop, who was her Grand Almoner (the most important member of the Church in the royal court), as part of her entourage. Unable to refuse, Bishop Francis wearily acknowledged “we must go where God calls us, as long as we can move at all…” Hoping to petition the King for aid for his diocese, he prepared to travel, knowing he probably would not return.

The plant shown in our window signals the humble surroundings at his final stop in Lyon, where “the Bishop avoided all Court entertainments and gatherings, save such as were a part of his duty…and refused all invitations…preferring to occupy a little apartment in the gardener’s house belonging to the Visitation Convent…The Sisters were distressed at their Founder being so unsuitably lodged,” but Francis insisted that he preferred the simple, natural setting.

Though frail, he was still busy: “Madame de Chantal (with whom he had co-founded the Visitation Order in 1601), who had not seen him for more than three years…came to Lyons to see her beloved Spiritual Father again…Persons of every class and age poured in upon him to gather up precious words of instruction and guidance, and the gardener’s little cottage was besieged with visitors from the town and from the members of both Courts…”

A few days after Francis celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass for the Visitation Sisters in Lyon, and the Superior remarked that the sermon was so inspired that “I could have fancied that I saw the Angel Gabriel standing beside you....,” Francis had a seizure and was carried to his bed in the gardener’s house. He received medical treatments of the day: “blisters applied to the head, hot irons, and even cauterizations to the spine...” but nothing helped, and the priests administered Last Rites.

Madame de Chantal was at the convent in Grenoble, saying her prayers, “when she distinctly heard a voice say He is no more.’” She did not understand until later what this meant: it was at that moment, back in Lyon, at about eight in the evening on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), that Saint Francis de Sales died. He was buried, as was his desire, at the Church of the Visitation in Annecy on January 24.

 

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Saint Francis de Sales

The Feast Day of Our Patron SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES is January 24.

Born in 1567, Francis de Sales grew up to become an inspirational preacher; a powerful writer; a friend of the poor; and a saint who, like his model, Saint Francis of Assisi, promoted a simple and devout life. Some of his story was told by stained glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo in the lower half of our long windows. On the St. Joseph side of the church, starting at the left, young Francis learns the catechism from his mother in Savoy (part of France today). He receives his First Holy Communion in the middle window, then his father agrees to let him take Holy Orders in 1593. Across the aisle, on the Saint Mary side of the church, Saint Francis de Sales is a priest, preaching a mission at Annemasse in 1597. In the middle window he has become a bishop, co-founding the order of the Visitation, an order of nuns, with St. Jane Chantal in 1610. The right-hand window depicts his deathbed in 1622. What happened in the spaces between the windows?  Francis was appointed Bishop of Geneva in 1602, but resided in nearby Annecy, Savoy, because Geneva was under Protestant control. There, he worked with gentle firmness to keep the Catholic faith alive in his diocese. He is known for sliding written sermons under the doors of the faithful who could not, by law, attend mass — which is how he became The Patron Saint of Journalists. He is also patron saint of the deaf, based on a miracle he performed.

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