In 1980, Eugene Ormandy was ready to retire from his long tenure as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. For his last recording with the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” the octogenarian conductor decided to make a big splash with a rendition of the Symphony #3 in C major, opus 78 by Camille Saint-Saens.
Instead of using Academy of Music as his recording venue, he chose a grand church in West Philadelphia: St. Francis de Sales at 47th and Springfield Avenue that was renewed for its fine French-style C.S. Haskell organ and its magnificent acoustics. Known also as “The Cathedral of West Philadelphia” and named after the patron saint of writers and journalists, St. Francis de Sales had the second largest pipe organ in the Delaware Valley, surpassed only by the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Center City, arguably the largest musical instrument in the world. The instrument was also of the 19th century French type, which made it well suited to the flamboyant French Romantic repertoire of Saint-Saens and his contemporaries.
Why a French organ? The church’s original choir director, Albert Dooner, was a close friend of the French-Belgian organist Cesar Franck, and its music program had long been one of the best in Philadelphia. It took several days for technicians to prepare the instruments for the demands of Saint-Saens’ masterpiece, including retuning the pipes to standard pitch. The police closed the surrounding streets so that the “Fabulous Philadelphians” could work their magic without the distraction of honking cars and squealing trolleys in the background.
St. Francis de Sales parish was founded on May 14, 1890 by a group of Irish and German immigrants seeking a foothold in what was then suburban West Philadelphia. After several years of residing in temporary quarters at 49th and Woodland Avenue, the parish’s second pastor, Michael J. Crane, declared that he would build a church where “the soul would be lifted up to exultation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty.”
In 1908, Archbishop Edmond Francis Prendergast laid the cornerstone for the new building at the intersection of 47th Street and Springfield Avenue. Designed by prominent liturgical architect Henry Dandurand Dagit (1865-1929) – who had made a name for himself as a church designer for the Archdiocese of Trenton–the Byzantine Revival structure took three years to complete. It was topped a dome of Guastavino tile (known today as “subway tile”) that had no system of internal bracing, and its nave was illuminated by stained glass from the D’Ascenzo studios.
St. Francis de Sales was arguably Dagit’s crowning achievement. He lavished uncommon care on its design and construction, in no small part because he and his family lived within the parish boundaries. Although well versed in historic styles, Dagit wanted to give a modern twist to his churches. St. Francis de Sales, although inspired by the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, was not a slavish copy of an historical model. Along with the traditional glass mosaics and marble statuary, Dagit added modern touches such as rows of electric light bulbs along the cornices and archways, as well as an ornate “electrolier” light fixture that hovered above the altar. By using modern construction techniques such as reinforced concrete, Dagit created as open a floor plan as possible, to ensure maximum visibility of the altar for the congregation. “Some will no doubt criticize the author for the liberty taken in rendering Churches free of the obstructing columns in the nave,” Dagit wrote, “but this is necessary eight hundred years ago to design a church with a long nave and interior columns…Certain it is that we are a people of strong convictions and that we must stamp upon the world’s history progress and not imitation.”
The building’s grandeur was made possible by both the size and the wealth of the parish. The original boundaries of St. Francis de Sales stretched from 42nd to 52nd Street east to west, and from Market Street all the way down to modern-day Lindbergh Boulevard north to south. Some were successful first and second generation businessmen and professionals, who lived in the big Victorian twin houses that lined Springfield, Chester, and Baltimore Avenues. Among the well-to-do parishioners were oyster house owner James Cooney of 4814 Regent Street, who donated the imposing main altar in memory of his wife. Jean-Baptiste Revelli, the assistant manager of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel and resident of 4609 Cedar Avenue, donated the funds for one of the stained glass windows. James P. McNichols, who resided with his extended family in a clutch of three story houses on the 4600 block of Hazel Avenue, was owner of a construction firm that built the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Market Street subway tunnel. He paid for an altar dedicated to St. Anastasia, the namesake of his late wife. There was at least one figure of national prominence who assisted in the construction effort: General St. Clair Mulholland, an Irish-American Civil War veteran and first Catholic police chief of Philadelphia, who resided at 4202 Chester Avenue. Yet most of the parishioners were the tradesmen, mechanics, and shopkeepers who occupied more modest dwellings on the side streets, as well as the domestics (mostly Irish) who did the cooking and cleaning in the neighborhood’s big houses.
After facing decades of discrimination and violence, by the early 1900s Philadelphia’s burgeoning Roman Catholic population had truly arrived in terms of power and influence. St. Francis de Sales was the brick-and-mortar manifestation of a Gilded Age confidence. The human manifestation of this spirit was Pastor Michael J. Crane (1863-1928), who spearheaded the construction of this magnificent church soon after he took charge of the parish. Crane knew Dagit’s work well: he had served as rector of St. Malachy’s Church in Trenton, also designed by the architect in his trademark Byzantine revival style. An imposing, dark-haired man with bushy eyebrows and a piercing gaze, Crane insisted that no expense would be spared on his new church. “The design is Romanesque with Byzantine details,” he wrote in a book published by the Dagit firm. “The exterior will be of marble with Indiana limestone trimmings. On either side of the main doorway will be two corner towers with large doorways flanked by polished granite columns. The interior of the church will be imposing. The nave will be sixty-two feet wide and will be vaulted with faience polychrome sculptured terra cotta arches, on which will rest the Gaustavino (sic) vaults.” He specified an elaborate ornamentation and sculpture plan: a glass mosaic of the “Resurrection” under the rose window, a marble mosaic of Saint Francis de Sales just above the main altar, and emblems of the four evangelists floating above the main crossing.
To be continued…
For a look into the life of the MacMurtrie family and St. Francis de Sales Parish in the 1920s, click here for a PhillyHistory.org article dated June 28, 2010.
Ron Avery, “Their Tradition Is Built to Last Dagits: A Family of Architecture,” The Philadelphia Daily News, October 30, 1995. http://articles.philly.com/1995-10-30/news/25693182_1_philadelphia-architects-catholic-church-sons
1890-2015, St. Francis de Sales Parish, United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, pp.10, 12, 14, collection of St. Francis de Sales Parish, courtesy of Michael Nevadomski.
Henry D. Dagit, Architect, collection of Paul H. Rogers, p.43.
Interview of Michael Nevadomski, Sacristan, St. Francis de Sales Church, September 6, 2016.