A Brief History of St. Francis de Sales – The Great Dome of West Philadelphia (Part II)

St. Francis de Sales Philadelphia 1.14.1963

St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, January 14, 1963.

St. Francis de Sales was formally dedicated and kids bounce house opened for worship on November 12, 1911. Originally consisting of about 600 families, the parish swelled to 1,500 by the mid-1920s. Pastor Michael Crane’s power and influence grew so great in the Philadelphia archdiocese that in the early 1920s Pope Benedict XV elevated him monsignor to auxiliary bishop, or assistant to the Cardinal, which made his church into a cathedral (Latin for “throne of the bishop”). He died at the St. Francis de Sales rectory in 1928, but his chair remains in the sanctuary to this day. In the ensuing decades, St. Francis de Sales served not just the neighborhood, but also the students of the nearby universities such as the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University of the Sciences.

Dagit, who lived only a few blocks away from his masterpiece, was the founder of an architectural dynasty. His sons continued designing churches under the moniker of Henry Dagit & Sons, and his grandson Charles Dagit Jr. studied at the University of Pennsylvania under Louis Kahn before starting his own successful firm of Dagit-Saylor. Shortly before his death in 1929, the Dagit patriarch designed another West Philadelphia church, the Church of the Transfiguration at 55th Street and Cedar Avenue, also inspired by the Byzantine style. “Aided by a large corps of draughtsman, artists, and engineers in his office,” the firm’s brochure stated, “no detail has been slighted, and the entire work has been pushed with a promptness that has delighted both pastor and congregation, who take great pleasure in saying, ‘Well done!'” Membership in St. Francis de Sales parish became a Dagit family tradition: generations of the architect’s descendants were baptized and married under its honey-hued tiled dome.

The dome of St. Francis de Sales. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The dome of St. Francis de Sales. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Yet like so many other grand liturgical structures in urban areas, by the second half of the twentieth century it began to suffer from years of deferred maintenance, especially as the congregation shrank in the 1970s and 80s. The grand dome leaked almost as soon as the building was consecrated, and the dripping water caused salt to leach out of the sanctuary walls. In more recent years, vandals spray-painted the facade with graffiti, including the statue of St. Francis de Sales, which was taken down and lent to another parish for safekeeping. In the late sixties spirit of Vatican II, the parish commissioned postmodern architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to design a modern Plexiglas altar and neon lighting system. The outcry among the congregation was so great that it was taken down within a few years. The architects were furious. “It was like watching your child die and not being anything to do about it,” steamed Scott Brown. The original gilt-and-marble main altar donated by James Cooney was restored to its former grandeur, and is still in use today.

A decade ago, the parish faced a true emergency: the facade had pulled eight inches away from the main structure of the church. Without any intervention, the front of the church was in imminent danger of collapsing onto Springfield Avenue, taking the two towers with it. To fund these emergency repairs, the Archdiocese made the tough decision to close another West Philadelphia parish: the Most Blessed Sacrament at 56th and Chester Avenue. According to Michael Nevadomski, sacristan at St. Francis de Sales, the sale of MBS and its attached school (once advertised as the largest Roman Catholic school in the world) raised $1.2 million, much of which went to pay for the urgent restoration needs of St. Francis de Sales. Workers erected scaffolding in front of the facade and meticulously removed and replaced each of the stones. The bas-relief of the Virgin Mary above the west doors is still undergoing restoration and sits under protective wraps.

South doors of St. Francis de Sales. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

South doors of St. Francis de Sales. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Today, although it has only has about 500 registered parishioners, St. Francis de Sales reflects the diversity of its West Philadelphia neighborhood. There are masses in Vietnamese and Spanish, as well as traditional and “charismatic” services. Its parochial school is one of the best and most affordable educational options in the Cedar Park area.  Restoration of St. Francis de Sales continues “on a shoestring budget” notes Nevadomski, but the most serious structural repairs are over, ensuring that the gold-and-pearl Byzantine dome will gleam over the rooftops of West Philadelphia for decades to come.

Sources:

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.

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