The iconic church St. Francis de Sales is an imposing landmark in the Cedar Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia. The 62 foot diameter dome decorated with Guastavino tiles rises up above the surrounding Victorian homes glows dramatically during sunset. Built in ornate Neo-Byzantine style that was inspired by the Hagia Sofia of Istanbul, the Catholic church, completed in 1911, is usually only seen in full by local parishioners, and its history is not widely known. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the church’s founding. Last month, William Whitaker of the Penn Architectural Archives hosted an exclusive tour inside the sanctuary and discussed the controversial Venturi Scott Brown project that incorporated Modernism into its traditional sacred space in 1968.
The Elegance Of Tradition
The church has a massive interior space with huge terra cotta arches, creating a sense of openness and upward movement. The stained glass work is immediately eye catching–circular designs depicting the ascension of Mary flank both sides of the transept. Above the entrance (or nave) of the church is a circular stained glass of St. Cecilia, often depicted with organ pipes. Inside the sanctuary she is placed directly above the massive organ and choir balcony. The brightly colored, art deco style glass was created by D’Ascenzo Studios of Philadelphia. Also in the nave is a series of stained glass windows that depict the life of St. Francis de Sales, who was born in 1567 and became the Bishop of Geneva.
The most impressive aspect of the interior is the dome itself, covered in complex decorative Guastavino tile and lined with arched stained glass windows around the base. These depict a combination of common and somewhat obscure Christian symbology, such as the ascending dove, the fish, the holy grail, and a Jewish menorah. Mythological animal representations of the apostles can be found at the corners surrounding the dome. A Star of David is also a main decorative feature. The entire church is constructed of circles and arches, creating a motif of harmonious divine perfection.
Whitaker said that a new style of church design began to emerge in the mid-1900s. He pointed to the church of Notre-Dame De Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy situated in the Alps of France. Starting in 1939, Father Marie-Alain Couturier recruited famous artists such as Braque, Matisse, and Léger to decorate the church. The result is a fascinating combination of modern art and traditional sacred space.
A Statement Made With Modernism
The New Liturgy of Vatican II went into effect in the 1960s. Just as social change on all levels was sweeping across America, the Catholic Church aimed to be more modern and inclusive in practice. In 1968, Father John McNamee, former pastor of St. Francis de Sales and St. Malachy Parish, followed suit and broke tradition by approaching the design firm of Venturi Scott Brown to re-conceptualize the altar space of St. Francis de Sales. McNamee actively reached out to the African American community surrounding the church, which did not sit well with some conservative members. He was also outspoken against the Vietnam war.
Venturi Scott Brown removed most of the altar rail to open the space, both physically and spiritually, between the clergy and the parish. A new altar, chair, and lectern of plexiglass and acrylic were constructed using rounded, folding shapes. Most controversial of all, a cathode tube neon light was suspended above the altar space, curving back behind the altar to form a semi-circle.
McNamee said he thought it was “stunning,” creating an “asymmetrical dialogue of new and old spiritual ideas.” He recalled that when perplexed parishioners asked what the neon light meant, to which he replied, “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s an editor’s pen.” McNamee said this confused them even more, and he had to explain that the work provided a new experience without taking anything away from the original building.
Denise Scott Brown, who worked on the design, spoke about the electrical fixings of the cathode tube, specifically designed to be gracefully integrated with the curves of the light itself. Light was the main concept at play; light as a direct connection to God was invoked in the installation just as it was in the stained glass of the old church. She said that the rounded quality of the new altar materials lended an organic quality to the space.
In the end, the Venturi Scott Brown project proved too radical for the majority of priests and parishioners. The light installation only lasted a year before it was taken down. The short-lived modern altar was replaced with marble. Denise Scott Brown said, in a church newsletter, “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.” The Venturi Scott Brown project and the history of St. Francis de Sales is now back in the public eye thanks to the scholars at the Penn Architectural Archives and the community at large. Perhaps a renewed dialogue for similar collaborations between designers and religious institutions in the city will emerge as a result.
Inside the sanctuary of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church. Photographs by Dan Papa.