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.
The southern border of Cedar Park is at Baltimore Ave. It would be more accurate to say Squirrel Hill.
Nobody uses the “Squirrel Hill” name anymore.
Most of what you see around the altar is the result of very recent renovations, with more to come. Can’t say I’d rather see plexiglass than terra cotta!
Just to clarify – the Guastavino tile of the dome and barrel vaults are not a covering; the are what the dome and vaults are constructed of, an ingenious overlapping and interconnecting layers of tiles to form a unique and original shell that Guastavino patented and which St. Francis de Sales is an outstanding example of.
From a tender age, I attended St. Francis de Sales, suffering through centuries of First Friday afternoons in torrid Junes and frigid Januaries, where we tried mightily to get other grade-schoolers to laugh, earning them a swift and merciless smacking from the nuns and relieving the preternatural boredom for a moment.
Only the mighty dignity of de Sales’ space offered succor; I counted the tiles, gazed at saints until they seemed to awaken and gaze back into me, knelt, rose, knelt again, and finally emerged, blinking, into the hard sunlight.
Father John McNamee is a good man and he meant well. But Venturi/Scott/Brown’s tampering with the space was buffoonish graffiti; disrespectful of the completed artwork that was and is St. Francis de Sales Church. It needed copious “explaining” to us Irish-Catholic peasants, unlike the sheer beauty of the church itself. Even as a teenager, I knew that a crime had been committed when I saw that graceless, saggy neon tubing and bland altar plopped into the Byzantine majesty. Good riddance to it; VSB’s decorated shed theories can be explored elsewhere.
In the wake of Vatican II, our priests began making the shift from Latin to English and the rolling, mysterious cadences devolved into clunky Philadelphia accents. The two changes together were almost too much to bear, and I have been agnostic about both angels and architects ever since.
A few other notes: I believe the Gustavino tiles on the dome have been either stripped or cemented over and a painted pattern is now on the exterior dome of de Sales. The church was designed, BTW, by Henry D. Dagit with an interior by Charles Theodore Biswanger, both, oddly, overlooked by the article.
Also not mentioned in the story is the -sonic- masterpiece that inhabits and complements Dagit’s work; de Sales’ mighty pipe organ and carillon–to feel these tones while inside this structure is an experience beyond description.
Go soon, on a Sunday, and be generous when that collection basket is thrust your way–that dome won’t heal itself!
Michael McGettigan / trophy bikes
Double amen! I didn’t grow up Catholic my church services were always in English. There’s something to be said for the beauty of these old churches. Perhaps it’s the gathered collective energy/ memories that create the mystery. I attend DeSales and really like the parish and the people. The clergy including the nuns,really tries to make it for the people, right down to the weekly birthday hallelujahs. The choir is pretty fantastic for a small bunch. Actually they’re just pretty fantastic period.
Michael, I appreciate your sentiments as expressed above. As a lifelong Catholic- 70 years old, I understand the difficulty of change. There is a place for mystery, tradition, devotion, and inspiration but there is also a place for “new wineskins” as Jesus mentioned. Having studied to become a priest for seven years, I was steeped in both tradition and Vatican II. I have come to learn that we can have both without compromising either. The church is an expression of the faith of thousands and should be respected as such. It must also speak to new generations who are in need of learning about the roots of the Catholic faith- Jesus, who celebrated Eucharist at a TABLE, not at an altar of sacrifice. Vatican II, initiated by a loving, Angelo Roncalli, the pope at the time, strived to help us remember that Jesus is the source and summit of our journey.
DeSales is a masterpiece, the work of Henry Dagit, who designed many magnificent Catholic churches in the Philadelphia region in the early 20th cen. The demolished Transfiguration was his last, and perhaps best work. I recommend a visit to St. Martin De Porres (previous St. Columba) in which is also used Guastavino tile. https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/23729
My grandparents got married here in 1949. I have many pictures from the wedding. I’ve always loved this church. Such an amazing building!
Any chance you have those photos in digital form? There is a real dearth of imagery from mid-20th century. There were changes to the flooring (linoleum, ugh!) and the east and west walls that obscure the original, and other changes that resulted from Vatican II. There’s a Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/St.FrancisinPhilly?fref=ts Maybe you could post there, or if you have them on your own FB page you could link there? Just wondering. Thanks for the memory, and come back, we’re celebrating the 125th anniversary! (Choir’s on summer break till September, though.)
I recently bought a CD of a performance of Saint-Saens’ Symphony #3 for organ, piano, and orchestra (the “Organ Symphony”). From the liner notes I learned that it was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, with Michael Murray on organ, IN SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES CHURCH. The recording was made on February 6, 1980 after a long process of retuning the organ to standard pitch, temporarily removing some pews, installing extra electrical circuits and heaters, all with the cooperation of the parish. During the recording, the surrounding streets were closed to traffic.
The result was a beautiful recording that displayed the magnificence of the organ and the building’s acoustics.
I hope the parish benefited from the electrical work, the tuning, and the heaters once the pews were put back in place.
My Dad, John (Ike) Anthony McKee (1923-1969) attended this parish school & church as a boy. I remember passing it often growing up on our way to my grandmother’s apartment.
Hi I walked you as a baby. Your mom was Betty. Your grandmother Winnie was a second mother to me. God bless.