After that rough introduction the to LaSalle rowing program, Joe Sweeney did come back to Crescent, again and again. He discovered that coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom “Bear” Curran were not just founts of rowing wisdom, but also had some remarkable rowing stories from their younger days.
One of Joe Sweeney’s favorites was the story of the Reich Chancellery theft.
The American “Big Eight” that won the gold at Liege, Belgium in 1930 consisted of Charles McIlvaine in bow; Tom Curran, 2; Jack Bratten, 3; John McNichol, 4; Myrlin Janes, 5; Joe Doughert, 6; Dan Barrows, 7; Chet Turner, stroke; and Tom Mack, coxswain. In the final, the Penn AC “Big Eight” beat Italy by two lengths, and Denmark by six lengths. During their trial runs, the Philadelphia Irish “Big Eight” made 2,000 meters in an astounding 5 minutes and 18 seconds. According to Joe Sweeney, “there was considerable speculation that this might be the fastest eight ever seen.”
The Philadelphians of Penn AC teammates tried to repeat their time to enter the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, but they sadly lost to crews from the University of California and the University of Washington crews, respectively. In 1936, the men of the Penn AC eight went to Berlin to participate in the controversial, high profile Olympic games of that year. Although they didn’t make the US eight, the Penn AC men rowed in various smaller boats.
There, they faced a few challenges. The first had to with equipment. The University of Washington crew (of The Boys in the Boat fame) brought their own boat with them: a magnificent cedar-and-mahogany eight handbuilt by the British-born master boatbuilder George Pocock. Yet the other American rowers, including the Penn AC boys, had to make do with quads and pairs loaned to them by the Germans.
The Nazis had their own agenda: proving the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. at the expense of the foreign teams.
“The rowers swear they were sabotaged,” Sweeney said. Tom Curran and Joe Dougherty, who rowed in the Penn AC pair, didn’t even make it to the finals.
The second problem was that their coach, Frank Mueller of Vesper, was a German national who was terrified of being detained in his native land and being conscripted. He stayed behind.
The young men of Washington won the gold at the 1936 Olympics in their American boat, running the Langer See course in a mere 6:25.4, beating out Italy at 6:26, and Germany at 6:26.4. Bringing their own boat across the Atlantic probably made that .4 second difference.
After the games were over, Dougherty, Curran, and the Penn AC boys stayed in Berlin for a week to take in the sights of the Germany capital, which on the surface seemed radiant and prosperous, a shining symbol of a renewed Germany. Little did they know of the concentration camps, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The highlight of their week in Berlin was a tour of the Reich Chancellery, recently renovated and expanded by architects Paul Troost and Leonhard Gall in a sleek, somewhat sinister Art Deco style.
While touring Adolf Hitler’s private office, the story went, Tom Curran spied an elegant pen set on the Fuhrer’s desk. While no one was looking, he swiped it, and took it back to his room at the Olympic village. That night, a group of men wearing black jackets, swastika armbands, and high jackboots showed up at the Penn AC dormitory, waking the men up.
It was the Gestapo.
“The pen set is missing,” the lead Gestapo officer snapped at the Americans. “We want it back.”
Joe Dougherty, who was the captain, took a guess that it was the “bad boy” of the group who committed the crime. He turned to Tom Curran and ordered him to hand the pen set over to the Gestapo. Curran went back to his bunk and gave it to Dougherty. The stern, starchy Philadelphia Penn AC captain then solemnly handed Hitler’s pens back to the Gestapo officer.
He turned to Curran and punched him square in the jaw. Curran fell to the floor, groaning in agony.
Dougherty then said to the Gestapo officer, “Are you satisfied or are you next?”
“I’ve heard that story from two or three other people,” Joe Sweeney said of the coaches he got to know twenty years later when he towed at LaSalle. “They were gentlemen. They had their own ethics. Really good guys.”
After spending several years in the Navy, Joe Sweeney came back commercial obstacle course to Philadelphia in the late 1950s to go to college on the GI Bill. His widowed mother continued to work as a nurse, rising to become the head of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania.
The day he started his freshman year at LaSalle University, Joe swung by Boathouse Row, across the Schuylkill River from his old Powelton Village neighborhood. He had shown up on campus dressed in his Navy uniform. The Christian Brothers gave him a suit to change into on that first day of school. Dressed in his new outfit, he was on the way to pick up his mother at Penn, but had an hour or two to kill on the way home. He knew that LaSalle’s rowing program was based out of the Crescent Boat Club, a Tudor-revival structure on the eastern end of the row. He walked into the boathouse and saw a group of young men (he was a decade older than the other Lasalle freshmen) gathered around coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom Curran, both “Boathouse Row gods.” Dougherty, a “straight-laced Irish Catholic” as Sweeney remembered him, had rowed in the American “Big Eight” that set the 2,000 meter record at the 1930 Olympics at Liège, Belgium. They were also part of the “Irish Mafia” that hung out at the neighboring Penn Athletic Club (“Penn AC”) over cards and whiskey: the Kellys, the McIlvaines, and other Irish-American patriarchs were prosperous but couldn’t join any of the elite downtown clubs. Tom Curran, the “bad boy of the group,” had also rowed with Dougherty at Liège.Inflatable Irish pub
John B. “Jack” Kelly, powerful contractor and prominent Democratic kingmaker, was the godfather of the group. He had famously been denied entry at the Henley Regatta’s “Diamond Sculls” because the rules stipulated that which excluded anyone “who is or ever has been … by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer”. The rejection kindled a competitive fire in Kelly to not only push himself harder as an athlete (he was also an excellent boxer), but also his son Jack Jr, a Penn graduate who won the Henley “Diamond Sculls Challenge” in 1947 and 1949. Using his enormous bricklaying fortune, Kelly Sr. built up the rowing program at the Pennsylvania Athletic Club. He also mentored many aspiring young, working class Catholic rowers so they could compete toe-to-toe with the scions of Philadelphia’s Protestant gentry.
When Joe Sweeney entered Crescent that day, he had stumbled into the heart of Boathouse Row’s Catholic community. It was gritty, no-holds-barred competitive.
“Hey kid,” Dougherty shouted at Sweeney as he walked in the Crescent door, “would you like to row?”
One of the LaSalle eights was missing a man. Sweeney had never rowed in his life. He didn’t have a change of clothes, so he jumped into the eight in his Christian Brothers suit.
Sweeney not only had no idea how to row sweep, but he also learned to his horror that Coach Dougherty had his kids row at only one speed. “Full power upriver. Full power down river. No pieces.”
Yet Sweeney didn’t shirk. “In the Navy, I did what I was told,” he said. “I was so sore, my legs were cut up, Grease all over my pants. I looked up at Tom Curran and I said, ‘you son of a b***h.”
Curran smiled back at Sweeney. “You’ll be back!” the old Irishman said.
Source: interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.
Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old. The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse. His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic faith, not just out of love, but out of a remarkable thing she saw during the 1918 flu epidemic.
“There were lines of people people on 34th Street trying to get into the hospital,” Joe said. “The people who died at the hospital were buried across the street, where the Civic Center was. The seminarians from St. Charles dug the graves. Mom and Dad had horrible experiences, but she was inspired by what she saw.”
Young Joe came up through Philadelphia’s parochial school system, living in a big Victorian house at 38th and Spring Garden and attending St. Agatha’s Parish. Yet he never got the chance to row in high school: his father died when he was only ten years old. Even though his father was a highly-paid physician, the Sweeneys did not have enough in savings to maintain their previous lifestyle. “My mom put the older boys through parochial school,” he said, “but she couldn’t afford to keep everyone at home.” To earn extra money, Joe would run errands for the local Pennsylvania Railroad employees. During the 1940s, the PRR was in slow decline, but it was still one of the biggest employers in Philadelphia. Thousands of brakeman, signalmen, locomotive engineers, and repairmen worked long and hard shifts at the Powelton yards adjacent to 30th Street Station, “In the afternoons, the clerks would give you an address to a train man to let him known when and where to report,” Joe remembered. “The PRR would give you a quarter to deliver the slip to the man at his home.”
Running errands for the railroad also gave young Joe his first taste of alcohol. As the dusk approached, he would stop by the houses on Brandywine Street, just north of Powelton Village, where the wives of the railroad workers were making dinner. “The mother would give you a metal pot, and you’d go to the nearest bar, where there would be a blackboard with the names of the guys.”
The bartender would fill up the pot with beer, and then give Joe a shotglass full of beer.
“That was his pay to you,” Joe remembered. “I remember being so small that I had to reach up to the bar to get that little shotglass full of beer. It was the culture. Teach you how to drink.” Yet despite the heavy drinking, the clergy made sure that their flock would turn off the spigot in time for Sunday communion. Monsignor Mellon of St. Agatha’s would stride into Deemer’s bar, fully dressed in his robes, and announce, “Alright men, It’s Sunday!” And everyone would scatter and the bar would close.
When he turned 17, Joe left home and enlisted in the Navy. He came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s and enrolled at Lasalle University. It was there that he discovered rowing, which would turn into a lifelong passion. It was also on Boathouse Row that he discovered the so-called “Irish Mafia,” headed by the legendary Kelly clan.
To be continued…
Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.
The oldest surviving cookbook, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), was compiled by Marcus Gavius Apicius in the first century A.D., the high water mark of the Roman Empire. Each region of Italy has been reveling in its own favorites ever since: “pane con la milza” (open-faced pork spleen sandwich) from Sicily, coretello (minced lamb and lamb innards) from Abruzzo, ‘Nduja (spreadable sausage) from Calabria, and penne with arugula and tomatoes from Puglia.
For Italian immigrant families who came to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, village recipes were crucial parts ties to their familial and regional pasts, and they died hard in the American urban melting pot. The Philly cheese steak, supposedly “invented” by brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, did not come along until the 1930s, and originally called for an Italian roll and provolone cheese, not the Americanized orange cheese product.
To Ronald Donatucci, the current registrar of wills and native of the Girard Estates neighborhood, the Jews and the Italian-Americans of Philadelphia shared many common cultural traits, among them a love of food, a focus on education, and (more often than not), a strong mother figure. “They’re so similar,” Donatucci recalled. “My father instilled education in myself and my siblings.” Like the Jews, with whom they often coexisted in tightly-packed rowhouse blocks, Italian immigrants quickly applied the trades they learned back in the old country to the streets of Philadelphia, especially in culinary and the building trades. And they kept these businesses in the family. Bakeries, cheese shops, and confectionaries flourished in Italian neighborhoods. Older women in various neighborhoods would go to the early Sunday Mass at their local parish church, then do their grocery shopping for the week. Young boys were expected to help them with their bags.
Food was not just central to regular family gatherings, but also to the myriad feast days and festivals of the Roman Catholic calendar year. Each village had its own patron saint. One of the biggest, of course, was the Festa di San Giuseppe (Feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of Sicily), celebrated every March 19 with limes, wine, fava beans, cookies, breadcrumbs (representing the sawdust from Joseph’s carpenter shop), and zeppole cakes.
One such culinary family was the Campo clan–friends of the Donatuccis–who settled in Southwest Philadelphia in the parish of Our Lady of Loreto. In 1905, the three Campo brothers (Fernando, Francesco, and Venerando) arrived in Philadelphia on the Red Star liner SS Friesland. They were natives of the Sicilian village of Cesaro. According to Ferdinando’s great-grandson Michael Campo, the family had been butchers for generation: there were at least seven men named Campo operating butcher shops in Sicily in the early 1900s. Most likely through family help and local Italian-American banks, Venerando raised enough capital to open his own butcher shop at the intersection of Carpenter and South 9th Street in Philadelphia. In the meantime, his brother Ferdinando opened a similar establishment in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Eventually, Ferdinando’s son Ambrose opened another butcher’s shop, this one at 62nd and Grays Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, and joined a brand new parish that had opened its doors in the neighborhood. The church, finished in 1938, was the anchor of a neighborhood of tidy brick rowhouses surrounding the main thoroughfare leading from West Philadelphia to the new Philadelphia Municipal Airport. When aviator Charles Lindbergh dedicated the airport shortly after his epic 1927 transatlantic flight, Philadelphia’s city fathers named this arterial street in his honor. Designed in the fashionable Art Deco style by local architect Frank L. Petrillo, Our Lady of Loreto was a radical departure from the baroque and Byzantine revival popular with church architects such as Henry Dagit and Edward F. Durang. Inside and out, Our Lady of Loreto (the patron saint of air travel) looked more like a 1930s airport terminal than a church. According to Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, “Petrillo’s design cleverly links that story with the great technical advance of the 1930s: commercial air travel. Because streamline moderne’s strong, horizontal lines evoked speed, it was a favorite architectural choice for new airports’ terminals.” The airplane theme didn’t stop with the building envelope. According to church teaching, on May 10, 1291, a flock of angels flew the house where the Virgin Mary was born from the Holy Land to the comparative safety of the Italian village of Loreto.
The mural on the church’s facade depicted this miracle as propeller-driven planes swoop around the heavy-lifting angels.
The modern style of the church reflected the forward-looking aspirations of the 1,200 or so families who belonged to the parish, They saw Southwest Philadelphia as a step up from cluttered old South Philadelphia. For the members of this parish, the most important festival was the feast of St. Anthony, which took place on the first week of June. “I remember being a kid and my parents giving me a dollar to pin on the St. Anthony statue, for which I would get a blessed roll,” remembered Michael Campo. “The roll was from Mattera’s Bakery, which was the neighborhood bakery, and located on the same intersection of 62nd and Grays Avenue, as the Church and Campo’s.” Following the parade was a carnival, complete with fireworks and a dunk-the-clown contest. “Looking back on it, it was probably a couple roman candles,” Campo said of the fireworks dislay, “but when I was 10, It felt like I was at Disney World.”
Campo family history provided to Steven Ujifusa by Michael Campo, June 23, 2016.
Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2016.
Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, October 18, 2016.
St. Francis de Sales was formally dedicated and 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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: the original article published on September 16, 2016 has been recently updated with new information provided by Michelle Dooley and the St. Francis de Sales History Committee.
n 1980, Eugene Ormandy was ready to retire from his long tenure as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. For one of his last recordings with the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” the octogenarian conductor chose a rendition of the Symphony #3 (Organ) by Camille Saint-Saëns, with Michael Murray as organist, to be recorded on the Telarc label.
A great organ symphony needs a great organ! Michael Murray recalled that “the Telarc folks and I visited half a dozen churches in the Philadelphia area to try out organs, before settling on the St. Francis de Sales instrument.”
St. Francis de Sales at 47th and Springfield Avenue 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 Haskell/Schultz 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.
It took several days for parish organist Bruce Shultz and assistants to prepare the instrument to Ormandy’s specifications, since Ormandy preferred a higher-than-usual “442 pitch to make the sound brighter.” The police closed the surrounding streets during the recording so that the “Fabulous Philadelphians” could work their magic without the distraction of honking cars and squealing trolleys in the background.
This was only one of many times in its long history, that this grand church has had a moment of fame.
St. Francis de Sales parish was established by Archbishop Ryan on May 14, 1890 to serve a community comprised mostly of Irish and German immigrants seeking a foothold in what was then suburban West Philadelphia. The first masses were held in a rented hall above a store at 49th and Woodland. The first building, a combination chapel/school (today’s SFDS school auditorium) was constructed on a portion of the property at 47th and Springfield Avenue in 1891.
The parish’s second pastor, Rev. Michael J. Crane, declared that he would like to build a permanent 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 1907 Archbishop Edmond Francis Prendergast laid the cornerstone for the new building.
Designed by prominent local architect Henry Dandurand Dagit (1865-1929), the “Byzantine Romanesque,” (also called “Byzantine Revival”) structure took four years to complete. Rafael Guastavino designed and built its imposing domes using his own patented system of interlocking tile and special mortar that did not require internal bracing. (Only 600 Guastavino structures are known to exist, and they are much prized. The Penn Museum and Girard Bank-Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two Philadelphia examples). The four rose windows and six long windows in the church were one of renowned Philadelphia stained glass artisan Nicholas D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions.
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 lived at 4527 Pine Street, and this was his family’s parish. He even commissioned statues of his daughters as “angels” to decorate the interior.
Although well-versed in historic styles, Dagit wanted to give a modern twist to his churches. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, French catholic architects were promoting a “Byzantine-Romanesque” style, with domes and rounded arches, to differentiate from angular pointy protestant gothic. This must have seemed to Dagit like the perfect historic inspiration for a church whose patron saint, Francis de Sales, was French. 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 and the self-supporting Guastavino dome which eliminated the need flor view-obstructing interior support pillars.
The original boundaries of St. Francis de Sales stretched from the Schuylkill River at 42nd Street over to Locust Street, up to 55th street and back to the River with a jog to 58th street from Baltimore Ave. Among the contributors to the new building was James Cooney, who donated the main altar. He lived at 4814 Regent St., owned a fleet of oyster schooners on the Delaware Bay, and also had an oyster-selling business downtown at 116 Spruce Street. Jean-Baptiste Revelli, who lived at 4609 Cedar Avenue, donated funds for one of the long stained glass windows. Known as “Baptiste,” the Assistant Manager and Maitre d’Hotel of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel was a celebrated personality, whose address book included many world leaders and international celebrities and whose “ideas as regards table decorations have won him worldwide fame.” The St. Joseph Altar was donated in memory of the deceased wife of James P. “Sunny Jim” McNichol, a prominent Philadelphia politician and also half-owner of the construction firm that built the Market Street subway tunnel, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and Roosevelt Boulevard.(McNichol’s adult children lived on the newly-constructed 4600 and 4700 blocks of Hazel Ave.). Eleanor Donnelly, known as the “Poet Laureate of the Catholic Church” in America donated the Blessed Mother altar to memorialize her deceased family (including her brother Ignatius, a Minnesota senator who taught her to write poetry as a child, and who is remembered today as the author of Atlantis: the Antidiluvian Age – a seminal classic of Lost-City-of-Atlantis lore). General St. Clair Mulholland, an Irish-American Civil War veteran and first Catholic police chief of Philadelphia, who resided at 4202 Chester Avenue, donated one of the dome windows.
Not all of the parishioners were colorful, wealthy or well-known: many were tradespeople, shopkeepers, and office workers. There were also a number of Irish immigrant servants who helped with the cooking and cleaning in the neighborhood’s big houses. Apart from religious affiliation, what did they all have in common? An appreciation of beauty, an attachment to history, and a strong musical sense – qualities that continue in today’s richly diverse parish.
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 assisted at St. Malachy’s Church in NE Philadelphia, during its renovation by Dagit in the distinctive 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. Henry Dagit described the plans: “The design is Romanesque with Byzantine details.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…These towers will rise to a height of ninety-seven feet and will be surmounted by domes covered with tiles in Byzantine designs. The main feature of the design is a Byzantine dome resting on the four great arches and pendentives of the nave transepts…The dome will be sixty-two feet in diameter…The interior of the church will be imposing. The nave will be vaulted with faience polychrome sculptured terra cotta arches, on which will rest the Gaustavino (sic) vaults.” Dagit further described an elaborate ornamentation and sculpture plan for the interior including a glass mosaic under the rose window, and mosaic emblems of the four evangelists above the main crossing. Many of the interior details changed by the time the church was finished but the Guastavino dome continues to be a distinctive feature of the local skyline.
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.
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.
Additional Sources provided by Michelle Dooley and the SFDS History Committee:
Boudinhon, Auguste. “Cathedral.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. Web. 21 Dec. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03438a.htm>
Catholic Church. Archdiocese of Philadelphia (Pa.), and Philip G. Bochanski. Our Faith-filled Heritage: The Church of Philadelphia Bicentennial As a Diocese 1808-2008 / Prepared By the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ; Father Philip G. Bochanski, General Editor. Strasbourg: Éditions du Signe, 2007. 62—123, 178-181. Print
Dagit, Henry D. The Work of Henry D. Dagit: Architect, 1888-1908. Philadelphia : Henry D. Dagit, 1908. 42-45. Digital Library@Villanova University.41-44
Farnsworth, Jean M., Carmen R Croce, and Joseph F Chorpenning. Stained Glass in Catholic Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2002. Print.
Moss, Roger W. Historic Sacred Places Of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 222-227. Print
Saint Francis de Sales Church. 1890-2015 St. Francis de Sales Parish, United by the Most Blessed Sacrament 125th Anniversary; St. Francis de Sales History Committee. 6-13, 43, 49. Print.
This past January, I spent an hour speaking with Ron Donatucci, a native South Philadelphian and long-time Register of Wills. He has been a fixture at City Hall for the past three thirty-five years. Before that, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Democratic ward leader, and a lawyer in private practice. He also serves on the Board of Directors of City Trusts, and Temple University’s Board of Trustees, the board of Girard College, and Wills Eye Hospital.He was childhood friends with the attorney Frank DeSimone, who I interviewed for a previous piece for PhillyHistory.
When asked what he felt was the most formative experience of his childhood, he replied that it was his three years at Central High School in the mid-1960s.
For Ron Donatucci, asking, “What class were you in?” is his version of the classic Philadelphia question, “Where are you from?”
He grew up in the Girard Estates section of South Philadelphia, a comfortable enclave of 1920s Tudor and Spanish revival homes within the boundaries of St. Monica’s Parish. With a few, mainly Jewish exceptions, the Girard Estates neighborhood was Italian-American and devoutly Catholic, mostly second and third generation Americans who had become doctors, lawyers, and small business owners. Donatucci’s father, an old school “Roosevelt Democrat” and local ward leader, ran a successful plumbling supply business.
After attending the local parish school at 18th and Ritner, Donatucci went to Bishop Neumann High School for a year. He then tested into Central’s 224th class, and joined about 15 other neighborhood kids who got on the Broad Street subway each morning to the Logan campus.
Donatucci remembered going up to his English teacher, Dr. Logan, saying, “I’m new here. How many books do we need to read.”
“One book a week,” Logan responded.
Outside of the guidance counselor’s office, Donatucci saw a boy sitting on the floor looking bereft.
“I screwed up,” he muttered sadly. “I got a 1590.”
“You screwed up?” Donatucci replied with amazement over his fellow student’s almost perfect SAT score.
The Central High School of the 1960s took Philadelphia’s smartest boys out of their neighborhood and parish schools and threw them together in a rigorous, competitive environment.
“All of the sudden, I was in a high school that was predominately Jewish.” Donatucci remembered. “These were the students that wanted to pursue an education that was free, and the type of competition was scary.” Among the future stars in Donatucci’s 224th class was Raymond Joseph Teller of the magician duo Penn and Teller. In 1964, the school newspapers reported that Central’s 224th class boasted more National Merit Semi-Finalists than any other school in the country. At Neumann, he said that he would study about two hours a day after class let out. At Central, he upped his study time to six.
The all-boys experience was a critical part of the Central experience. “We weren’t distracted,” he claimed. So was meeting people of different ethnicities. At lunchtime, people tended to separate into their neighborhood ethnic groups: African-Americans, Jews, Italians, and Ukrainians. “The guys from South Philly would sit at the same table,” he said. Yet the cultural exchange continued with swapping lunches. “I would give them pepper and egg sandwiches,” he said. “The Jewish kids would bring in blintzes. The Ukranians brought in perogis.”
He often found himself at the homes of his Jewish friends for the High Holidays. When describing Jewish and Italian culture, he said, “They are so similar.” He joked that his Jewish name was “Ronny Dumberg.”
Donatucci graduated from Temple University in 1970, and aside from a stint in Baltimore for law school, has remained in Philadelphia ever since. His two sons did not follow him to Central: they went to St. Joseph’s Preparatory instead, which remains an all-boys school, unlike his now-coed alma mater. Yet he still remains on the Central board of managers. “I’ve met guys in Central who are my friends today,” he said. “It’s such a great feeling when you’re talking to someone and you ask, ‘What class are you in?'”
Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance. He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond trading than portraiture–although talented, he was no Thomas Eakins. Like many immigrant fathers, Francis put his three sons (Francis Jr., Joseph, and Anthony) to work at the family business, running errands and sweeping floors in their office at 2nd and Chestnut. He also went on more than his share of adventures: at the age of 13, he guarded a gold shipment as it traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia to New Orleans. In this pre-Federal Reserve era, paper money was untrustworthy. Gold was king.
Although Anthony (born in 1826) would eventually inherit one of the nation’s great banking fortunes, the lack of a formal education plagued him all of his life. Despite his wealth, he felt awkward in Philadelphia society, and preferred the privacy and love of family life. Although he and his wife Ellen lived there briefly, he had little interest in the gaiety of the Rittenhouse Square set. The titans of Wall Street didn’t know him that well, either. As The New York Times wrote of him: “For a man of such financial importance, Mr. Drexel did not have a wide personal acquaintance here in this city.”
Soon after this father’s death in 1863, Anthony Drexel purchased a large plot of land centered at the intersection of 39th and Walnut streets, far out in West Philadelphia. He then commissioned an unknown architect (possibly Samuel Sloan, designer of nearby Woodland Terrace) to design a sprawling Italianate villa, where he, his wife Ellen, and their nine children could live away from the noise and dirt of Center City. He was also generous to his extended family, frequently looking after his niece Katharine Drexel, whose father Francis Jr. raised his children as strict Roman Catholics. His brother Anthony however crossed the Reformation aisle, raising his family as Episcopalians. As an adult, Katharine renounced her privileged upbringing altogether and became a nun, donating her time and vast inheritance to Native American and African-American civil rights causes.
The A.J. Drexel compound in West Philadelphia took up the entire 3900 block of Walnut Street, and was separated from the street by a hedges and a high iron fence. Not that there was much traffic in those days: the horse-drawn street car ran as far west as 41st and Chestnut. West of 42nd Street, the city melted away into a pastoral landscape of rolling fields and babbling creeks.
Drexel has a few other high-profile neighbors, namely the Clarks–who lived at Chestnutwold, 42nd and Locust–and the Pottses–who lived in a Ruskinian Gothic pile at 3905 Spruce Street. To the east and north were several less idyllic neighbors, most notably the Blockley Almshouse, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women.
The area was pretty but not exactly fashionable. Promoters wrote of West Philadelphia that “the ground in general is elevated, and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees.” For their part, the denizens of Rittenhouse Square claimed that residents of West Philadelphia spoke with a distinctly unpleasant accent. Drexel didn’t particularly care. Nonetheless, he spent much the next three decades of his life investing in and improving the blocks around his home, especially after the University of Pennsylvania’s move to the site of the Blockley Almshouse in 1873.
To be continued…
“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.
Chicago’s “World’s Columbian Exposition” closed its doors in October 1893 . Its magnificent neoclassical buildings, designed by McKim Mead and White and recently made infamous in Erik Larson’s narrative history The Devil in the White City, quickly vanished. For all its grandeur, the “White City” was a mirage of plaster and lathe. For a few brief months, its echoing halls and grand boulevards hosted over 27 million visitors, who marveled at paintings, industrial machinery, locomotives, and other curiosities — such as a replica of a Viking ship and prototype of the zipper.
And then there was the Midway Plaisance, which featured crowd-pleasing attractions such as a 263 foot high Ferris wheel, belly dancers, and people from around the world displayed in mock native “villages.”
Despite its brief life, most of the Columbian Exposition’s contents lived on, virtually undivided and intact, for nearly a century, halfway across the country. One of the attendees was a University of Pennsylvania botanist named William P. Wilson, became obsessed with the idea of a “permanent world’s exposition” that would allow America to continue to display its manufacturing and industrial prowess to the world. Yet to realize his dream, Wilson needed the ear of someone with power and money.
He found his man in Dr. William Pepper, the recently retired provost of the University of Pennsylvania. A respect surgeon possessing a family fortune made in brewing and real estate, Pepper had spent the previous decade raising money to expand the University’s faculty and campus. Philadelphia’s elite knew that the good doctor was a master fund-raiser. His most recent pet project was the University of Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, located at 34th and South Streets in a hulking Byzantine palace designed by Wilson Eyre Jr.
With massive resources and powerful connections at his disposal, Pepper commanded Wilson to purchase most of the exhibits from the Chicago exposition and ship them by train to Philadelphia. After several years in a temporary structure, in 1897 the collections of the so-called Philadelphia Commercial Museum moved into a grand neoclassical home located cheek-by-jowl with the University Museum and Franklin Field. Its main facade bore a striking resemblance to the one of the Louvre in Paris. Although fronted by a green lawn, it was only a stone’s throw away from the chuffing, screeching trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In the tradition of its predecessor, the Commercial Museum contained exhibits that ranked various civilizations in terms of technology and progress.
Wilson, like many American scientists of his time, was fascinated by eugenics and Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest.” For example, Wilson got a three-year leave of absence from the University to organize and mount a “living” exhibition of 1,200 Filipinos in France. The timing of this exhibition of “human curiosities” was no mere coincidence. For the past decade, America had been waging a bloody war against Philippine rebels desiring self-government. The Philippines–like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam–had been handed over to America by Spain following its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1897. Cuba was given its independence–albeit with a government friendly to US interests–and Puerto Rico became a territory. The Philippines, however, was given no such special status. American imperialists viewed the Filipinos as racially inferior and hence incapable of self-government. In the ensuing guerrilla war, an estimated 250,000 Filipinos died before the rebellion was put down.
Such imperialist behavior prompted outrage by many prominent American businessmen and intellectuals. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had fled the British class system in his native Scotland, wrote in 1898 that if America took overseas possessions, then it was in danger of losing its founding republican goals forever:
This drain upon the resources of these countries has become a necessity from their respective positions, largely as graspers for foreign possessions. The United States to-day, happily, has no such necessity, her neighbors being powerless against her, since her possessions are concentrated and her power is one solid mass.
His friend and American Anti-Imperialist League colleague Mark Twain argued that it was the obligation of the United States to set the Filipinos free, and that making them a part of a new American “empire” was hypocrisy:
It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
As for the Commercial Museum, it never lived up to its promise of making Philadelphia a center of international commerce. After Wilson’s death in 1926, its prestige and revenues steadily declined. By the 1930s, it was completely overshadowed by the Art Deco mass of the Civic Center. It 2004, after being open only to groups of touring schoolchildren, the deteriorating structure was demolished and replaced by an expansion to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Its collections, the last remnants of the “Great White City,” were disbursed to other Philadelphia institutions such as the Mutter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Free Library, and the Independence Seaport Museum.
The Virginian was a tremendous success, selling 1.5 million copies during Wister’s lifetime, and became a template for countless Western novels and movies to follow.
Despite his newfound fame, Wister found subsequent literary success elusive. Like most authors, he did not want to become a one-hit wonder. Once he was back in Philadelphia–a city that he personally despised but never left–he probably let his insecurities and melancholia get the better of him.
Especially when grappling with the ghosts of his Butler ancestors.
His next book, Lady Baltimore of 1906, was an novel about South Carolina, the family seat of Wister’s Butler ancestors. Named after a type of cake featured in the book, Lady Baltimore was Wister’s attempt at social history, but many critics found that the narrative descended into social snobbery. Unlike The Virginian, there was comparatively little adventure and action. While the unnamed Wyoming cowboy was stoic and chivalric in his quest to win the hand of school teacher Molly Wood, the protagonist in Lady Baltimore –a Yankee named Augustus–was a comparatively insipid character on a rather different mission: to find royal lineage in his family, at the request of his imperious Aunt Carola back in New York. Along the way, Augustus was smitten by Eliza La Heu of Kings Port (a stand-in for Charleston). A member of the plantation gentry, the effervescently beautiful Eliza had been reduced to working at a store, but her aristocratic manners (and empty bank account) stood in stark contrast to Gilded Age nouveau riche New Yorkers, exemplified by the character Hortense Rieppe (the consummate vulgarian in Wister’s plot).
Yet it was Wister’s treatment of race in Lady Baltimore that shocked many readers of the day, even in the pre-Civil Rights era. In Wister’s plot, the ultimate insult was that the South Carolinian John Mayrant, described by a contemporary reviewer from The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator as a “fine type of a thoroughbred, high-minded, proud southern young fellow,” has to work under an African-American boss at the customs house. Mayrant and his relatives are unable to bear this insult to their dignity, and as a result, the reviewer continues, Mayrant must resign from his post, “without raising a scene, if he is true to his instincts as a southerner and a gentleman.”
President Theodore Roosevelt read Lady Baltimore and was reluctant to criticize his friend in public. As a progressive at home and an imperialist abroad, Roosevelt had Social Darwinist views of his own, quite common among men of his class. The early 1900s was also a nadir in American race relations. The Republicans were still the party of Lincoln and hence of most African-Americans, but in the years since Union troops withdrew from the former Confederacy in 1877, Southern politicians did everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters and restore the plantation system in all but name. After reading his friend’s latest literary effort, the president privately wrote Wister to express admiration for his portrayal of Southern womanhood (after all, Roosevelt’s mother was the Southern belle Martha “Mitty” Bulloch, who refused to let her husband Theodore Roosevelt Sr. fight in the Union Army) and also to scold him for the novel’s descriptions of Northerners (“swine devils”) and African-Americans (“some of the laziest and dirtiest monkeys where we live”).
One chapter in particular, “The Girl Behind the Counter II,” must have irked the publicity-conscious president. In it, Eliza La Heu rants to Augustus about how the President of the United States (unnamed, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1906) had invited a black man (in real life, Booker T. Washington) to the White House for a formal dinner. The actual dinner, which took place in October 1901, was controversial among both blacks and whites at the time. One white Southern newspaper editor vented that it was, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Senator Ben Tillman of Lady Baltimore’s South Carolina used even more violent language upon hearing of the dinner, threatening the deaths of a thousand blacks in the South…so that they would “learn their place again.”
At the same time, many African-Americans activists felt that Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an accommodationist stooge. Harvard graduate William Monroe Trotter, who in a decade would famously confront another president (Woodrow Wilson) about his re-segregation of the US civil service, wrote of Washington: “a hypocrite who supports social segregation between blacks and whites while he himself dines at the White House.”
The matter became a sore subject for President Roosevelt, who never spoke of the dinner publicly afterward. Yet he declared that, “I’ll not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner, even if it costs me every political friend I’ve got.”
Now, five years later, Owen Wister had brought up the whole affair again– from the Southern point-of-view–in a dialogue between Augustus and Eliza La Heu:
‘If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any race he pleases to dine privately in his house–‘
‘His house,’ she was glowing now with it. ‘I think he is—I think he is–to have one of them–and even if he likes it, not to remember–I cannot speak about him!’ she wound up; ‘I should say unbecoming things.’ She had walked out, during these words, form behind the counter, and as she stood there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about to lead a cavalry charge. Then, admirably, she put it all under, and spoke on with perfect self-control. ‘Why, can’t somebody explain to him? If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, ‘Mr. President, we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any kind in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house, ours, the South’s, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also know our deep feeling– you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases you–do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house, you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?’ She swept a magnificent low curtsy at the air.
All a besotted Augustus could do was gush admiringly: “By Jove, Miss La Heu, you put it so that it’s rather hard to answer!”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtnOG7LPwjA&w=640&h=360] Booker T. Washington meets President Roosevelt. PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”
Small wonder that the sitting President of the United States took the time to write a 5,000 word letter of “advice” to Wister regarding this book.
For the Butler-Wister clan, it was a historical irony indeed. Wister’s own grandmother Fanny Kemble–who had fearlessly excoriated the slave system half a century earlier in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839–would probably have been horrified to read Lady Baltimore. To her, no one could have been more of a “swine-devil” than her slaveholding, libertine husband Pierce Butler II, who lived high on the hog from the unpaid labor of others.
Lady Baltimore sold well, but no where close to the blockbuster figures of The Virginian. Owen Wister himself was never able to muster up the strength to write another major book. He continued to churn out minor works and articles, often in the paneled cocoon of the Philadelphia Club’s library. Among them was Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919.
Yet as the 1900s progressed, Theodore Roosevelt grew more progressive and outspoken–lobbying for women’s suffrage and a graduated income tax in his 1912 Bull Moose party presidential run–while his friend Wister– who lived off family money and the royalties from The Virginian–grew ever more gloomy and conservative. One historian speculates that Roosevelt’s criticism of Lady Baltimore, however private, deflated the perpetually insecure Wister’s fragile ego. He toiled away at the manuscript of a novel about Philadelphia that he called Romney, but was never able to finish it.
Perhaps because it was about a subject Owen Wister loved to loathe: his native city.
The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?
Before he died in 1938, Wister severed his family’s last ties with the Old South by selling the final remnants of his ancestor Senator Pierce Butler’s Georgia land–for a paltry $25,000.