The “Cathedral” of West Philadelphia

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Where we come from is as important as where we are going.

Bishop Michael J. Crane
Bishop Michael J. Crane

In the late 1800s, when Southwest Philadelphia was mostly farmland with a few big houses, parish legend says that an Irish servant girl named Mary Bryan wrote to Archbishop Ryan. She begged him for a temporary church at this end of the neighborhood for the winter, when unpaved roads made it impossible to get to St. James Church (today St. Agatha St. James) at 38th and Chestnut. The Archbishop obliged, and the pastor of St. James began to say weekly Mass in a rented hall above a store at 49th and Woodland in January 1890. On May 14, Reverend Joseph O’Neill, former assistant at St. James, was appointed as the first pastor of this community, the new parish of St. Francis de Sales. The first parish building, a combination chapel and school (today the wing of the school containing the auditorium), was built in 1891.

In 1907, the second Pastor, Reverend Michael J. Crane, laid the cornerstone for a new church in which he hoped “the soul would be lifted up to exaltation.” Architect and parishioner Henry Dagit designed the monumental Byzantine-revival style structure (modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia) and the Rafael Guastavino Company, created its iconic domes. The finished building was dedicated on November 12, 1911. Today, it is a neighborhood landmark; St. Francis has a 72- foot long marble ashlar facade fronting on Springfield Avenue, with corner towers rising to a height of 97 feet. The center dome is 62 feet wide with its springline ninety feet above the nave floor. Its presence on the West Philadelphia skyline and the pastoral leadership of several bishops has led to the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Cathedral West.”

The building has changed surprisingly little over the decades. In 1953, the Dagit firm refurbished the basement chapel to accommodate the massive congregation of the era; today this space is used primarily by the Vietnamese congregation. The domes were covered with shiny colored tiles in 1956, in an effort to stop chronic roof leaks; the tiles were recently removed and the concrete shells sealed and painted to match the original colors without water-seeping cracks. For the 1965 Diamond Jubilee, small blue ceramic tiles coated the walls of the nave, and modern blonde wood pews replaced the dark quartered oak. In the 1990s, the peeling tiles were removed and the walls neatly stuccoed; the water-damaged blonde pews are currently being re-finished to look more like the originals.

In 1999, Saint Francis de Sales administratively merged with a neighboring parish, Most Blessed Sacrament, at 56th Street and Kingsessing, which later closed its doors permanently in 2008, making the official name of the parish “St. Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament.” The site was sold to a charter school in 2015, and the proceeds used to fund restorations to the badly failing facade and leaking barrel vault roof.

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We are proud of the 125 years of combined history we share between the two parishes, and our Parish History Committee keeps us informed each week, reminding us with columns in our weekly bulletin. Check out their blog here!

SFDS has been the object of architectural and casual curiosity for years and frequently written up by church-hoppers and local historians alike. Below is a sample of some local press:

The Philly History Blog: “A Brief History of St. Francis de Sales” (in two parts)

Philly Church Project: Profile

Hidden City Philadelphia: “When Modernism Took a Pew at Saint Francis de Sales”

Hidden City Philadelphia: “West Philly Skyline Domes Restored”