BEHIND THE FACADE:
FEATURES OF OUR BEAUTIFUL CHURCH
As part of the parish’s 125th anniversary, life-long parishioner Margaret Sherry Dirvin wrote a guide to many easily overlooked details about our stunningly beautiful church called Immaculate Treasure and Stories in Stained Glass. As our generation continues to add to the beauty of God’s House, we hope you will take a moment to learn of the beauty of Immaculate Conception Church. Take a moment to find the features and pass on the story to the next generation.
MOSAIC OF OUR LADY BEHIND THE ALTAR
The mosaic of Our Lady behind the altar was most probably designed for our church. It is a “floating mosaic” fashioned, not of tiles, but of the colored stones from the Potomac region, and transported from Washington in one piece.
The three stars on Mary (forehead and shoulders) represent her sinlessness before, during and after her Immaculate Conception. Her girdle is draped to form the Greek letter Tau (T) a form of the cross which is the instrument of New Life. The dome on which she stands represents the earth and her heel crushes the serpent’s head, as foreshadowed in Genesis 3: 15. She is guarded by two Thrones, one of the ranks of angels. In Greek above and in Latin below Mary is proclaimed “Mother of God,” and two angels, one with chrism and one with a diadem, stand ready to crown her Queen of heaven and earth.
Across the top of the altar piece supporting Our Lady are symbols drawn from the Litany of Loretto: Singular Vessel of Devotion, Morning Star, Queen conceived without original sin, Tower of Ivory, and Annunciation Lilies. She stands atop the Jesse Tree. Abraham and David, ancestors of the Holy Family, are at the base of the tree. As it rises, its branches encircle more symbols of Our Lady’s titles and virtues. Those on the left are stars (she is a shining light), closed garden (always a virgin) and a crescent moon (“Who is she…fair as the moon?) To the right are the sealed Book of Wisdom, Tower of David and Ark of the Covenant (Mary being the new Ark, carrying not only symbols of God’s presence, but the very Presence of God in her womb.
SHRINE OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
On the west wall near the side entrance is a relief of Mary appearing to St. Bernadette in Lourdes. When asked her name, Mary told Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The religious authorities could not understand how a peasant girl would be able to come up with this title, which proclaims one of Mary’s four great privileges, the others being her Perpetual Virginity, Assumption and Divine Motherhood.
SYMBOLS NEAR THE DOOR FRAMES
Around the frames of the doors at the entrance to the church are carved symbols: lilies (symbol of purity), the Lamb of God (sacrificed for our sins) and the monogram “M” superimposed on a star (Mary). We also see the pierced heart of Mary (representing the seven sorrows she would suffer, as prophesied by Simeon at the Temple) and a pelican (an ancient symbol of the Eucharist, since a parent pelican will pierce its own flesh to allow warming blood to flow on a weak newborn to nourish it). The pelican is also seen in the Crucifixion window and on a floor tile inside.
After the devastating fire destroyed all but the walls of the original church, Father John Cavanaugh decided that Mercer tiles would be used for the floor of the rebuilt church. He had forged a friendship with Henry Mercer, founder and director of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. At one point, the tiles were covered with carpet, but they now are visible in all their glory in the nave and transept (wide part of the church) and we have also now exposed the beauty of the tiles in the sanctuary.
The central Mercer tile in the transept (wide part of the church) contains a salamander! Why? This tile marks the spot over which the original sacristy was situated in the original church. It is there the fire broke out. A salamander was used because of the belief that this creature can live in the midst of flames.
Another creature we find on the Mercer tiles is a griffin, a mythological creature which was half-eagle and half-lion. It symbolizes the two natures of Christ united in one Person. The eagle symbolizes His divinity, the lion, His humanity. This tile is right in front of the altar, where the God-Man offers His sacrifice every day to the Father in the Eucharist.
In front of Mary’s side altar are two other interesting symbols in the tiles. One is a dragon, symbolizing vigilance and ardor. Left of this tile is one inscribed with the words from Psalm 46, verse 5, written in Latin: “There is a stream whose rivulets gladden the City of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High.” Also on this tile is a tower (Mary is called the “Tower of Strength” which no sufferings could overcome) and a swan, a symbol of purity.
At the end of the Preface, the various choirs of angels are invoked as we unite our prayers to theirs: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Powers and Principalities, Virtues, Archangels and Angels. They are well-represented in our beautiful church. There are sixteen Seraphim: the two gilded one on either side of the tabernacle, three on the sanctuary lamp, one above each pillar, and one on the Nativity window. Cherubim can be found as well. Four gaze down from the arches of both the Sacred Heart Altar and Mary’s altar. Two more peer out from beneath the statues of St. Joseph and St. Anthony (whose place, before the fire, was occupied by St. Patrick), four above each of the confessionals, thirty-two atop the pillars supporting the dome above the tabernacle, and four on the crucifix hanging over the altar, for a grand total of 56! There are two Thrones flanking Our Lady on the mosaic and two angels bearing the chrism and diadem. The stained glass depicting the Baptism of Jesus has an angel, three heavenly visitors come to visit Abraham in another, and two stand beside Mary in the “Our Lady of Jenkintown” painting over the central door to the vestibule. Grand angel total: 82!
STAINED GLASS WINDOWS
Originally, the walls and pillars of our church were of rough stone in shades of rose and a greenish blue. This color scheme is repeated in the borders of the stain glass windows, alternating in rose and blue. After fire ravaged the original building in 1928, the side walls remained sound and became part of the present church. Each wall has five windows, containing in the upper part a scene from the life of Christ and in the lower section an Old Testament event prefiguring the New Testament scene. Two other windows were added at either side of the transept. Examine the first window on the west wall: the Annunciation. Gabriel receives Mary’s “fiat” as the Holy Spirit overshadows her. A crowned monogram for MARIA marks the window.
The first window on the original west wall depicts the Nativity. The shepherds kneel in awe before the Child Jesus. In the Old Testament scene below, Moses kneels in awe as God appears in the burning bush. Each window highlights a symbol; here, it is the Star of Bethlehem.
The next window presents the presentation of Jesus in the Temple by His parents. Here Simeon and Anna would rejoice for having met the Messiah. Simeon predicts that Mary’s heart will be pierced with sorrows, and so a pierced heart is the symbol on this window. The Old Testament scene depicts Hannah and her husband presenting their son, Samuel, to Eli the high priest. Samuel would be the last Judge and first prophet of the monarchy period, and would anoint the first two kings, Saul and David. Jesus was of the House of David.
The third window on the original west wall depicts the baptism of Jesus by John. The Trinity is manifest with the appearance of the Spirit as a dove and the Father’s words, “You are My beloved Son.” The banner around John’s staff proclaims Jesus as the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God (which is also the symbol for this window). Below, Noah and his family are saved from the flood waters in the ark, as we are saved by the waters of baptism.
In the fourth window is depicted the Wedding Feast of Cana, where, at Mary’s intercession, Jesus turns water into wine. Below this scene Abraham hands the distaff to Rebecca, as she becomes the wife of his son, Isaac. The anchor symbol represents the stability and faithfulness required for successful marriages.
The rear window on the original west wall celebrates Peter, the rock on which Jesus built His Church. He is given two keys (a gold one representing heaven, a silver one representing earth) symbolizing his power to “bind and loose.” This scene is foreshadowed in the Old Testament scene, as Moses receives the tablets on which are inscribed the Ten Commandments.
Across the way, on the last window of the east wall, we see the Transfiguration. Jesus manifests His glory in the presence of Peter, James and John, chatting with Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets. As the three disciples were in the presence of heavenly beings, so Abraham, in the lower portion of the window, welcomes three heavenly guests who promise him that he and Sarah will have a son. The symbols highlighted in the window are the Alpha and Omega, reminding us Jesus, as God, is the beginning and end of all things.
The second window from the back of the east wall depicts the Last Supper. The words “Panis Vitae” (Bread of Life) and “Vitis Vera” (True Vine) are highlighted in the frame. In the Old Testament scene, Abraham (in warrior’s clothing, fresh from a successful rescue of Lot from captivity) receives from the priest Melchisedek bread and wine, and is blessed in the Name of the Lord.
Moving towards the next window, we find the Crucifixion. “Truly this was the Son of God” declares the centurion. The pelican, which sheds its blood to nourish its young, is represented as a symbol of Christ. God’s willingness to offer His only Son for our salvation is prefigured in the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac; God’s angel stays his hand.
The final two windows on the original east wall depict the Resurrection and Ascension. Jesus emerges triumphantly from the tomb as the angels announce: “He is not here! He is risen!” Christ holds a banner with a red cross, symbolizing His victory over sin and death. This victory is also represented by the Chi-Rho (XP) the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, and NIKA, which means “Victor.” Below, Jonah emerges from the great fish after three days.
Only the Lord’s feet can be seen as He ascends from the sight of Mary and the disciples. The crown surmounted by a cross symbolizes Christ the King. Below, Elijah is taken up to heaven by a fiery chariot, as his mantle falls to his protégé, Elisha.
The final window, like the Annunciation window opposite is, has no Old Testament depiction. The Holy Spirit descends on Mary and the Church, and the gifts of the Spirit are depicted both in a banner held by the Spirit and in other banners around the window.
The two large circular windows opposite each other in the front of the church feature the colors blue and red, but in different ratios. The one near the Sacred Heart altar has more red, with blue as a secondary color. In art, Jesus is often depicted robed in red, a symbol of divinity, with a touch of blue for His humanity. Near Mary’s altar, blue dominates with red as a secondary color. In art, Mary is depicted as robed in blue (humanity) with a tinge of red (for having carried divinity within her womb).
As we come to the end of this little “tour,” we turn our attention to several symbols you may see in various places of the church: ceiling, windows and floors. The first is a triquetra enclosed in a circle, sometimes called the Celtic knot. The three points entwined remind us of the Trinity, and the circle, with no beginning and end, the eternity of God.
The figure below works its way into several stained glass window backgrounds, notably the Annunciation, Nativity and Ascension. It represents Redemption.
The four-cornered figure below is also found all around the church. Its ancient origins may have represented it as a sort of exorcism of evil spirits. We can perhaps appreciate it as helping us feel the peace and serenity our church gives to us.
Finally, sharp eyes can detect an occasional pomegranate, a symbol of the Church because of its inner beauty and countless seeds in one fruit. In several of the Old Testament scenes in the windows, you can see the hand of the Father with the cross of the Son on His sleeve, enveloped by the rays of power sent forth by the Holy Spirit.
We hope you enjoyed this closer look at our beautiful church, and express our thanks to Peggy Dirvin, and her collaborators Nancy and Thomas Devlin and Francis Devlin of the Old York Road Historical Society. Their hard work allowed us to take this journey together.