The cornerstone at Saint Gabriel’s Hall in Audubon says 1896. The first children to be served arrived in 1898.

During that same year 14 special windows of Tiffany glass were installed. Rich in beauty, they were also rich in meaning for the young people who passed under their colorful rays for the next century-and-a-quarter.

Dr. James Black, the Youth Services Division director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services (CSS), has attempted to quantify that total. “I think it’s easy to say without exaggeration,” Black said, “literally tens of thousands of kids went through there, because you’re talking about 120 years…hundreds of kids every year.”

Even though the building has seen an end to its generations-long tradition of serving at-risk youth in Philadelphia, the windows depicting the Savior, saints, and symbols of the Catholic faith have been restored and are now housed at the Catholic Historical Research Center in Northeast Philadelphia.

The reason such artwork – the kind that one finds inside world-renowned galleries like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago – would find itself embedded into the stairways and halls of a home for troubled youth in a Philadelphia suburb?

To Dr. Black, the reason was to inspire youth who might need it after the struggles and trauma they endured and that brought them to St. Gabe’s.

“Someone had the foresight to put something as important as the Holy Family in something as beautiful a form – and probably an expensive a form – to ensure that all the young people coming into that place knew that it was special,” said Black.

“There’s the Holy Family, and this is going to be your home for the next 9, 10, 12 months.”

He explained that near the end of the 19th century, Archbishop Patrick Ryan saw a need for Philadelphia children who were “kind of running the streets” to have a place with extra direction and personal presence, “wherein they [could] receive a proper education and be instructed in useful arts and handicrafts,” as the original Saint Gabriel’s System program philosophy was described at the time.

“It was built with the nickels, dimes, pennies, quarters of immigrant Catholics—the  Italian, Irish, Polish, and German Catholics who were putting money in the collection plate every Sunday,” said Black. “It was just a beautifully appointed building.” Archbishop Ryan invited the Brothers of the Christian Schools (more commonly known as The Christian Brother), an order founded upon serving children in need, to serve those youth.

“The only children who got educated were the children of the rich,” Black added about the lifetime of St. John Baptist De La Salle (1651-1719), who came from a rich family. “He felt that this was terribly unfair. He felt that the children of the poor and the artisans, that’s how they were referred to, that these children should have the same chance at eternal salvation as the children of the rich.”

Though Black doesn’t know precisely who made the decision to bring in glass windows featuring  Catholic art from one of the world’s premier glass-makers, the answer to why Tiffany was chosen comes first from the chosen subjects of the art, and secondly from the workmanship that furthers its inspiring qualities.

“It was Mary on the left, Jesus in the center, Joseph on the on the right, so it’s a beautiful depiction of the Holy Family. In the bottom of the St. Joseph panel, you can see it says ‘Tiffany Glass Company, New York, 1898,’” said Black.

“There’s these layers of glass, and it gives it this amazing translucent quality when you look at it from the front because of the way the light hits. These three particular panels depending on where you were standing knew they could almost change and almost have a bit of movement to them.”

Black added that the folds in the garments of the figures in these historic glass depictions are literal folds, undulations within the glass.

“It really is extraordinary,” he said.

That word, Black explains, is exactly what the artists who created the 14 installations at Saint Gabriel’s wanted the youth they served to feel about themselves.

“They deserve to see — they deserve to feel— not just that there is a God that loves them this much as they see the Holy Family there, but once they know what this is, Tiffany [glass], what this is for us,” said Black. “I sense that there’s something personal.”

That personal presence of God’s love through art continued as Saint Gabriel’s Hall evolved into a diversified social services program including an outpatient and residential treatment facility.

“That’s just so consistent with the LaSallian tradition of trying to meet the kids and the families where they are, and given them the best possible services,” Black added.

But he said that the consistently-evolving mission of Saint Gabriel’s Hall finally met its match with the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the closure of services within its hallways.

“COVID was the nail in the coffin, because when COVID hit in March of 2020, Family Court shut down. All of our kids came to us through Family Court,” Black explained.

“Kids kept being taken out, but no kids were coming in. It just became an unsustainable situation.”

While the property is in progress of eventually being sold, Martha’s Choice Marketplace and Community Farm, a ministry of CSS, has turned part of the outside of the land into a farm that helps fulfill its mission of helping families enduring food insecurity.

“We have these giant cafeterias and kitchen spaces, so they can use that for warehousing of food, and they have partnerships with other anti-hunger agencies in the area who come and go with pallets of food and take them out and distribute them,” said Black.

Black explained that while some Tiffany glass artwork will remain within the building, the 3 windows depicting the Holy Family have found a permanent home at the Catholic Historical Research Center, which plans to display them prominently in the lobby.

Perhaps those pieces will continue to have a meaningful effect as they did for the thousands of children who found safety and healing within Saint Gabriel’s Hall.

“What figure could you put at the center of something that would say more to a kid,” Black asks, “that would give a kid that message of ‘You’re being treated like the child of the King, you know that?’ I think I think that’s the basic message there.”