By Jordan Cash
Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Birmingham is home to a stained-glass window that stands out from most modern depictions of Pentecost . The central section is quite conventional it depicts those at the apostles and Blessed Virgin Mary receiving the Holy Spirit. Rays of light descend to them from the Spirit, represented as a dove. As in most depictions of Pentecost, those receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit have a tongue-shaped flame on their forehead. The most significant part of this window, however, are found in its outer sections. The left section depicts Saint Francis Xavier standing in front of a representation of the Taj Mahal. The same rays of light that touch the apostles also extend to him. Saint Paul, on the far right, has a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit. He, however, is seen preaching in front of Greek buildings (Figure 1).
These two saints are featured because Saint Francis Xavier is the patron of the church and St. Paul the Apostle is the patron of its diocese. The Cathedral of Saint Paul was the first Catholic church established in Birmingham in 1872 (The Cathedral of Saint Paul). Since this cathedral is the mother church of Birmingham, St. Paul is the patron of all subsequent Catholic churches in the Diocese of Birmingham (Lody 39). Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church was first established on June 1, 1953, under Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen (Lody 97). A fifty-acre tract of land was purchased on June 25, 1953, for the parish. In 1954 the church committee erected an all-purpose building. The church began an expansion program in 1956—this changed the one-story school building to a two-story with a convent and rectory. Construction of a larger church on the same property began in August of 1969. At one point early in 1979, the parish reached 1,127 registered families. Lack of capacity eventually called for new construction, which began in 1985. The new church was completed and dedicated in 1986. Through 1994 and 1995, the church was renovated and rededicated. (50th Anniversary Celebration Booklet). In July 2001, Patrick J. Sullivan became the pastor of the church.
Within weeks of Sullivan’s arrival, on July 20, 2001, the hilltop church was struck by lightning, ultimately burning down the building. For two years, mass was held in the parish hall. September 28, 2003, marked the finalization of the new and present church. The most notable sponsors for the new building were Gary C. Wyatt Inc., Bailey-Corley & Associates Inc., and the Willet Stained Glass Studios (50th Anniversary Celebration Booklet). The Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were the designers and creators of all stained-glass windows in the church. (50th Anniversary Celebration Booklet).
Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles reports that the apostles at Pentecost received Holy Spirit manifested as “tongues as of fire.” This event in biblical history “marks the beginning of the Christian church’s mission to the world” (Pentecost). William S. Kurz explains that “The descent of the Spirit at Pentecost transformed the first followers of Jesus” (Kurz 49). They no longer hid in fear from their persecutors. They were enabled to boldly proclaim the good news of God’s plan for humanity through Jesus Christ. The apostles also received gifts of prophecy, healings, and miracles that aided in their mission to the world (Kurz 49). The Catholic Church today believes that “wisdom, counsel, understanding, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and the fear of the Lord” are gifts of the Spirit as well (The Holy Spirit).
Paul the Apostle
The power of the Holy Spirit is exemplified in the life of Saint Paul. Paul’s story alone powerfully displays the work of the Holy Spirit. The apostles speaking in tongues at Pentecost is of minuscule significance compared to the change Paul experienced in his heart. Before he was in the Christian faith, he was a Pharisee (Sanders). His persecution of believers called for harsh punishment, including “ostracism or flogging” he also was known for making “murderous threats” towards Christians (Sanders). After becoming a Christian, Paul became the very apostle most known for spreading the good news to the gentiles. His letters to the many churches in his time show his deep love for all those who are called Christians. Later he was persecuted and flogged a reported five times and imprisoned many times throughout his ministry (Sanders).
Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in the life of all believers. This likely stems from the overwhelming transformation he experienced. Paul, even though not present at the event of Pentecost, speaks of the Spirit often in his teachings. In Chapter 13 of his second letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (NABRE). In 2 Corinthians 3: 17-18, Paul speaks of Christians being made into the “likeness” of Christ and being “made free” through the Spirit. William S. Kurz’s commentary on The Acts of the Apostles states, “without the Holy Spirit, there are no Christians” (Kurz 49). This thought of Kurz is confirmed by Paul, who claims, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (The Holy Spirit). Paul dramatically emphasizes the gifts of “piety, wisdom, and fear of the Lord.” He urges believers towards them by saying, “set your hearts on the greater gifts” (The Holy Spirit).
Francis Xavier, S.J.
Spiritual gifts were evident, not only Paul’s life but also in the life of other Christians. Saint Francis Xavier is known as “the greatest Roman Catholic missionary of modern times” (Bireley). One of the first seven members of the Society of Jesus, Xavier eventually became the most prominent missionary in Japan and the Indies for all time (Bireley). His missions included baptizing 10,000 Macuans on India’s southeast coast, evangelizing for several months in Malacca, and traveling to the “headhunters” of the Spice Islands (Bireley).
His work was astounding, but he faced no lack of problems either. At times, Xavier could only use a catechism to spread the gospel because the variety of people he experienced was too great. (Bireley). As Robert Bireley explained, Xavier’s conviction was more substantial than any language barriers he faced. His confidence and determination expressed those gifts of “fortitude” and “understanding.” There is no doubt that the Spirit was with him throughout all his work. Xavier’s charity towards others is one of the greatest gifts imparted to him by the Holy Spirit. Xavier believed “the missionary must adapt to the customs and language of the people he evangelizes” (Bireley). The Apostle Paul would likely agree with the Xavier’s focus on translation. “I would rather say five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:19). Saint Francis did precisely that, and he did it well.
In the Catholic Church’s view, the continuation of the Holy Spirit’s work is essential to Christianity today. The Spirit is unchanging throughout time. The gifts imparted by the Spirit helps Christians in “bringing others to salvation” (Kurz 49). The work of God through his Spirit is as, William S. Kurz states, “abundantly undeniable” (Kurz 49). The Spirit is the “sanctifier” and actively completes “the work of the Son” (The Holy Spirit). The Spirit confirms all believers in which they “become witnesses in a mature way to Christ’s gospel” (The Holy Spirit). Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church chose an awe-inspiring work of art to display these above truths.
Pentecost or Holy Spirit Window
Medium: Stained glass
Artist: Willet Stained Glass Studios
Location: St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 2 Xavier Circle, Birmingham, AL 35213
Bireley, Robert L. “Saint Francis Xavier: Christian Missionary.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., n.d. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-Xavier. October 2, 2020.
“The Cathedral of Saint Paul.” Stpaulsbhm. The Cathedral of Saint Paul. n.d. stpaulsbhm.org/about/history/ October 2. 2020.
“Pentecost: Christianity.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., n.d. www.britannica.com/topic/Pentecost-Christianity. October 2, 2020.
50th Anniversary Celebration Booklet. Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 2003.
“The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church.” Catholic Faith and Reason. Catholic Faith and Reason Association, n.d. October 2, 2020.
Kurz, William S. Acts of the Apostles. Baker Academic, 2013.
Lody, Joseph. History of the Diocese of Birmingham. Éditions du Signe, 2009.
Sanders, E.P. “St. Paul the Apostle: Christian Apostle” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., n.d. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Paul-the-Apostle. October 2, 2020.
Senior, Donald. et al. The Catholic Study Bible: the New American Bible, Revised Edition. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Jordan Cash ‘24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 22, 2020.