The History of Old Saint Mary's + Holy Family
From the day of its dedication in 1854 to the present, Old St. Mary's witnessed and participated in the growth of a fascinating city.
During the past century, Old St. Mary's has never stopped reaching out to the community as a force for unity, reconciliation and spiritual peace. As conditions and circumstances in the parish have changed, the church has responded to them. Its survival and continuing ministry are living testimony to the vital power of love in Christ. The Paulist Fathers, the first religious community for men founded in this country, assumed responsibility for the church in 1894. Old St. Mary's has provided many opportunities to fulfill their mission of responding to the needs of the times.
The Early Days of San Francisco
San Francisco in 1854 was a town in transition. Fewer than eighty years earlier, the first permanent settlement, compromised of forty Spanish families, a few soldiers, and three Franciscan Fathers, had been founded on the San Francisco Peninsula.
The Gold Rush
On January 30, 1847, the village of Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco, population 469. Almost a year to the day later, gold was discovered on the American River. Six years later, 40,000 people called San Francisco Home.
By 1849, buildings quickly went up in San Francisco. Some structures were built well, while others were slapped together almost over night to take advantage of the boom. As eager "Forty-niners" kept pouring in, the town was soon overwhelmed. Within three years, six large fires destroyed millions of dollars worth of property and displaced many families, sending them to the streets
In 1853, after heavy winter rains turned the public thoroughfares into swamps, the busiest main streets were covered with wood planks. Later that same year, fire destroyed not only buildings, but the expensive planked streets as well.
Warehouses, shops, hotels, and saloons clustered along the waterfront streets did a brisk business. A distance uphill from the water was the city's hub, Portsmouth Square, and around its perimeter stood some of San Francisco's most attractive buildings. Opposite the Square stood the Jenny Lind Theater, a popular entertainment spot, which the city purchased and turned into City Hall. Next door to the Jenny Lind was the El Dorado, a well-known gambling hall.
By 1854, many of the gold strikes were unsuccessful and San Francisco went from boom to bust. Goods gathered dust on shelves, bills went unpaid, businesses went bankrupt, unemployment rose and the city's first depression set in.
San Francisco had grown rapidly and the need for assistance and community services developed faster than the ability to provide them. There were honest attempts made at municipal improvement. Not long after the first disastrous fires, a number of volunteer fire companies formed. Strenuous efforts were made to improve sanitary conditions in streets. Various ethnic and religious benevolent groups sponsored hospitals.
For Catholics in San Francisco, there were three churches: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Patrick and the old Mission Dolores Church, which was located far from the center of town. These churches answered to the distant Mexican diocese. Then in 1850, the same year in which California entered the Union, San Francisco became part of the newly formed Monterey Diocese.
Given charge of the diocese was newly consecrated Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, a 36 year old Spanish member of the Dominican Order born in Vich, Spain.
Old Saint Mary's during construction. 1854
A quiet, scholarly man, fluent in French and English as well as his native tongue , Alemany arrived in Monterey on February 4, 1851 and began a survey of his diocese. By 1853, it was determined that San Francisco would be his headquarters and he became the first Archbishop of San Francisco that year. The See included all of California from San Jose to the Oregon border and all the territory north of the Colorado River and west of the Rockies. There were 50,000 Catholics in the new archdiocese with 22 priests and 25 churches to serve them.
California's First Cathedral
Alemany immediately began to plan a cathedral to be built on the lot donated by John Sullivan, who had emigrated from Ireland to California in 1844 and prospered. The lot was on the northeast corner of the intersection of California Street and Dupont (later Grant Avenue).
The design was undertaken by architects William Craine and Thomas England, who designed the cathedral to resemble a Gothic church in Alemany's hometown in Spain. The new cathedral had parapets on either flank, surmounted with embrasures, and buttresses finished cut-stone pinnacles. Inside, a vaulted ceiling with groin arches rose above a Carrara marble altar imported from Rome. The original plan included a steeple, but the chance of an earthquake toppling it into the street changed the plans, leaving only a bell tower.
The materials used to build San Francisco's first cathedral came from both East and West, as later did its parishioners. Granite was used around the base of the structure to deflect rainwater and for other trim. It was quarried in China and brought across the Pacific in Precut blocks. Bricks minted in New England for the outer walls came around Cape Horn as ship ballast. Locally quarried sandstone was use for the foundation, the clock trim and the main entrance. Lumber for beams, floors and other interior work, was also obtained locally.
At Christmas Midnight Mass in 1854, the cathedral was dedicated. The workers who were wrapping up the details had left the building only three hours earlier. There were parts still unfinished, but the building was ready enough for use.
Less than a quarter century after its dedication, St. Mary's Cathedral found itself in the middle of a declining area of the city. Its neighboring streets were decaying and full of unsavory characters and criminal activity.
September of 1881 found Archbishop Alemany addressing his flock in a pastoral letter. The cathedral, he told them, had to be moved to a safer, less notorious place. Two years later, a site was purchased on the corner of O'Farrell Street and Van Ness Avenue, a neighborhood without such dangers.
With arrangements for the new cathedral site completed, Archbishop Alemany retired and later returned to Spain where he died in 1888. His successor, Archbishop Patrick William Riordan, oversaw the construction and moved to the new address. On January 11, 1891 the new Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was dedicated and the former cathedral became a parish church known simply as "Old Saint Mary's."
For nearly four years thereafter, Old St. Mary's was served by diocesan clergy. Then on December 8, 1894, Archbishop Riordan introduced the Paulist Fathers to the congregation as they assembled for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Old St. Mary's, explained the Archbishop, would now be staffed by the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, or, as they are more commonly known, the Paulists.
While relatively small, the parish which the Paulists undertook was spectacularly varied. In addition to the rough and tumble confines that had brought about the change of the cathedrals location, the parish included Nob Hill, in a westward direction up California Street where the mansions of people by the name of Stanford, Hopkins, Flood and Huntington stood. Down California Street, in an eastward direction toward Market Street, was the business district where bankers, traders, and brokers spent their days. There was nearby Kearny Street with a wonderful selection of shops open all day. At night, many theater productions on that street attracted new crowds. Also in the business district were a number of residential hotels inhabited by single men and women without families.
The Chinese Mission
Nearby Chinatown, densely packed and poor, was not the inviting colorful community that we know today. Its streets were filled with desperate, silent people. Crowded together, they were trying to survive in a strange land in which many had no intention of settling permanently. These Chinese immigrants were often ignored or treated with contempt by city officials.
Early Chinese Converts
More and more openly, as the years went by, the criminal Chinese gangs, known as tongs, battled one another for control of their various enterprises. The violence in Chinatown reached such at a point that it could no longer be ignored by the city authorities.
While physically independent from Old St. Mary's it was an essential part of the Paulist Father's ministry. The Chinese Mission, though initially housed in the basement of Old Saint Mary's, moved prior to the earthquake of 1906 to a house on Clay Street donated by an Irish parishioner.
The 1906 Earthquake
Shortly after five o'clock on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco began to shake. Forty-five seconds later, everything in California west of the San Andreas Fault had shifted 16 feet to the north. Charles Richter had yet to devise his scale, but it has been suggested that the quake, number 418 to shake San Francisco since 1848, would have registered 8.25 on the scale.
While a large part of the area of Old St. Mary' s parish was wrecked by the quake, the church itself sustained relatively little damage. A few heartbeats later, however, fires ignited by severed gas mains and overturned oil lamps began to race through the streets at uncontrollable speeds. San Francisco soon resembled an inferno, as raging walls of fire fanned by shifting winds leapt from one block to the next. Choking on smoke and hot ash, people fled their neighborhoods, and in some places they were joined by hoards of rats flushed from the cellars of Chinatown.
When the last fires were extinguished, 452 people were dead and thousands were homeless. Over 500 blocks and 28,000 buildings had been destroyed and much of San Francisco was a pile of smoking rubble with a price tag of $450 million dollars in damage. Old St. Mary's had survived the earthquake, only to be gutted by fire the day after. Gone were the roof, the ceilings, and the stained glass windows. The fire was so hot it melted the bell and the carved Carrara marble detail of the altar. All that remained of San Francisco's first cathedral were its outer walls and its bell tower.
A debate soon began over whether to pull down the remains of the church and relocate, or to rebuild. The first option was that of Archbishop Riordan, who wanted the church moved to a better neighborhood. The latter view was championed by Father Wyman, the Paulist Pastor, who saw the necessity for it to remain where it was, and to honor the people's view of Old St. Mary's as a piece of irreplaceable history.
For a time the fate of the church hung in the balance and Father Wyman agonized over the outcome. In the meantime, parishioners worshipped in a temporary wooden church built where the rectory now stands.
Rebuilding from the Rubble
A year after the earthquake, it was decided to restore the church, thanks in part to a generous payment by the insurance carrier. The earthquake and the fire managed to accomplish in a few days what years of agitation for reform and uplift could not. Gone were the many bordellos, bars and gambling houses that had surrounded the church. Gone too, at least for a time, was the Barbary Coast, whose proximity to Chinatown led to an easy exchange of criminal commerce along the connecting streets.
The rebuilt Old Saint Mary's in 1909
On June 20, 1909, Archbishop Riordan rededicated a renovated Old St. Mary's. The renovation minimally changed the lines of the church, and provided several structural improvements. Steel was used to replaced the burned wood roof trusses and floor framing. More durable materials modified and replaced trim elements damaged by the quake and fire. Facing the church across California Street, where some of the neighborhoods more notorious dings once stood, there was now a new park named St. Mary' s Square.
In Chinatown, the destruction of the tenements and dark back streets helped to break down the criminal tongs. The Chinese community, along with the rest of the city's ethnic enclaves, hurried back to its little corner of the city and rebuilt itself.
In doing so, it opened itself to the outside world as it had not done since the earliest days. Dupont Street was renamed Grant Avenue and some of its pagoda-style roofs that have become symbols of Chinatown, were products of post-earthquake reconstruction.
Three years later, in 1909, the Chinese Mission was in operation again and more people from Chinatown were showing interest in learning about Christianity. The only cultural concessions demanded of Chinese converts was that they resign their membership in Chinese secret societies, or tongs, prior to baptism. For the next dozen years, the Mission rented the space it needed until a permanent site for the Holy Family Parish and S. Mary's Chinese School was chosen on Stockton Street.
For San Francisco, the years during World War I and the Roaring '20's were prosperous ones. The city, including the parish of Old St. Mary's, saw construction on a level not witnessed since the period following the 1906 earthquake. The numbers of workers attracted by San Francisco's booming economy increased church attendance to such a degree that it became clear that Old St. Mary's needed to be enlarged.
In 1929, another fifty feet were added to the structure and the sanctuary was extended enabling the addition of a sacristy, three chapels and a transept. An enlarged seating capacity of over 2,000 made Old St. Mary's the largest church of the time in San Francisco. Beneath the church, a 500 seat auditorium with a stage was constructed. This space would become extremely useful as attendance increased in the ensuing years. A library and a lecture room were added on the Grant Avenue side of the building. The lecture room hosted programs which were open to the public.
A part of the Paulist's ministry at Old St. Mary's involved young people of the parish and throughout the city. The Alemany Club, a religious and social society, was begun in 1911, but it served only the young men of the parish. Several clubs thereafter also targeted only the young men of Old St. Mary's. So in 1940, a new society was founded that was meant for all young people of the parish. This club was named in honor of Father Henry Wyman, the tenacious Paulist Father who had survived some of grimmest years in the parish and had fought to keep Old St. Mary's in its original neighborhood.
World War II
It would have been impossible for Father Paul Ward, who started the Wyman Club, to foresee the role of the organization would soon play in San Francisco. With the entry of the United States into World War II, military service personnel began to pour into the city. Thus, the Wyman Club expanded its purpose to serve the tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines who stopped in the city en route to and from their wartime assignments in the Pacific.
In the two and a half years between March 1944 and September 1946 when it closed its doors for the last time, 450,000 members of the military had visited the center.
It was a safe place to get a cup of coffee, write a letter or eat a meal. The Center provided parties, dances, shows, holiday celebrations and friendly volunteers for conversation.
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The Old Cathedral of Saint Mary