Cathedrals of California, A Virtual Pilgrimage

What Happened to This Project?

August 15th, 2009

You may be wondering why there are no recent posts on this project. The reason is simple; I am heavily involved in completing my first book, to be published by Paulist Press in November. Entitled Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation, it is a contemporary, visual overview of Christianity in a full-color magazine-style format. It’s available now for pre-order at

You can appreciate that writing this book, undergoing a theological review, researching and selecting over 100 images, negotiating image rights AND designing the entire book took a great deal of time! It is pretty much complete now and should be shortly delivered to the printer.

Once the smoke has cleared from Ascend, Francesco and I plan to pick up this project again.

The Light Through The Door

May 7th, 2008

The Light Through The Door

Tags: , , ,

St. Steven’s Cathedral III

May 1st, 2008


Tags: , , ,

Holy Cross Cathedral IV

April 29th, 2008

Holy Cross II - The Candles And The Profile

Tags: , , , , , ,

St. Steven’s Cathedral II: The Apse and Brushfire

April 29th, 2008

The apse and the fire - St. Stevens Cathedral II

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways, and so for the Easter vigil He gave us a majestic spectacle made of fire. As you can observe in the following photograph, there is a fire outlining the landscape. Above, the Moon reigns with its light…almost as if attentively watching after the church. On the right side you can see the apse of the structure penetrate the gardens.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Orthodox Easter at St. Steven’s Cathedral

April 28th, 2008

Francesco, Jimmy and I had the great pleasure of documenting the Great Easter Vigil at St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Alhambra on Saturday night. It was a splendid liturgy in a beautiful space. As you can see, Francesco has already started posting photos. Watch as more photos are posted and we offer our usual background, which in the case of St. Steven’s promises to be most unusual!

Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!

Tags: , ,

St. Steven’s Cathedral I

April 28th, 2008

St. Stevens Cathedral

Tags: , , , ,

St. Mary’s Cathedral I: History

February 20th, 2008

Original plan of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

Original plan for St. Mary’s Cathedral with spire, circa 1853

On January 8, 1880, San Francisco’s beloved local character Emperor Norton dropped dead in front of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. It was in some way the end of an era for the city and the cathedral of the Roman Catholic archdiocese.

The story began in 1851 when Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany arrived in California as bishop of Monterey-Los Angeles. He used the San Carlos presido chapel there as his pro-cathedral. In 1853 Alemany moved the pro-cathedral St. Francis Church on Vallejo Street when the Archdiocese of San Francisco was established. At the time, St. Francis and Mission Dolores were the only Catholic churches in the city. It was at St. Francis Church, then a small wooden structure, that Alemany was first welcomed as bishop. On that occasion, he spoke in English, Spanish and French; from the very beginning, ethnic diversity was a given in California.

Of course the cathedral for the diocese was to have been in Santa Barbara, but the grand plans of Bishop Thaddeus Amat never amounted to more than foundational stones being dragged to the proposed site. But plans were already afoot to build a great cathedral for San Francisco even as the archdiocese was established. The land was given by a prominent layman, John Sullivan, amid the usual criticism that the site was too far from the center of the city. Sullivan also gave land for Calvary Cemetery, St. Mary’s College on Larkin Street, Presentation Convent at Powell and Lombard, built Old St. Patrick (later the pro-cathedral) and dutifully supported many other Catholic institutions of the city. When Sullivan’s home was destroyed by fire in 1850, Bishop Alemany wrote him, “I can never forget the first $20 dollar gold piece I received in San Francisco was from your dear wife. Here is $5,000; take it, build up your houses. Repay me when you can.”

Architects William Crane and John England were retained to design the gothic revival church, originally envisioned to have a tall steeple, which was never completed. Many San Francisco residents were surprised when they answered a knock at the door to find the archbishop on their doorstep, asking for gifts to build St. Mary’s Cathedral; Alemany himself went door to door to raise the funds.

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral circa 1856

Old St. Mary’s Cathedal circa 1856

The foundation of St. Mary’s was begun and the cornerstone laid in 1853 at California and DuPont (now Grant Avenue) Streets. The stones for the foundation were cut and quarried in China. Brick was imported from New England around the horn, and local lumber was bought at highly inflated gold rush prices. To raise funds, pews were rented by auction, a common practice at the time.

Work continued feverishly through Christmas Eve of 1854, when workers were shooed out late in the evening so that the dedication could occur. The new cathedral was filled beyond capacity and a huge throng spilled out onto California Street, with rowdy San Franciscans literally hanging from the rafters of the unfinished church, their boots dangling above the crowded nave. A full orchestra provided the music for the dedication liturgy—Haydn’s Mass no. 3. Even without the steeple originally envisioned, St. Mary’s Cathedral was the tallest building west of the Mississippi and the pride of San Francisco. The full title of the church was the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception; the first cathedral church in the world to bear that title, as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been defined by Pius IX only 17 days before the cathedral’s dedication. It was the first church to be built as a cathedral in California.

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral circa 1870

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral circa 1870

As Civil War loomed, a controversy erupted in San Francisco over a practice that came to be known as the “flagging of churches.” The churches of the city competed with each other to raise enormous American flags to demonstrate their solidarity with the Union. This hyper-patriotic frenzy reached its peak on July 4, 1861. Newspaper editorials called on Archbishop Alemany to follow suit and display the flag in St. Mary’s Cathedral. Alemany refused. He felt the flag did not belong in a building dedicated to the worship of God.

As the city continued its exponential growth, it became apparent that a new cathedral was needed. Archbishop Alemany once again began raising funds for a new cathedral. His new coadjutor, Bishop Patrick Riordan, had been ordained bishop in Chicago in 1883. The weary Alemany—who had been begging for retirement for years—entrusted the bulk of the project to Riordan, who was named archbishop of San Francisco in 1884, much to Alemany’s relief. On May 24, 1885, Alemany wept as he celebrated his last mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, and shortly thereafter he returned to his native Spain.

The second St. Mary’s Cathedral

The second St. Mary’s Cathedral

The cornerstone for the new Romanesque Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was laid in 1890 at the corner of Van Ness and O’Farrell in the Tenderloin District. The Chicago architectural firm of Egan and Prindeville designed the red-brick structure. Among their existing works is St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh (1906). Archbishop Riordan declined to live in the humble two-room shack Alemany had called home, and moved to the rectory of St. John the Baptist on Eddy Street while construction of the new cathedral was underway. When the new cathedral was dedicated in 1891, that parish was suppressed and its territory became a part of the cathedral parish. Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was given to the Paulists in 1894 to run as a parish church.

The second St. Mary’s Cathedral

The second St. Mary’s Cathedral

On the morning of April 18, 1906 an enormous earthquake shook the city. This singular event in California history wold destroy much of the city; what had not crumbled in the first temblor was likely destroyed by fires that raged throughout the city for four days. At Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, there was little damage; the cross and pediment fell from the tower, some finials fell inside, some buttresses were damaged. As a precaution, the sacred vessels, vestments and some furnishings were sent to residences on Nob Hill for safekeeping; a move that was to prove a mistake. About noon that day the flames begin to approach Old St. Mary’s. For several hours the faithful fought flames, but eventually they ran out of water and could only watch as the venerable church burned. Only the brick walls remained; the stained glass was melted and the marble high altar had turned to dust.

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in ruins after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906

The new cathedral, however, had narrowly escaped destruction when the pastor and sexton climbed the tower to extinguish the flames that had broken out in the belfry. As one of the few remaining structures following the Great Earthquake and Fire, St. Mary’s Cathedral became a center of relief in the devastated city, feeding up to 2,000 people each day in the aftermath of the disaster.

St. Mary’s Cathedral in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake

Lines of hungry people up to one mile long form in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906

It was decided that as the brick exterior of Old St. Mary’s was left largely intact after the earthquake and fire, the church would be rebuilt around the ruins. Thomas J. Welsh was retained as architect of the rebuilding. In 1909 the proto-cathedral was rededicated by Archbishop Riordan. A renovation in 1925 increased its capacity from 700 to 1300.

Interior of Old St. Mary’s circa 1927

Interior of Old St. Mary’s after the 1925 remodeling

In 1902 the Chinese Mission was established at Old St. Mary’s, which was then in the middle of Chinatown–the first such outreach in the United States. English was taught to Chinese immigrants in the church basement and native Chinese sisters arrived to provide social services, healthcare, work for the unemployed, immigration assistance, and lunch service for children, all with the dedicated support of the Paulists.

Old St. Mary’s in the middle of Chinatown

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in the middle of Chinatown

Both the proto-cathedral and the new cathedral on Van Ness continued to serve the city until September 6, 1962, when the new cathedral was destroyed by fire. The cathedra itself escaped destruction and was moved to Mission Dolores, where it remained until 1979, when it was placed in the chapel of Holy Cross Mausoleum in Colma.

As the “new” cathedral was destroyed, the city of San Francisco began its third effort to build a cathedral. It fell to Archbishop Joseph McGucken to construct what would become perhaps the most significant cathedral built in the United States in the 20th Century, high atop a hill above the intersection of Geary Boulevard and Gough Street in the Western Addition, overlooking the City of St. Francis. As principal architect, McGucken chose Pier Luigi Nervi, the eminent Italian modernist architect whose unique vision vivified the cathedral design, and Boston architect Pietro Belluschi, who worked with local architects Angus McSweeney, Paul A. Ryan and John Michael Lee.

The new Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was dedicated on May 5, 1971 and includes in its complex a large plaza, high school, faculty residence, rectory, conference center, parish hall, a museum and underground parking. The hyperbolic paraboloid rises to the shape of a cross outlined in stained glass 189 feet high, the equivalent of an 18-story building—about the same height as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. From the clear glass windows of the cathedral one may look out on a stunning panorama view of the entire city of St. Francis, a city whose symbol is a phoenix, the mythical bird who rose triumphant from the ashes.

The steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral

On the steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Forgotten Diocese and the Spurned Cathedral

January 31st, 2008

Bishop Eugene O’Connell of Grass Valley

One day in the beginning of the 1850 academic year, a scholarly professor at All Hallows College in Dublin welcomed a guest speaker to his class. The visitor was Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, a Spanish Dominican on his way to his new post as bishop of the far-away missionary diocese of Monterey. He talked to the seminarians about the need for priests in California. He must have been persuasive, for the professor himself became one of the hundreds of Irish priests who would journey to that far-off land to minister.

He was Eugene O’Connell, and upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1851, Bishop Alemany put him in charge of the struggling diocesan seminary at Mission Santa Inés. Father O’Connell moved the seminary to Mission Dolores shortly thereafter, where he also served as the pastor of St. Francis Church in San Francisco’s North Beach district. After serving a few years in the missions, O’Connell returned to his quiet life as a scholar in Dublin.

Imagine his surprise six years later when he received a letter from Rome appointing him bishop of the Vicariate of Marysville in California. Alemany had been named the first archbishop of San Francisco, and at the same time Marysville had been selected as the seat of a vicariate under San Francisco. If the 45-year-old O’Connell was able to find a map in Dublin that would show Marysville, he would have discovered it in Yuba County, and his territory covered all of Northern California and half of Nevada — sixteen counties in all.

His vast rural ministry was strenuous, and he approached it with great dedication and a sense of humor. But in 1868, only eight years after his ordination as bishop, he received another letter from Rome which was as puzzling to him as the first was shocking. He had been appointed first bishop of a new diocese covering his area with its episcopal seat in the small town of Grass Valley in Nevada County. Bishop O’Connell was only slightly more acquainted with Grass Valley than we are, and he did not like what he knew. He said it was more a rocky hill than a grassy valley. Furthermore, he felt it was a ridiculous name for a diocese. What was wrong with Marysville? It was, he felt, much more suitable as a diocesan seat and a more appropriate name for a diocese.

St. Patrick Church in Grass Valley

St. Patrick Church, Grass Valley, designated as the cathedral

O’Connell made his opinion known to Rome, but to no avail. So with a frontier mentality, he refused to take possession of St. Patrick Church in Grass Valley, designated as his cathedral, and instead established St. Joseph Church in Marysville as his pro-cathedral. The Diocese of Grass Valley, he said, was a “legal fiction.” He signed his correspondence — even to Rome — as “Bishop of Marysville,” where he continued to reside.

St. Joseph Pro-cathedral, Marysville

St. Joseph Pro-cathedral, Marysville

After nearly 25 years serving the people of his diocese, Bishop O’Connell retired in 1884 and was happy to serve out his remaining days as a simple chaplain to a house of religious women in Los Angeles.

The second bishop of Grass Valley was the witty Patrick Manogue, an Irish immigrant who came to the Mother Lode area to try his luck as a gold miner and later was ordained a priest. After only two years as bishop of Grass Valley, Bishop Manogue achieved what Bishop O’Connell had been unable to do; he had the seat of the diocese moved. Grass Valley became the new Diocese of Sacramento in 1886, and Manogue moved there to become its first bishop. Almost immediately he began work there on the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Diocese of Grass Valley existed for only 18 years, and is the only California diocese to be relegated to the status of a titular see (first and current holder is Christie Macaluso, auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Conn.). It has become largely a footnote in the story of how diocesan boundaries were frequently revised throughout the history of the Catholic Church in California to better serve the People of God. And Bishop O’Connell would no doubt feel Sacramento is a much more suitable name for the area he ministered to for so long.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

St. John’s Cathedral, Fresno I: History

January 30th, 2008

In 1872 the Central Pacific Railroad began construction on a railroad depot in a place it called Fresno, thus beginning one of the main cities of the Central Valley. By 1874 it had become the county seat. The handful of Catholic families in the area were served by St. Mary’s Church in Visalia, which was established in 1861. They met for services in the home of Russell H. Fleming, the town’s first postmaster, beginning in 1873.

Fleming Residence

By 1878 these pioneering Catholics began a drive to raise funds for a church building at M and Fresno streets. The Central Pacific Railroad donated two lots, and Bishop Francisco Mora of Monterey-Los Angeles promised to buy two adjoining lots for the construction of the church when he visited the town and celebrated Mass at Magnolia Place that year.

Magnolia Place

Construction on the Church of St. John the Baptist began in early 1880. Joseph Spinney of Fresno, a local brick maker, was the contractor. The church was completed in November 1880, and its impressive 90-foot-high steeple was visible from far and wide, the highest point for miles around. The church was dedicated May 21, 1882 by Bishop Mora with a full schedule of Masses and confirmations as well, becoming Fresno’s first parish. Its territory was carved out of the Visalia parish, which then covered the entire San Joaquin Valley. At the time, there were only five Catholic families in Fresno.

View of Fresno, 1882

The first St. John’s Church in an 1882 view of Fresno. To its upper right is St. James’ Episcopal Church, whose successor would become the Episcopal cathedral.

By 1902 it was clear that a larger church building was needed for the fast-growing town. On March 30, the last Easter services were held in old church and demolition began immediately. The plan was to build the new church on the site of the old one, but that quickly changed. A new site was chosen at R and Mariposa streets. Parishioners objected, saying the new location was too far from the center of town. Nevertheless, the far-sighted pastor prevailed, and architect Thomas Bermingham drew up plans for a Gothic Romanesque church to seat 600. The cornerstone was laid on August 3, 1902 and the school chapel was used for Mass during construction.

First services were held in the new church on Easter Sunday 1903 and it was dedicated by Archbishop George Montgomery on June 7, 1903.

Interior of St. John’s Cathedral in 1952.

Interior of St. John’s Cathedral in 1952

In 1922 the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles was split into the Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego and the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno, with St. John’s becoming the cathedral of the new Diocese of Monterey-Fresno. In 1924, John McGinley took possession of the new cathedra in St. John’s as its first bishop. California’s growth continued unabated, and in 1967 there was a further split, with Timothy Manning becoming the first bishop of the new Diocese of Fresno.

Through all these years, the cathedral named for the cousin of Jesus and built too far away from the center of town continued to stand in what became downtown Fresno, eventually anchoring a beautiful historic district that is a source of great civic pride. It is the oldest church building in Fresno. Born from St. Mary’s Church in Visalia, St. John’s continued to give birth to other congregations, including St. Alphonsus (1905), Our Lady of Victory (1919, later changed to St. Therese — the first church in the world to be named for the Little Flower), St. Genevieve Chinese Mission (1938), Sacred Heart (1947), Our Lady of Victory (1950) and Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1955).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,