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.
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.
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.
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
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).