Cathedrals of California, A Virtual Pilgrimage

St. Mary’s Cathedral I: History

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

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4 Responses to “St. Mary’s Cathedral I: History”

  1. M.J. Ernst-Sandoval Says:

    Happy Easter! ¡Feliz Pascua!

  2. Scott Says:

    I wish I could see pictures of St. Mary’s interior. All the photos I’ve seen are from the exterior.

  3. Kitty Burns Says:

    I remember vaguely the interior looked much like the interior of Old St Mary’s after the renovation. I went to first grade up the hill at Cathedral Presentation School and was baptized by Bishop Donahue in 1957.

  4. Paul Arten Says:

    St Mary’s on Van Ness was beautiful. Beautiful marbel altars. Nothing like the ugly new cathedral. They say there was plans for athe new cathedral that were
    scrapped…. It was not as modern as the present cathedral…what a shame.

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