San Francisco, CA, USA

Old St. Mary's, San Francisco, CA, USA

Although Roman Catholics had been present in San Francisco since the Spanish first settled here it was not until 1850 that it became part of the Monterey Diocese – the same year California joined the United States.

The first Bishop, Joseph Sadoc Alemany was born in Vich, Spain and decided that San Francisco would be the seat of his Bishopric. So in 1853 the cornerstone was laid and the church began to take shape. The architects were William Craine and Thomas England and they designed the church to resemble the church in the Bishop’s hometown in Spain.

At Christmas Midnight Mass in 1854 the Cathedral was dedicated, having been completed just three hours earlier! However, it was soon found that this Cathedral was in a poor and crime-ridden part of town and so in 1881 Bishop Alemany decided to move the Cathedral to a new, better-heeled part of town. Having done this he retired to Spain where he died in 1888. His successor oversaw construction of New St. Mary’s Cathedral and in 1891 the seat of the Bishop moved there.

This left Old St. Mary’s in the middle of what was one of the most dangerous and grimy places in California. Chinatown then was not the brightly coloured tourist hot-spot it is today – anyone who has walked a few blocks back off the main drag can get some idea of what it was once like.

In 1894 the Paulist Fathers moved to Old St. Mary’s and it became their California headquarters. As the Chinese Community continued to grow and the power of the tongs became absolute the Paulists decided to open a Chinese Mission based in Old St. Mary’s to minister to the needs of the blighted community here.

This was interrupted, like everything else in San Francisco, by the 1906 earthquake which, in just 45 seconds, moved everything west of the San Andreas Fault in the whole of California 16 feet in a northerly direction. The Church was not damaged much in the earthquake but the fires which erupted across the city immediately afterwards reduced it to a smoking ruin – the fire was so hot it melted not only the bells of the church, but even the marble altar.

A debate then sparked as to what to do next. Should the Church be rebuilt or pulled down, moved or stay in the same place. After a year it was decided to rebuild.

An ironic consequence of the earthquake is that it destroyed the slums and bordellos of the old Chinatown and when the new one was built it was a much more open and airy district. The power of the tongs began to wane and by 1909 the Chinese Mission in Old St. Mary’s was back in business, the church having been rebuilt in almost identical fashion to the one which was gutted after the earthquake.

In 1929 the Church was enlarged to a capacity of 2,000 and it became San Francisco’s largest. During World War II the church was frequented by the military after San Francisco became an important port during the war against Japan.

Today the Church stands proudly in the centre of the thriving and bustling Chinatown District.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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