Archdiocese of San Francisco

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History of the Archdiocese of San Francisco

Original St. Patrick's Church
A Catholic orphan asylum (left) and the original St. Patrick's Church are shown on Market Street in 1854.

In what historian Kevin Starr describes as a "future-oriented" step and a "bold concept," Pope Pius IX established the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco on July 29, 1853. The new Archdiocese of San Francisco, which included boom towns and vast frontiers, extended north to the Oregon-California border; east to the Colorado River in Colorado; and south to the Diocese of Monterey. Named the first Archbishop of San Francisco (1853-1884) was a Dominican priest named Joseph Sadoc Alemany, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Spain and immigrated to the United States in 1840 to work as a missionary in the territories of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. Alemany had been Provincial of the American Dominicans for two years when he was named Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey in 1850. Initially, Alemany was reluctant to come to California, but Pope Pius IX told him, "Where others are drawn by gold, you must carry the cross."

At its foundation and throughout its history, the Archdiocese of San Francisco has been “an immigrant Church. Building on an existing contingency of Spanish-speaking Catholics, early immigrants to the region included Irish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese Catholics. In the first three decades of its existence, the Archdiocese of San Francisco under the leadership of Archbishop Alemany built up an extensive system of schools, orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the elderly, and other institutions of charity. These Catholic institutions could not have existed without the heroic efforts of many religious orders of women. By 1884, the Catholic Church was firmly established in San Francisco and northern California. In no small part, Dominican Sisters, Notre Dame de Namur Sisters, Sisters of Charity, Presentation Sisters, Mercy Sisters, and the homegrown Sisters of the Holy Family, and women of other religious congregations formed the safety net of social services and built a continuing legacy of Catholic Education. Meanwhile, the priests of the Jesuit, Dominican, Salesian, Paulist, and Franciscan religious orders of men were prominent in the expansion of parochial and educational institutions of the Archdiocese.

St Patrick Seminary 1898
St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park is shown in 1898 when the facility for educating and training priests was completed.

In the 1890s, the Church in San Francisco began to feel the attacks of the anti-Catholic American Protective Association (APA). In 1894, a controversy was ignited when Catholics complained of anti-Catholic textbooks being used in public schools. A diocesan priest, Father Peter Yorke, who was then editor of the Archdiocesan newspaper, The Monitor, emerged as the great defender of Catholic interests as he published a series of exposes on the APA and engaging in public debates. Yorke also played a key role as a labor activist. In the Teamsters' Strike of 1901, Yorke placed the Catholic Church of San Francisco firmly on the side of labor, making impassioned speeches to thousands of workers. He said, "As a priest my duty is with the working people, who are struggling for their rights, because that is the historical position of the priesthood and because that is the Lord's command."

 

Old Cathedral of St Mary after 1906 Quake
Following the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco is engulfed in flames. Old St. Mary's is shown in foreground.

On the morning of April 18, 1906, the City of San Francisco and the surrounding area felt the impact of an earthquake estimated to be 8.4 on the Richter scale. Fires burned in the city for three days after the earthquake. Hundreds lost their lives and a quarter of a million San Franciscans were left homeless, while scores of Catholic churches and schools were heavily damaged. The second Archbishop of San Francisco (1884-1914) Patrick Riordan visited the people living in temporary camps and celebrated open-air Mass, assuring the people, "We shall rebuild." In a dramatic public speech, Archbishop Riordan asserted the words of St. Paul, "’I am a citizen of no mean city,’ although it is in ashes. Almighty God has fixed this as the location of a great city. The past is gone, and there is no lamenting over it. Let us look to the future and without regard to creed or place of birth, work together in harmony for the upbuilding of a greater San Francisco."

KezarStadium1930s
Spiritual devotion of local Catholics in the 1930s included Christ the King celebrations at Kesar Stadium.

The years of the third Archbishop of San Francisco, Edward J. Hanna (1915-35), saw continued growth in California and the ravages of the Great Depression. Hanna continued the tradition of Archbishops who fostered Church growth and advanced the cause of Catholicism in the region. He also gained wide acceptance and praise from all religious denominations and civic and labor leaders. Historian Father Robert Gribble notes that Hanna was active as a servant of the American Catholic Church, and also participated in local, state, and national affairs to a great extent. Consistent with the social teaching of the Catholic Church as outlined in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Hanna in a 1916 Labor Day speech promoted workers and organized labor. Still, all side respected him. The Archdiocese grew by nearly three-dozen schools and nearly four-dozen parishes during his tenure.

Archbishop Riordan High Statue Blessing
Blessing of a statue at Archbishop Riordan High School in 1955 symbolizes the post-World War II growth in parishes, churches and schools.

The fourth Archbishop of San Francisco (1935-1961), John J. Mitty, came to California by a circuitous route. Born in New York City and orphaned at the age of 14, he completed his studies for the priesthood in New York State and went on to receive a doctorate from the Lateran College in Rome, where he also taught. With America's entry into World War I, Mitty served as a military chaplain with the U.S. Army in France. After the war, he was a pastor of a Bronx parish before being named Bishop of Salt Lake City, where he served for six years. In 1932, Mitty was named Coadjutor Archbishop of San Francisco and became Archbishop three years later. Mitty's greatest achievement was the creation of a highly motivated, well-trained diocesan clergy, which he boasted was the equal of any religious order of men.

On January 13, 1962, the Dioceses of Oakland, Santa Rosa and Stockton were established from areas previously part of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. In 1881, the Diocese of Sacramento had been formed and the Diocese of San Jose was created in 1981. The Diocese of San Francisco now encompasses the Counties of San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo. The Archdiocese of San Francisco that welcomed the fifth Archbishop of San Francisco, Joseph T. McGucken (1962-1977), was one that was rapidly changing.
Appointed by Pope John XXIII and installed in April 1962, Archbishop McGucken faced the task early on of building a new St. Mary's Cathedral to replace the cathedral on Van Ness Avenue that had burned five months after his arrival. During his tenure many new parishes and schools were opened as growth of the Catholic population continued. Continuing its tradition as an immigrant church, the Archdiocese of San Francisco saw a large influx of Catholics from the Philippines, Mexico and Latin America, Korea, Japan. Vietnam, Hong Kong and Africa.

John Paul II Candelstick Park 1987
Pope John Paul II waves to more than 70,000 Catholics gathered for Mass at Candlestick Park in September 1987

Archbishop John R. Quinn (1977-1995) became the Sixth Archbishop of San Francisco on February 22, 1977, beginning an eventful eighteen-year tenure marked by attention to major social issues of the day as well as international events. Archbishop Quinn’s leadership firmly placed the Catholic Church of San Francisco squarely on the side of the poor, the displaced, the sick, and the powerless. In 1987, Pope John Paul II made a visit to San Francisco and his activities included a Mass at Candlestick Park attended by 70,000 Catholics. In the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, which left damaged a number of churches and schools, the Archdiocese engaged in a pastoral planning process designed to renew the local Church for the new Millennium. Implementation of the Pastoral Plan in 1993-95 led to new initiatives, but also was marked by the painful process of closing a dozen parishes.

In August 1995, Portland Archbishop William J. Levada was named Coadjutor Archbishop of San Francisco. Following the retirement of Archbishop Quinn on December 27, 1995, he became the Seventh Archbishop of San Francisco (1995-2005). The new leader of the San Francisco Archdiocese found creative uses for some of the churches that had been closed: establishing St. Francis of Assisi Church in North Beach as a National Shrine to the archdiocese’s patron saint; creating St. Joseph’s Village for homeless mothers and their children; and reopening several churches as chapels or missions.

Archbishop Levada Jubilee Mass 2000
Jubilee Year Mass is celebrated by Archbishop William Levada at the new ballpark of the San Francisco Giants in October 2000.

Pope John Paul II declared the year 2000 a year of Jubilee in preparation for the new millennium. The highlight of the Jubilee Year activities in the Archdiocese of San Francisco was a Mass celebrated at the newly constructed baseball park that is home of the San Francisco Giants. On Sunday, October 28, 2000, more than 32,000 Catholics braved storms and heavy rain conditions to exuberantly join in celebration of the Eucharist with Archbishop William Levada and other clergy. The Mass was preceded by an extraordinary celebration of the ethnic diversity in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Representatives from parishes made a procession into the park, ethnic dancers performed on the outfield grass, and the Archdiocesan multicultural choir sang, "Celebrate – We have a Feast." In 2003, Msgr. Ignatius Wang was appointed Auxiliary Bishop Of San Francisco, becoming the first Chinese-born priest to be named a U.S. Bishop.

Following the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005, the College of Cardinals elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as his successor. The new pope took the name Benedict XVI, and one of his first major decisions was the appointment of San Francisco Archbishop William Levada as his replacement as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In August 2005, Archbishop Levada left northern California to take up his duties at the Vatican and San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop John C. Wester was named interim Apostolic Administrator. On February 15, 2006, the Eighth Archbishop of San Francisco, George H. Niederauer, was installed at a Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral. Archbishop Niederauer served as Bishop of Salt Lake City for 11 years before coming to San Francisco. Armed with a special rapport with clergy and a great concern for the laity, Archbishop Niederauer’s attention also included the cause of just treatment for undocumented immigrants as a national debate considered this issue. On July 27, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone as ninth Archbishop of San Francisco, and on October 4, 2012, he was installed as Archbishop at St. Mary's Cathedral.
 
Sources for these notes include “A History of the Archdiocese of San Francisco” by Jeffrey M. Burns, PhD, and “Catholic San Francisco Sesquicentennial Essays,” which was edited by Dr. Jeffrey M. Burns.

 

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