Old St. Mary’s was the first cathedral built in California. The cornerstone was laid in July 1853, just three years after California became a state. The foundation was made of granite quarried and cut in China, and the bricks for the structure were made in New England and brought around Cape Horn as ships’ ballast.
The spectacular new cathedral was completed and dedicated in 1854 at Christmas Midnight Mass. At the time, it was the tallest building in San Francisco as well as the first church named for the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic dogma officially pronounced just two weeks earlier.
During its first 40 years of existence, this church was called St. Mary’s Cathedral. The cathedral was staffed by diocesan priests and headed by Archbishop Alemany, at whose request the cathedral was built.
As the City of San Francisco grew, the area around the cathedral declined. By the late 1880s, the infamous Barbary Coast loomed nearby and houses of prostitution lined the streets only a block away. Archbishop Alemany decided to move the cathedral seat to another location. In 1891, when the new cathedral was completed on Van Ness Avenue, the former cathedral became known as Old St. Mary’s.
Due to excessive demands for diocesan clergy, Old St. Mary’s was placed in the pastoral care of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, or Paulist Fathers, in 1894. The community worked diligently to preserve the church as a place for those seeking peace amidst the surrounding chaos, whether this meant creating the first Catholic Chinese mission or offering a relaxing place for World War II soldiers to enjoy the comforts of home.
The creation of Old St. Mary’s Catholic Chinese Mission was an innovation in the American missionary field. Old St. Mary’s was never intended to become a Chinese parish, but with so many Chinese living in the parish, Paulist Father Henry Wyman asked to establish mission to the Chinese at the 1902 New York meeting of the Paulist Fathers General Chapter. His suggestion was approved, and in 1903 Paulist Father Henry Stark, a San Franciscan by birth, opened the first Chinese mission in America. Father Stark began the mission school with four students.
The Chinese mission today is a self-sustaining body and functions as Holy Family parish, the only Catholic Chinese parish in San Francisco.
A major earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco on April 18, 1906, but Old St. Mary’s stood undamaged. However, a fire resulting from the earthquake raged out of control and raced toward the old cathedral. When the smoke cleared, the entire area had been destroyed, except for Old St. Mary’s which stood gutted but otherwise undaunted amidst the surrounding ruin.
With the United States involvement in World War II, and the increased number of service personnel coming in to San Francisco, there was a need for some place for them to gather, relax, write a letter home or socialize. Many of the servicemen and women asked the Paulists if there was such a place. Rather than have them wander the streets aimlessly, Paulist Father John Diamond created the Old St. Mary’s Service Center.
From its opening on St. Patrick’s Day in 1944 until its closing in September 1946, the service center was “the nearest thing to home in the whole war,” claimed its clientele. From an accurate check on the nightly attendance, a total of 50,000 service personnel came to the center.
Holy Family Chinese Mission was founded in 1903, originally called St. Mary’s Chinese Mission. The chapel at 902 Stockton Street was dedicated to the Holy Family in 1928, and the name was changed Holy Family Chinese Mission in the early 1980’s. Old St. Mary’s and Holy Family officially became one parish with on Sept. 9, 2013.
Fr. Joe Scott, C.S.P.
Fr. Richard Chilson, C.S.P.
Fr. Thomas F. Foley, C.S.P.