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Old Saint Marys Cathedral
Dec 2010 David Yu

Old Saint Mary's Cathedral

San Francisco

Welcome to Old Saint Mary's Cathedral

Celebrating 156 Years as California's First Cathedral (Roman Catholic Church)

Old Saint 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 mad in New England and brought around Cap Horn as ship's 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 before.

During its first forty years of existence this church was called Saint 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 the 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 know as Old Saint Mary's.

Due to the excessive demands for the diocesan clergy, in 1894 Old Saint Mary's was placed in the care of Missionary Society of St Paul the Apositle, also knowns as the Paulists. The community worked diligently to preserved 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 creating of Old Saint Mary's Catholic Chinese Mission was an innovation in the American missionary field. Old Saint Mary's was never intended to become a Chinese parish. But with so many Chinese living in the parish, Paulist fathers General Chapter, to establish a mission to the Chinese. This suggestion was approved, and in 1930 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-sustained 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 Saint 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 Saint Mary's which stood gutted but otherwise undaunted amidst the surrounding ruin.

The original exterior structure, surprisingly uncompromised by the fire, was saved and the interior restored and rededicated in1909. With the sin and scandal of the neighborhood destroyed, Old Saint Mary's could concentrate on building its outreach and ministry.

With the United States involvement in the Wold War II and the increased number of service personnel coming into San Francisco, there was a need for some place for them to gather, relax, write a letter home, or socialize. Many of these servicemen and women had asked the Paulists if there was a such a place. Rather than have them wander the streets aimlessly, Paulist Father John Dimond created the Old Saint Mary's Service Center.

From Its Opening on Saint 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 participants. From an accurate check on the nightly attendance, a total of 450,000 service personnel came to the Center.


Today, Old Saint Mary's continues to be a vital part of the community.It is living monument to the part as well as a legacy for our future.

Thank you for visiting today. We look forward to welcoming you on your next visit to San Francisco :D


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Alain Boussac05-Jan-2011 16:32
Remarkable image. V.