by Don Lattin, San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 1997
On June 30, 1994, disheartened parishioners gathered inside All Hallows for what was supposed to be the final Mass at this 111-year- old house of worship. As a final gesture, parishioners placed large bouquets of fresh flowers near the altar and at several small shrines.
For 2 1/2 years, no one touched these final offerings of hope. They stand in dusty vases, dry and defiant, like snapshots in time. Sometime in the next few weeks, fresh flowers will once again adorn the altar at All Hallows, one of three churches quietly reopened under the new leadership of Archbishop William Levada.
All Hallows was one of nine San Francisco churches shut down by former Archbishop John Quinn under a controversial plan to consolidate the city's 54 parishes.
Declining Mass attendance and the cost of seismic retrofitting were blamed for most of the closures. Nevertheless, Quinn's order to ``suppress'' a number of historic parishes sparked a firestorm of protest in churches across the city.
Quinn's action left his successor with the job of deciding what do to with nine suddenly surplus pieces of property -- including the city's first cathedral and the oldest wooden building in San Francisco.
All Hallows and two others will be reopened. Two churches have been sold; one turned into a day care center and upscale townhouses, the other to be converted into a larger condominium complex. One South of Market parish is being used as a police parking lot, with patrol cars leaking oil on playgrounds where Catholic schoolchildren once played.
Some churches stand decaying and neglected with crumbling columns and leaking roofs. Two are stuck in ecclesiastical limbo, awaiting final Vatican action on appeals filed by defiant parishioners.
Churches are more than buildings. They are communities of shared faith and common culture. Those with the strongest bonds survive. Others slowly fade away, unable to withstand the winds of change and the signs of the times. ``Three years is a long time,'' said David Joy, a parishioner at St. Edward the Confessor, one of the two churches stuck in legal limbo. ``We have people from our parish going to nine different churches, some of them Episcopalian. What the archdiocese will find is that it's much easier to close a church than to rebuild a community.''
ALL HALLOWS CHURCH
Archbishop Levada got a crash course on the cultural diversity that is San Francisco when he made his first visit last year to Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Bayview/Hunters Point.
His Sunday morning began with the 8:30 a.m. Mass, featuring the sweet, strong voices of the Samoan choir, part of the Catholic community evicted from All Hallows Church by Archbishop Quinn.
Under the parish consolidation scheme, the All Hallows parishioners were told to relocate to three other parishes in the low-income southeastern corner of San Francisco. Only the Samoan community stuck together and chose Our Lady of Lourdes, where Pastor Kirk Ullery welcomed them and their unique style of worship.
Samoa was evangelized by French missionaries, and their worship combines French elegance and island hospitality. Slow, dignified processions punctuate the Mass. Fresh leis of white and red carnations are carried toward the altar and draped around the necks of honored guests.
All this changes at the 10 a.m. Gospel Mass, an outburst of African American energy more typical of a Baptist than a Catholic congregation. Sounds of hands clapping, voices singing and soulful testimony fill Our Lady of Lourdes Church, a simple wooden chapel adorned with carved wooden beams and stained glass images of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth and other black leaders.
Archbishop Levada ``clapped his hands while the congregation was singing `Can't Stop Praising Him,' '' Ullery said. ``It's one of those songs that keeps going and going, building and building. He got a big laugh out of the congregation when he told them he was wondering if they were going to stop singing, but then realized that the congregation really can't stop praising Him.''
Levada's experience may well have contributed to his decision to reopen All Hallows Church as an auxiliary chapel in the parish. This move (much easier under church law than recreating the old parish) gives the Samoan community its own church and keeps the Gospel Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes.
``Now there will be one parish, but two houses of worship,'' Ullery said. ``I've tried to blend the two congregations, but their style of worship is so different.''
Samoan Catholics are overjoyed with Levada's decision to reopen All Hallows.
``We were hoping and praying for this,'' said parishioner Mario Tuimavave. ``We were close to losing hope.''
ST. BENEDICT CHURCH
Older Roman Catholics of African American descent remember this church from the days when it was thought that ``Negroes'' should have their own Catholic parish. In 1938, the San Francisco Archdiocese purchased an old Victorian home on the corner of Bush and Lyon streets and converted it into a Western Addition church for black Catholics.
By the late 1950s, racial segregation was giving way to a commitment to integration. Newly installed Archbishop Joseph McGucken urged black Catholics to attend regular neighborhood parishes.
In 1962, St. Benedict Church found a new mission as a special parish for the deaf and hearing-impaired. A large gymnasium built behind the church in 1954 for a youth center was remodeled and used for urban retreats by local Catholics in the Cursillo movement, a spiritual renewal program originating in Spain.
Under the recent parish consolidation plan, hearing-impaired Catholics found a new home at St. Francis Xavier Church in Japantown, and their St. Benedict property was sold for $750,000 to create an endowment fund for deaf Catholics.
The Little School, a private day care center, bought the property, remodeled the gym for its new facility, and sold the old Victorian home to a developer who transformed it into two upscale townhouses in ``lower Pacific Heights.'' Listed at $369,000 and $339,000, the two units sold in a single day.
Parishioners at this Irish Catholic fortress at Van Ness and Broadway put up the fiercest battle against Archbishop Quinn's closure order. Led by attorney Robert Bryan, they launched a media campaign and filed appeals with the Vatican Congregation for Clergy and the Vatican court of the Apostolic Signatura. A final decision is still pending.
Parishioners have challenged the archdiocese's estimate that it would cost $5.5 million to retrofit the building to make it earthquake safe.
They continue to post copies of their protest letters on the sturdy wooden door of St. Brigid. One day last month, the faithful hung a new banner across the front of the shuttered church. ``This Is a House of Love Loved,'' it proclaimed. ``Who Can Give Up Such a House?''
ST. EDWARD THE CONFESSOR
Nearly three years of neglect has taken its toll on this church, located on California Street between Laurel and Walnut streets.
``Rain has gotten into the building,'' said parishioner David Joy. ``Unprotected steel columns are beginning to rust. Whether it can still be fixed after three years of neglect is a big question.''
Like the parishioners of St. Brigid, members of St. Edward's church appealed to Rome when their parish was officially ``suppressed.'' According to Joy, they are getting positive signals from the Vatican, in part because their pastor, the late Monsignor Edward Dullea, joined the parishioners in their appeal.
``We were closed because of two words -- `small size,' '' said Joy. ``Both our pastor and parishioners felt we were being treated unjustly.''
While both sides wait for a final decision from Rome, furniture from other closed churches is being stored in St. Edward's basement.
This once-proud church dominates the corner of 10th and Howard streets, its two golden towers rising above the trendy clubs and restaurants of the now chic SOMA district.
Saint Joe has seen better days. Litter is strewn across a small lawn along the side of the church. Its iron fence is a broken, twisted mess. Urine-stained cardboard and an empty peanut butter jar -- evidence of a homeless person who spent the night -- lie beneath its rose window. Police cars are parked in the school playground, and the old school have become temporary police offices. Visitors are greeted by a signed reading ``Authorized Police Personnel Only.''
That's the bad news. The good news is that the old parish complex will soon be put to good use as St. Joseph's Village, a shelter for homeless families and single pregnant women. The old church rectory and convent are expected to be ready for 20 family members by the spring and another 30 in the fall.
An uncertain future faces the old beige church, which must undergo costly retrofitting before it can once again be put to public use.
ST. THOMAS MORE
When this Parkmerced church and parish closed in 1994, declining Mass attendance and changing demographics were cited as the reasons. Attendance at Mass had dropped from 1,600 in 1962 to about 600 in 1994.
Levada quietly reopened the church last September, saying it would serve as a campus ministry for nearby San Francisco State University.
``We aren't technically a parish, but everyone is welcome,'' said campus minister Jack McLean.
At the first Mass last September, a standing-room only crowd filled this cavernous modern church, which is dominated by a giant mural of Jesus standing with outstretched arms.
But one recent Sunday, only about 350 worshipers were present for the main 10 a.m. Mass -- a sparse crowd for such a large church.
Church leaders in San Francisco are indeed learning that it's much easier to destroy a congregation than it is to reconstitute one.
Dwindling Mass attendance was blamed for the 1994 closure of this church, a special parish for Croatian and Slovenian Catholics.
Archbishop Levada reopened the Fell Street church in December, adding a weekly Polish-language Mass to the ethnic mix.
The Rev. Czeslaw Rybacki, the Polish-born priest assigned to the Nativity, said that between 180 and 200 worshipers come to the 11 a.m. Mass, more than in the days when the Polish Mass was celebrated out at St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
``We feel better in this place,'' Rybacki said. ``We are now responsible for this church, and feel like we have a permanent place together.''
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Archbishop Levada saved this North Beach church from the scrap heap of history when he announced early this year that it would soon reopen as a national shrine to St. Francis of Assisi, the city's patron saint. It will be operated by the Franciscan Friars.
``We want to make it a spiritual destination, where people would come to learn about St. Francis,'' said Rev. Allen Ramirez, who is working on the plans. ``What touched people of his time, in the 13th century, was how Francis looked at the world in a more global sense. Francis felt a kind of oneness with things. His brilliant insight was about how materialism could latch onto the human soul. He took a strong stand against that.''
Ramirez, a member of the Conventual Franciscan order in San Luis Obispo County, said the tentative plans call for a multimedia center in the basement of the church that would tell the story of St. Francis and depict the history of the twin- towered landmark.
The first church on the site was built in 1849 by Catholics who disliked the 3 1/2-mile walk to Mission Dolores along a lane that wandered around great sand dunes and dipped into quagmires and brooks.
The first Roman Catholic priests in Northern California were ordained here in the 1850s. Ironically, the first priest ordained at the church, in November 1852, had the same name as the archbishop who closed it down 142 years later -- John Quinn.
The Gothic structure at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Vallejo Street was the city's first cathedral. It was completed in 1860 and restored after it was gutted by fire in the 1906 earthquake.
This imposing stone church on Eddy Street near Divisadero Street was built in 1898, only to have its twin towers knocked down by the 1906 earthquake.
They were soon rebuilt, but earthquake-related problems resurfaced in recent years, when it was learned that Holy Cross needed $3 million worth of seismic retrofitting.
Holy Cross had shut down as a regular parish 10 years ago but remained open as a mission for Korean Catholics. Under the parish consolidation plan, the Koreans moved to St. Michael's Parish, and the property was put up for sale.
Church archivist Jeffrey Burns points out that the most significant building on the property is not the huge stone church, but the structure next to it -- which he said is thought to be the oldest wooden building in San Francisco. It was the original St. Patrick's Church, which once stood where the Palace Hotel on Market Street is today. Built in 1851 and moved in 1872, the old church served as the parish hall.
A group of San Francisco renovators and developers plans to build 40 to 50 market-rate condominium units on the property, which it purchased for $1.1 million.
Spokesman Mike Klestoff said the project will include new buildings as well as having units built inside the stone church and the old parish hall.
``It will be a unique project,'' Klestoff said, ``and tastefully done.''