A New Site for a New Church

Months earlier, on December 23, 1906, Archbishops Riordan and Montgomery dedicated the 500-seat temporary church, located in the college hall. “We have come today to bless a new church,” said Riordan after blessing the interior walls. “It is not like the old one, spacious and beautiful. St. Ignatius has lost a splendid building, a noble college, a great library. But that is all. The spirit that was behind those things is not lost, and, out of that spirit will come grander achievements in the future. And so we can say that we have a nobler temple than the old one.”10 In the months that followed, San Franciscans would flock to this new church. By the end of 1907, the SI Jesuits determined that they had distributed communion 68,000 times that year.

Earlier, as the paint was drying on the Shirt Factory, SI administrators were looking to their next site. On November 16, 1906, they made a final payment of $102,659 on the “Frieden block” (the block bounded by Cole, Grove, Shrader and Fulton Streets). Soon, however, it became apparent that the property’s steep slope would add to construction costs. A 46-foot difference existed between Fulton and Grove Streets, and bulkheads and retaining walls would cost $40,000 alone.

Several individuals, including John E. Pope, a San Francisco civil engineer, urged the Jesuits to sell the Frieden block and purchase old cemetery land, owned by the Masonic Cemetery Association, north of Fulton Street and east of Parker Avenue. The Association was in the process of moving its graves to Colma as part of a citywide effort to relocate all cemeteries outside the city limits. The cemetery site was level and 350 feet higher in elevation than the Grove Street site, allowing the new church to become a city landmark. Pope advised the Jesuits that owners of lots on that block were willing to sell and that the land could be purchased for the same amount as the value of the Frieden block.

(Members of the Cemetery Protective Association, incidentally, were opposed to the sale of the land, even as late as 1928, shortly before the construction of the first college building. According to a May 31, 1928, story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the group planned “a determined fight to halt the sale of the old Masonic Cemetery property to St. Ignatius College and also to prevent the removal of bodies from the Old Odd Fellows’ Cemetery.” The group did not win its fight. Peter Devine ’66 recalls that his father and uncle helped to clear out the broken tombstones from this cemetery that remained after the caskets had been removed. The Jesuits had students do this to fulfill the state’s physical education requirement and to prepare the land for construction. “These PE classes usually ended up in rock fights,” Devine said.)

Despite strong objections by a group of older Italian Jesuits who preferred the Frieden block, two events helped to secure the Parker and Fulton property: the replacement of Frieden with Fr. Joseph Sasia, SJ, as the school’s new president in 1908 and John Pope’s persistent lobbying. Finally, in March 1909, Sasia agreed to sell the Frieden block and spent $138,590 on the new site, measuring 275 by 510 feet. The Jesuits broke ground on the new church in an informal ceremony on December 8, 1910, 61 years to the day after the arrival of Accolti and Nobili to the shores of San Francisco. Sasia, who was infamous for his long sermons, gave a surprisingly brief address during that dedication, after “a sudden gust of wind swept away his manuscript to the four corners of the property.”11

St. Ignatius Church was formally dedicated on August 2, 1914; at that time, it was the largest church in San Francisco, able to seat 2,000 worshipers, surpassed only in 1971 with the construction of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Some critics charged that the construction and decoration costs for St. Ignatius Church delayed the building of a new college. Others countered, according to McGloin, that “such a church is the truest classroom of a Catholic University for, within its walls, have been taught the most significant lessons of all — those involving eternal truths.”12

What is beyond argument is that the church has become one of San Francisco’s most beautiful landmarks, visible from most corners of the city. Elsie Robinson, a columnist for the Hearst chain of newspapers praised the beauty of St. Ignatius Church in a column that ran in many newspapers in the 1940s:

“From where I live, high on the hills of San Francisco, I look across a deep valley and other hills to one which tops them all, and there, tall and gleaming in beauty, rise the spires of St. Ignatius. To you who may not know San Francisco, St. Ignatius is one of our oldest and most beautiful churches and colleges. But to us, who live near it daily, those twin spires mean far more. Whatever your creed, they are a symbol of all that is best and bravest in city life. Before they were built, the hill on which they stand was merely sand dunes, littered with rubbish, ugly and forsaken. Then the city began to spread and the vision of men spread with it. And out of that vision came these lovely spires. In the adjacent schoolrooms many a civic leader has been trained. And only God knows how many shamed and bleeding hearts have found comfort before its soaring altar. When the great storms sweep out of the Pacific, darkening the town, or the fog veils the valley in blue mist, I like to look towards those gleaming spires which seem to float in another world.”13

Students of St. Ignatius High School attended a monthly First Friday Mass at the church and made their confessions there, too. Members of the Sanctuary Society assisted priests as altar boys, and, starting in 1936, seniors celebrated their commencement exercises in that church. All those who marched up its center aisle during these ceremonies sensed the importance of the moment thanks, in large part, to this vast and glorious house of prayer. Today, St. Ignatius Church serves not only SI and USF, but also the people of San Francisco as one of the newest parishes in the archdiocese.