In 1873, Bayma stepped down as president, and the next two presidents — Fr. Aloysius Masnata, SJ, and Fr. John Pinasco, SJ — began making plans to move the school and church westward to Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue, the present site of the Louise Davies Symphony Hall.
For all the success of the school, the Jesuits were fearful of losing SI College. Property taxes on Market Street, already at $12,000 per year, kept climbing as the property rose in value, and the school’s debt kept growing along with it. SI needed to move to stay alive, and it had to act fast when property became available. However, the Jesuits ran into a rather formidable roadblock in the person of Archbishop Alemany, who opposed the move on the grounds that any new church would lure parishioners away from the second site of the Cathedral, planned for Van Ness and Geary (and dedicated in 1891), and from neighboring churches, especially St. Joseph’s, which would soon move to larger quarters at 10th and Howard Streets.
The Jesuits needed to do something to continue their ministry in San Francisco. In desperation, they sent Varsi to Rome to seek permission with the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which had all U.S. churches under its jurisdiction. Varsi eventually met with its prefect, Cardinal Franchi, who had the final say in the matter. “Varsi submitted maps of San Francisco to the Cardinal, indicating two lots which were located closer to Market Street than the site ultimately selected. [The Cardinal’s answer] which was to afflict Alemany and to cause him to renew his opposition to the move [was] ‘Facciano pure’ (Let them by all means.)”31
Even with permission from the Cardinal, the Jesuits knew they had a fight ahead of them. To give Varsi more stature in facing Alemany, Beckx appointed him superior of the California Jesuit mission in October 1877. He returned to San Francisco, bringing with him 13 Jesuits from Europe and the East Coast. (More on this in the next section.)
Shortly after Varsi’s return, land owned by D.J. Oliver became available in the Western Addition. The Jesuits paid $200,000 for a city block of land bordered by Van Ness Avenue, Hayes, Franklin and Grove Streets on October 29, 1877. The figure was high for its day, but the land was about to be sold in subdivisions, prompting the quick decision by the Jesuits to purchase the property.
Even with Vatican permission and with the sale a fait accompli, Varsi waited nearly a year before writing to Alemany to seek local permission. In a letter dated June 21, 1878, Varsi wrote the following:
“Most Reverend Archbishop:
“I have received information from Very Rev. Father General Beckx that it has been decided in Rome by the proper authority, that we are at liberty to remove St. Ignatius Church and the College to lot 74 of the Western Addition; and Father General says that we should commence building at once.
“This decision relieves me of a very great anxiety; but yet I should feel very much grieved if I were to proceed without first obtaining Your Grace’s blessing on it. I therefore most humbly beg Your Grace, for the love of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and of St. Aloysius, whose feast we celebrate to-day, to grant us this favor; for which we shall ever feel most grateful.
“Hoping to receive a favorable answer soon, I remain, with the most sincere respect,
“Your Grace’s very humble servant in Christ,
— A. Varsi, SJ”
Alemany wrote to Cardinal Simeoni in Rome seeking confirmation of this news. When he received it, he sent a sad reply to Seimeoni on July 22, 1878, noting his displeasure with the judgment: “I bow my head and accept your decision with holy resignation.” The August 5 letter Alemany penned to Varsi had a more contentious tone; in it, he insisted on being compensated for losses and expressed his concern for the financial well-being of the archdiocese. The tone of the letter hints at Alemany’s anger over Varsi’s Roman maneuvers:32
“Very Reverend and dear Sir:
“The Cardinal Prefect informed me that considering what had been done, the immense injury which would accrue to you if your new building was not built in your new lot, purchased with a most heavy sum, etc., you may be allowed to proceed; consequently, I can have no objection. The Cardinal, however, intimates that should any injury result to the Cathedral (and I request the same in regard to St. Joseph’s) from your proximity, it would become necessary to have such compensated. When answering His Eminence, I added that, in case to avoid trouble it was deemed prudent to build [a] new Cathedral elsewhere, and the heirs of N. Hawse would sue and recover the lot donated for a Cathedral at [the corner] of 10th & Howard St., I would expect to be indemnified.
“Yours truly in Christ,
+J.S. Alemany, A.S.F.”33