Arson and Racism, Bricks and Crosses

Hugh McKeadney, who as a Jesuit novice had designed SI’s second Market Street school, began drawing plans for the Van Ness campus. He designed the school in the shape of an “E” — with rooms and corridors extending alongside the church. Varsi first wanted the church to face Van Ness but decided to abandon this plan due to the clouds of dust that blew down the avenue from time to time, and they moved the church façade to Hayes Street. Construction of the new church, campus and residence buildings lasted from 1878–1880 and cost $323,763.

The one controversy surrounding construction had to do with the company supplying the 7 million bricks used to build the church and school. San Francisco was suffering from an economic depression and thousands of men were out of work. Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high as the unemployed blamed Chinese immigrants for taking jobs away from whites by accepting low pay. In the midst of this resentment, a rumor began to circulate that the Jesuit fathers were purchasing bricks “of Chinese manufacture.” The Call published an article July 2, 1878, claiming that Maraschi “had been waited upon by members of brick-making firms where white labor is employed, and these made offer to supply the bricks at the same cost as the chinamen [sic]; but they had received no encouragement from the Reverend Father. In fact he declined to meet with them. Some very bitter comments were made by the members at their meeting yesterday over the proceeding. White labor, it was said, was employed in response to a general demand; but unless the firms employing it receive more encouragement than heretofore, the men will have to be discharged.”37

Another newspaper accused the Jesuits of purchasing 15 million bricks and claimed the priests bypassed firms that hired “white men only.” The next day, July 3, 1,500 men, most of them members of the Brick Makers’ Protective Union, staged a rally on Market Street in front of the school denouncing SI. The newspaper articles and rally enflamed emotions and led someone to set fire to the Market Street college during the Fourth of July parade. Fortunately, the fire was discovered and extinguished in short order and caused only $200 worth of damage. Varsi responded to this incident with a letter published July 7 in the Call, which corrected many of the accusations against SI. No Chinese brick company existed, he noted; the Patent Brick Company, from which SI had purchased the bricks, “employs Chinese men but not to the exclusion of white men.” He went on to warn that “should we … be compelled by the undue dictations of your publication to adjourn the work to another indefinite season, the workingmen would be the losers.”38

McKeadney, too, published a statement noting that he alone had signed the contract with the company in question. “We simply wanted first-class hard brick, for which we were to pay hard dollars. It did not occur to us to demand a stipulation that the brick should be made exclusively by white men, any more than it did to the sellers to demand that the gold of the coin should be mined by such.”39

The letter worked, and the diatribe against the Jesuits ceased. The Examinerblamed the Call for setting workers against the priests and added: “We hope to see [the college and church building] completed and bounteously endowed, to be at once an ornament to the city and a blessing to all.”40

The Jesuits, sensitive to the racist demands of the white-controlled unions, did make one concession that modern readers would find most objectionable. They agreed to pay an extra 50 cents per thousand to ensure that white men only would make the bricks used to build the new church and school. The Evening Postnoted that “in order that no bricks might be delivered other than as agreed, a mold was stipulated to be used that should identify the manufactured articles.” That mold was a cross to show that Christian men made the bricks.41

The Jesuits and white union leaders discovered a hitch in this compromise. According to the Evening Post “there is one portion of the work where white labor is unwilling or unable to compete. This is in taking the heated bricks from the ovens. About twenty men are so employed, and the ovens reach 240 degrees of heat. The Chinamen [sic] who have been engaged for some time at this work are said to be bleached white with the intense fires to which they are subjected. Just here comes in the necessity of a little common sense in the matter… It is impossible to correct all the evils of this Chinese plague in a moment or a month, and it is the part of wisdom to always do the best we can under the circumstances, never throwing away an advantage because it is not greater.” Thus, in the end, the Christian bricks of SI were made with the combined effort of white and Chinese labor, in spite of the fear, racism and shortsightedness of those involved.

(When the workers were building Davies Symphony Hall in September 1978, they uncovered a large cache of these bricks, marked with crosses. Kevin Starr, an alumnus and former faculty member of USF, wrote of this discovery in “Free to Speak a Secret,” published by USF: “David H. Zisser, an attorney employed as contracts administrator for the Southern Pacific Communications Company, was taking a break from a bout of research in the law library at City Hall. He strolled over to the construction site to get some fresh air and to watch the spectacle of the great bulldozers moving tons of earth. Zisser noticed that among the earth and debris being cleared were countless bricks, many of them marked with the sign of the cross.” A graduate of USF, Zisser knew the history behind these bricks and contacted USF, which had them mounted and presented to those who donated $1,250 in honor of the school’s 125th anniversary.)

Workmen began laying the foundations for the new school July 11, 1878, and the school celebrated the dedication of the cornerstone on October 20 with 6,000 in attendance. The text of the Latin dedication read by Fr. Bouchard was placed in the cornerstone. (After the 1906 earthquake, the Jesuits recovered that cornerstone and its contents. You can find that same cornerstone outside the entrance to the bell tower of St. Ignatius Church on Fulton and Parker Streets; the contents, however, were removed and placed in the cornerstone of the present church.)

Accolti, who worked so tirelessly to found the California mission, never saw the new school completed. He died November 7, 1878, of what was most likely a massive stroke. His funeral was held in St. Ignatius Church two days later, and he was buried at the Jesuit plot in the Santa Clara Mission cemetery.

The new buildings were dedicated February 1, 1880, and the school opened July 2, 1880, with three distinct sections — the Preparatory Department, the Literary and Commercial Department and the Philosophical and Scientific Department — which occupied separate floors of the three-story college. Most would agree that the new church and school “were among the finest structures in all of San Francisco” up until their destruction in the 1906 earthquake and fire.42 Among those who helped decorate the interior of the church, especially the elaborate side altars, were many women benefactors, foremost among them being Mrs. Bertha Welch who, in 1890, donated $50,000 to provide for the interior adornment of the church. Among those adornments were 24 stained-glass windows crafted in Munich, decorations by the famed Italian artisans A. Moretti and Trezzini and paintings by the European-trained Domenico Tojetti, one of the city’s most famous painters.

Five years later Mrs. Welch gave the Jesuits another $50,000 towards the purchase of a church organ, with 85 stops and 5,301 pipes. Its various parts arrived packed in four extra large railroad cars in September 1896. After a performance, the famous soloist Clarence Eddy judged the organ to be “one of the greatest and finest” in the world.43

In 1880, the Jesuits faced a total debt of $862,510 and paid $42,500 in annual interest. Given these numbers, we can understand why the Jesuits grew angry whenever the papers referred to the “million dollar home of the Society of Jesus in San Francisco.”44 Varsi chose to ignore these remarks in public but told his supporters, in private, the size of the debt that supported this “million dollar home.”

He also ensured the success of this third campus by hiring more teachers for the 680 students and appointing Fr. Robert E. Kenna, SJ, as the school’s eighth president. Kenna, born in Mississippi and raised in San Francisco, was the first non-Italian president the school had since Maraschi opened the doors of the little wood-frame school in 1855.