James D. Phelan

One generous gift of $100,000 made the Stanyan Street campus possible and paid for nearly a third of the $342,000 construction cost of the school. The donor was former U.S. Senator James D. Phelan, considered by many to be “the foremost citizen of California.”9

Phelan, who received his A.B. degree in 1881, was one of SI’s most famous graduates. Of Phelan’s early days, an 1878 story in the Monitor reports the following: “We attended the literary entertainment … on last Monday evening. The College Hall, where it took place, was well crowded, and a highly appreciative audience manifested great interest in the proceedings. The principal feature of the entertainment consisted in a debate on the question, ‘Has every male adult a right to vote?’ and the arguments advanced by the young debaters were very ably and forcibly put. Where all were so excellent, it may be invidious to single out any individual, but the natural, self-possessed and eloquent delivery of Master James D. Phelan elicited general commendation.”10

Phelan aspired to a literary career, but his father — an Irish immigrant who made his fortune as a trader, banker and merchant shortly after the Gold Rush — convinced him to join the family business in real estate and banking. In his role as businessman, he doubled his family’s assets. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Phelan was “San Francisco’s greatest host after the death of banker William Ralston [and]… the city’s most eligible bachelor who financed California playwrights, artists and sculptors, filling [his Saratoga home Villa] Montalvo with their creations.”11

Later, Phelan would serve as San Francisco mayor (1896–1902) where he worked to reform City Hall, improve the economy and pass a new city charter that led to the creation of elected supervisors. He was also California’s first popularly elected senator. The Jesuits showed their gratitude to Phelan in 1905 by granting him an honorary degree of Doctor of Law. On the day of the 1906 earthquake, Mayor Eugene Schmitz appointed Phelan head of the relief committee for those made homeless by the fire. The Jesuits paid their final tribute by naming USF’s Phelan Hall residential dormitory for him in 1955.

Despite his accomplishments, Phelan remains a controversial figure in city history due to his support of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which drastically reduced the number of immigrants coming from China. After the San Francisco Earthquake, Phelan hoped to relocate the city’s Chinese population to Hunter’s Point to remove them from the center of the city, and he also warned against the growing influx of Japanese immigrants. Phelan’s anti-Asian politics may have been typical for his times, but as USF President Stephen Privett, SJ, noted, Phelan’s “explosively rhetorical expressions of exclusionary sentiments have all the appeal to modern ears of fingernails scraping down a blackboard.”12

After Phelan died on August 7, 1930, at his country home near Saratoga, his remains lay in state at City Hall for three days. A funeral Mass followed, the “largest and most imposing funeral ever seen in San Francisco,” on August 11 at St. Ignatius Church attended by California Governor Clement C. Young, Mayor Rolph, and U.S. Senator Samuel D. Shortridge. The Jesuits named nearly 100 honorary pallbearers for this graduate of SI who made possible the construction of the high school’s fifth home.13