St. Ignatius College was not the first Jesuit school attempted in San Francisco. Fr. Flavian Fontaine (a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who were staffing Mission Dolores) acquired land in 1853 and erected a brick building, which, he hoped, would educate both day students and boarders. After spending all the money he had and borrowing $2,000 more, he started construction on a site at what is now 14th and Walter Streets for the Catholic College of Mission Dolores. Unable to pay his debts, he fled San Francisco in September 1853 for Panama where he died.
With Accolti in Rome, Nobili saw a potential bargain in the new but empty college building. With the urging of Alemany, who became the first Archbishop of San Francisco in 1853 and who was eager to see a Catholic school thrive in San Francisco, Nobili purchased the property for $11,000. Fr. Flavian’s creditors demanded payment, and Nobili had to surrender more than $10,000 to secure rights to the building. When Accolti returned from Rome, he questioned the wisdom of Nobili’s purchase for good reasons.
The Jesuits did open a school in this building toward the start of 1854, but no records exist as to the specific date it opened or how many students it served. Fr. Francis Veyret, SJ, sent from Santa Clara College to be its president, was its only teacher. The school failed, despite its prominence as a two-story hillside structure, in part because students had a hard time walking to it and found the hillside a poor playground. The city’s buildings stopped at Third and Kearney Streets, and to the west lay sand dunes stretching to the ocean. To get to school, students had to take a stage down Third to Mission and then navigate a rickety plank walkway to the school through sand and brush.12 The school lingered until September 1854 when it closed forever, a costly experiment that continued to plague future Jesuit administrators for years. This educational experiment would be known from this point on as the “College of Sorrows,” both because of its sad history and its proximity to Mission Dolores. Despite this failed first attempt, even after losing the most valuable part of the property in litigation, the Society of Jesus refused to surrender the idea of establishing a school in San Francisco.
That idea became reality thanks to SI’s founder, Fr. Anthony Maraschi, SJ, who was born in Oleggio in the Piedmont region of Italy on September 2, 1820, and joined the Jesuits at Chieri in 1841. He taught for three years in Turin where his associates were greatly impressed by “his virtues and sterling character. His piety was sincere and deep, but it was an unobtrusive piety revealing itself in strict fidelity to duty…. The pupils given Fr. Maraschi were famous for dullness and inattention, yet there was no complaint from their teacher for his wasted toil, no apathy or discouragement. On the contrary, day after day one would generally find him carefully examining and correcting the wretched themes of his unpromising charges.”13
As a Jesuit, Maraschi seemed to his friends to “be cold and distant, but for all of that, possessing a warm heart.”14 He served as a “substitute procurator” (treasurer) and prefect of the boarders at the Jesuit college in Genoa in 1847, and then taught at the Jesuit college in Nice in 1848, but had to flee anti-clerical persecution that had plagued the Jesuits in Europe for years. The Jesuit house in Nice was attacked and the community driven into the streets by a crowd suspicious of Jesuit ties to the old monarchy. He lived in hiding at a friend’s house until Fr. Roothaan called him to Marseilles. There Monsignor De Mazenod, the founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, ordained him on April 30.
Soon after, he set sail for America where he studied and taught at Georgetown College. He later taught philosophy at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at Loyola College in Baltimore. He pronounced his final vows as a Jesuit on August 15, 1854, and then received orders from Fr. Provincial Ponza in Turin to journey to San Francisco to assist in the new Jesuit mission there. When Fr. Maraschi told Archbishop Francis Kenrick of Baltimore of his orders, Kenrick showed him a letter he had just received from Bishop Alemany in which he shared his dream of establishing in San Francisco “a good college for the education of male youth.”
Maraschi did not leave Baltimore alone. Two other Jesuits accompanied him — Fr. Charles Messea, SJ, and Fr. Aloysius Masnata, SJ (who would later become SI’s rector-president from 1873–76). Along with crowds of men hoping to find California gold, the three priests left New York on October 8, 1854, for Panama. There they made the difficult and dangerous overland journey across the isthmus to a Pacific port before embarking on the steamship Sonora bound for San Francisco. The three priests arrived on All Saints Day, November 1, into the wilds of the Barbary Coast district.
The city that Maraschi found was one hard to imagine for present-day San Franciscans. Between 1849 and 1851, a series of fires raged through the city, and thus it was constantly rebuilding itself (hence the symbol of the Phoenix rising from the ashes on the seal of the City of San Francisco). Newcomers could easily find the gambling halls and brothels that gained the Barbary Coast district its notoriety, but they could also find places of Christian worship among San Francisco’s 27 churches. In the city named for St. Francis of Assisi, however, only four of these churches were Catholic — St. Francis on Vallejo Street, St. Patrick’s on the site of what is now the Palace Hotel, Mission Dolores and St. Mary’s Church on California and Grant, completed in 1854. Also, despite the wealth enjoyed by the first gold-seekers, the city was filled with thousands of miners who came down from the hills never having struck it rich or who wintered there waiting for the Sierra snowmelt. They had no money for the high-priced goods that lined store shelves, and by the end of 1854, more than a third of the city’s 1,000 stores stood empty. In short, Maraschi landed in a city with few Catholic institutions and facing its first economic depression.
Maraschi reported to Archbishop Alemany who assigned him to work at St. Francis Church. Two months later, in January 1855, he was transferred to St. Patrick’s Church on Market near Third Street, on what was then the “western outskirts of the city” where he worked for seven months.15
Maraschi had come to San Francisco not only to serve as a parish priest but also to open a college. He saw the success of Santa Clara College to the south with its boarding students and felt that one boarding college was more than enough for the fledgling state at the time. He hoped to open a school for day students and sought permission from Archbishop Alemany. Encouraging him in this venture was Fr. Nicolas Congiato, SJ, who arrived in San Francisco on December 8, 1854, to serve as the superior of the Jesuit mission in California and who would later serve as the second president of St. Ignatius College.
Maraschi soon discovered that Alemany, while supportive of a Jesuit school, was not eager to see the construction of a Jesuit church, especially one that would not be under his control. Church laws at that time were ambiguous regarding ownership of church property; religious orders and bishops each claimed ownership of church deeds. Alemany also worried that the Jesuits, with their penchant for preaching, would lure away parishioners and their offerings from the archdiocesan churches.
In “A relation of the facts connected with the foundation of Saint Ignatius College of the Society of Jesus in San Francisco, California,” written by Maraschi in 1863, he writes of this tension and of the permission Alemany finally gave for the building of the school. (Note that Maraschi refers to himself in the third person):
“Several pieces of ground were offered for our establishment, but his Grace, after whose pleasure Fr. Maraschi had been directed to inquire, objected to the best of them because they were too near the other churches. We may mention in particular the house and lot of Mr. Dillon, the French Consul who was quitting San Francisco with his family. When Fr. Maraschi proposed it to his Grace, he got for an answer that he might open the College there, but for the church, he should never think of opening it there, because it would take away the people from the Cathedral and the church of St. Francis. Indeed, the situation of that property was such as to be near the upper angle of an isosceles triangle, the two churches above mentioned being at the two extremities of the base.
“We had thus come to the beginning of April  without doing anything, when Fr. Maraschi requested his Grace to open his mind plainly with regard to the part of the city where he desired we should start our establishment, it being the will of the Superiors of the Society not to depart from his views on the matter in question. Then His Grace pointed with the pen on the map of the city, just to the place where we are, saying that thereabout was the place where he would like we settle ourselves. It pleased Almighty God to dispose that precisely the very lot which His Grace had marked out with his pen, should be for sale a few days afterwards.”
About this location, Maraschi is reported to have said, “Here, in time, will be the heart of a great city.” History proved him an apt prophet.
Fr. Joseph W. Riordan, SJ, in his history, recounts this incident differently, noting that Alemany pointed to the parcel not with a pen but with “a sweep of his hand toward the unoccupied lands,” and telling Maraschi to build “any place over there!” Whether Alemany pointed with pen or with a sweep of the hand, it is easy to speculate that his primary desire in locating SI so far from the people of San Francisco was to protect his own struggling churches from competition with the Jesuits.
Alemany insisted that the Jesuits not take up a collection to fund their new school and church, forcing the Jesuits to fund the venture through loans. Maraschi added that “whilst we were building, somebody spread through the city that we were doing it without permission and against the will of His Grace.” The archbishop dispelled that rumor by preaching at the church’s opening. However, he also arranged a meeting between the Jesuits and his diocesan priests to fix “the limits of the district attached to our Church, subject to any change which the Ordinary might make from time to time.”
Maraschi purchased the land, known as Lot 127 on Market Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets. The parcel measured 127 feet by 275 feet and was owned by Thomas O. Larkin, the first American Consul in Monterey, who sold it for $11,500. “The title proving satisfactory, the deed was made out in favor of Father Congiato on May 1, 1855, and the price was put down in cash, the money being borrowed from the French firm of V. Marsion connected with the firm of the same name in Paris and Havre, France.” The bank charged 1.5 percent interest per month on this $11,000 loan, increasing the Jesuits’ debt to $26,000.16
One might easily make the mistake of conjuring visions of the present day Market Street with its traffic and landmark buildings. In 1855, Market Street made an abrupt stop at Third Street, and only sand dunes and low dune plants, with an occasional shanty, could be found to the west. The first site of St. Ignatius College ran along a street that existed only on planners’ maps, in an area known as St. Ann’s Valley (though it was far from a verdant valley) in a narrow depression between two sand hills. Each time Maraschi went out to inspect the property, he found it looked a little different as the dunes constantly changed shape with the shifting sands.17
Also, if the $11,000 price Maraschi paid seems exorbitant for land in the middle of uninhabited sand dunes, the amount seems even more extraordinary when we learn that, in today’s dollars, the price would be more than $200,000. San Francisco real estate, among the most costly in the nation today, sold at a premium ever since the Gold Rush.
Maraschi wasted no time in hiring workers to construct a simple wood and plaster church on the site. The simple structure with “a plain gable roof on four plain walls, neat and decent in every particular” cost $4,000 and was ready for its dedication on July 15, 1855. 18