Mother Earth had Other Plans

Mother Earth had other plans for the school. At 5:13 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906, three days after Easter Sunday, a fearsome earthquake shook much of the state for 48 seconds and ignited a four-day firestorm that destroyed much of the city. The disaster caused $500 million in damage (more than $8 billion in today’s dollars.) Though accounts at the time put the death toll at just under 700, more than 3,000 people lost their lives in the conflagration, many trapped in tenements that collapsed when the ground beneath them liquefied.

The earthquake caused major, but reparable, damage to the church and college. Plaster fell in the Jesuit residence and college, and cracks widened in the walls. The church roof suffered major damage, and inside, a small piece of the cornice fell from the northwest corner of the ceiling. Fr. Vincent Testa, SJ, SI’s treasurer, was struck on the nose by a falling candlestick while saying Mass at the high altar. McGloin writes that “since he had not reached the Consecration, he took off the vestments and left the church.” In the sanctuary, the damage consisted of broken candelabra, candles, flowers, vases and broken glass. The marble statues of Mary and St. Joseph fell to the ground and broke.1

Despite this, worshippers and priests had cleared the debris by 6:15 a.m. Four Masses were said in succession for the people of San Francisco, with 300 attending the last Mass. Several priests also heard confessions until 8 a.m.2

There is an apocryphal story that Frieden, SI’s president, sent a two-word cable to Rome: “Ignatius fuit!” (“Ignatius is no more!”), a reworking of Virgil’s “Illium fuit”regarding Troy’s destruction as described in The Aeneid. Other facts of that horrific day are certain, as Frieden gave a detailed account of them several years later in a lecture in St. Louis entitled “Some Personal Reminiscences of the Earthquake of San Francisco.” What follows is an excerpt of his talk:

“The time was near the hour of sunrise — 5:13 in the morning, Wednesday, the 18th of April. Stillness hovered over the great city…. Everybody at St. Ignatius was astir. Rising at 5 o’clock [the traditional hour for Jesuits in residence to arise], we were engaged in making our toilet. Slight and short earthquakes, of one to five seconds duration, are not a rare occurrence in San Francisco. Half a dozen per annum, or even twice that number, would not startle the average Californian. The practice on such occasions is to cross oneself, and say a short prayer — a couple of seconds, and all would be over. I must admit, however, that I always felt relieved when the earth was once more quiet, in its normal steadiness.

“And so that morning, thirteen minutes after five, when the first indications of the earthquake appeared, I crossed myself, made the wonted aspirations, and continued dressing. But in a few seconds I felt that the quake was sharper than any I had yet experienced. Lo, half clad as I was, I dropped on my knees, at the foot of my bed, and prayed. Then came that crashing, rumbling intonation, so strangely awful and so terrible that it baffles the power of description — none can comprehend it save those who have experienced it. Yet it was but the herald of the terrific convulsion that followed. The great strata of rock and conglomerate that form the peninsula on which San Francisco stands rotated, tilted, twisted, sank and heaved in veriest agony. The massive buildings of St. Ignatius seemed like a piece of shrubbery in an autumn storm.

“Meanwhile I was on my knees, making acts of the love of God and of perfect contrition. ‘The end has come,’ I said to myself; ‘in one short minute I shall stand before the judgment seat of God; every second counts: I must be ready.’ Never in my life have I prayed as I did on that occasion. In the past I had visited so many sanctuaries dear to every Catholic and especially to every Jesuit … but nowhere did I pray as I did during the forty-eight seconds of the San Francisco earthquake. To this day I have comfort in the thought that when the crucial moment seemed at hand, I turned to God with all the power of my soul, with my entire being; I turned to Him alone. It was the outcome of the faith that is in you and me; and — be it said in humble thankfulness — God’s grace dispelled all terror at having to appear before my Judge.

“But Divine Providence had disposed otherwise. As abruptly as the earthquake came, so it ceased. The troubled ground resumed its normal shape and equilibrium. ‘Peace, be still.’ The mandate had come from heaven; it was obeyed. No chronicler, nor storyteller, can describe with anything like accuracy the workings of the human mind during that fearful suspense of forty-eight seconds. None but the Almighty can tabulate the agonizing prayers that went up to heaven from so many souls, whose faith bade them turn with all the energy of their beings to Him who alone can guard and ease.

“When the earthquake had subsided, a party of Fathers and Scholastics went through the rooms to see if anyone was injured. Though several doors were jammed in their casings, and had to be forced open to release the occupant, no one had suffered any harm. All the inmates of the college were accounted for — twenty-one priests, nine scholastics, eleven brothers and seven servants. We were deeply grateful. In the building itself, every room and every corridor showed the confusion, while here and there appeared dangerous looking cracks several inches in width, and running some distance along the walls. The most serious damage was done in the large auditorium, located on the upper story of the college building: the top of the façade had fallen.

“Little or no harm had been done to the church. The towers were intact, the organ in its place. But statues had fallen; and the rich Easter decorations were piled in a heap of broken candelabra, candles, vases and flowers, literally strewing the ample sanctuary with wreckage. My heart was bleeding as I surveyed it all. It was but the beginning of our trials — worse was coming.

“Hundreds of people, men and women, stunned with terror, not knowing what might follow, poured into the church to seek shelter from their very fears — shelter with Him who loved them as His children and who would provide. Every confessional was besieged — all dreaded a repetition of the shock, they wanted to prepare for the worst. Hurriedly we cleared away the debris from the altar, and by 6 o’clock we could begin the Holy Sacrifice. The communion rail was filled again and again at each of the four Masses celebrated at the Main Altar that morning. It was a solemn and distressingly pathetic sight. How I could stand the intenseness of the strain I know not. Panic in every face at the railing, tears in every eye as the Blessed Lord came to give Himself to His own, faith through it all — you could feel it, and deep devotion pictured everywhere.

“Meanwhile an emergency hospital had been established in the ‘Mechanics Pavilion’ — a large armory in the neighborhood of the college. Soon it was filled with wounded and dying men and women. And the cry came for priests. Eight of the Fathers were at once detailed to minister the consolations of religion to the many who were so near their final reckoning. Demands for priestly help came from other quarters as well — in each case I supplied the need. Several of the Fathers were still engaged in their work of zealous charity — in hospitals and in the very street — when their own home at St. Ignatius was nearing its destruction.

“At an early hour, fire had broken out in the eastern part of the city. And into a dense cloud, the truth flashed upon us that the fire department was paralyzed — there was no water. Only a few hundred feet away reposed three fourths of all the water on the surface of the globe; we were powerless to use it. The mains had been broken by the convulsions of the earthquake, and now the horrors of a conflagration would be added to the ruins wrought in the early morning. At the College, however, we had every reason for feeling secure. The fire was a mile and more away, the wind blew from west to east, besides we were separated from the threatened section of the city by an avenue, Van Ness, 120 feet in width. But the danger came quickly, suddenly, from an unexpected quarter.

“Shortly after 10 o’clock fire broke out west of St. Ignatius, half a block from our buildings. The wind had grown into a gale, and in less than half an hour the entire block was one mass of flame. A shower of burning embers rained upon the nearest wooden tower, setting it on fire. A few minutes more and the other tower was wrapped in flames. Our buildings were doomed with all that they contained. Promptly we brought the Blessed Sacrament to a place of safety. With great difficulty some wagons were secured to carry the precious vestments and other costly altar furniture to the Holy Family Convent, west of the College on a steep incline. [The structure, at 890 Hayes and Fillmore Streets, is still standing.] Thousands thronged the streets about St. Ignatius; they were the members of our congregation. All were eager to help, but to lend a helping hand had become impossible.”

(Later, San Franciscans called this the “Ham and Eggs Fire” as it started after a woman living at 395 Hayes Street lit her stove that morning to cook breakfast, unaware that the quake had damaged her chimney. This fire destroyed not only SI but also much of the Western Addition.)

“It was now past 11. All at once the cry was raised that our buildings were to be dynamited, so as to arrest the spread of the fire to the adjoining blocks. [While firefighters first planned to dynamite the church and school to prevent the fire from spreading, they later chose a site across the street for demolition.] The church had already been vacated; one by one the members of the Community had left the house. But I was not ready to follow them. How could I be ready to abandon the pile of buildings which obedience had given me in charge with all that they contained? It was like leaving my very self; I was and felt so identified with it all; and now I must make it over to destruction. The forty-four Jesuits of San Francisco were homeless. What it had taken half a century to build up and to equip, lay in ashes. The future was a blank.…

“From the church I had rushed to my apartment where important documents were kept for reference. And valuables were there, left in my keeping. These latter I gathered quickly, filling a satchel, which was at hand. The documents, and such other portions of the archives as were in my office, I wrapped in a sheet from my bed in the adjoining room. There was no time to gather more. Writings of a lifetime were there stored away, manuscripts it had taken years to prepare, the varied materials for reference which a Priest and Educator should have at hand as his work goes on, souvenirs also of parents, near relatives and friends already passed away — these and numerous other such articles were there. I knew and realized it, but there was no time nor way of saving them. There was not even time to change my garments. As I was, dressed in the priestly garb, what articles of clothing I could reach flung over my left arm, the satchel in one hand, dragging the archives with the other, I left the house which had become so dear to me, and which I was never to reenter. As I have said already, in the square in front of our buildings a dense mass of humanity had assembled. Hundreds of our friends were there — their sobbing told me as I made my way to a wagon which had been provided.”

(Jack O’Dea ’28, whose father, Michael, was an SI grad, notes that his father told of watching the school burn down and wondering why the fire department never used any of the water from the swimming pool to extinguish the blaze.)

Frieden and several other Jesuits went to the Holy Family Convent on Fillmore Street, which they hoped would be spared the fire. He asked two men to carry the satchels of documents while he carried the Eucharist in its ciborium. As the group walked toward the convent, they passed Catholics who recognized the Blessed Sacrament and either bowed their heads or genuflected as Frieden walked by them.

Fr. Richard Gleeson, SJ, the president of Santa Clara College at the time, offered another account of the earthquake and fire. He had spent the night of April 18 at St. Ignatius College. After witnessing the damage, he wrote that he “saw the college and church catch fire and I assure you that it was a sad sight. We could hardly save anything and the church is gone with its many treasures of art. The grand college went next and then the best physical and chemical department in all the Society, at least in America, and with it three splendid libraries with all their treasures. The loss is, in many regards, simply irreparable.” The books destroyed by the fire included 30,686 in the college library and 3,000 in the Ladies Sodality library, along with 7,927 pamphlets.3

Another eyewitness was Fr. Joseph Vaughan, SJ, who was a 17-year-old student at SI at the time. Years after the earthquake, he wrote about that terrible day: “I dropped down into Hayes Valley and walked toward St. Ignatius, hidden by smoke welling up on all sides. I met Fr. Kenna [then 62], venerable by years and by accomplishments, whose soft-spoken words and generally unperturbed demeanor revealed the self-control of a saint. We looked up at the fire slowly creeping down the tall tower towards the heroic-size bronze statue of St. Ignatius standing on a small pedestal between the two spires. Flames whipped at the statue, licking it and encircled it with diabolic glee, when suddenly the bluish flame characteristic of copper shot forty feet into the air. All hell seemed dancing with joy, watching this fiery liquidation of the Jesuits in San Francisco, the cataclysmic termination of half a century of labor. But Satan and his hordes should have learned a lesson from four hundred years of Jesuit history! Fr. Kenna, with tears wetting his venerable face, looked up to Heaven and whispered a prayer: God’s will be done….”4

From their lookout at the Holy Family Convent at 890 Hayes Street, the Jesuits saw the city in flames. Fr. Henry Whittle, SJ, later wrote in his diary that “the city seems a sea of fire.” With most of the city residents afraid to re-enter the buildings, and with soldiers shooting looters on sight, the city seemed like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

But on the fourth day, the fires finally died out. Fr. Jerome S. Ricard, SJ, a Jesuit at Santa Clara College (where he was known as “Padre of the Rains” for his weather predictions and where he ran the observatory), wrote this to the San Jose Mercuryon April 22, 1906: “The earthquake period is gone. Once the pent up forces of nature have had a vent, nothing of a serious nature need be apprehended. At the most a succession of minor shocks may be felt and that’s all. It is unreasonable, therefore, for people to continue in dread of a new destructive trembler. People should fearlessly go to work and repair mischief done and sleep quietly at night anywhere at all, especially in wooden frame. Never mind foreboders of evil: They do not know what they are talking about. Seismonetry is in its infancy and those therefore who venture out with predictions of future earthquakes when the main shock has taken place ought to be arrested as disturbers of the peace.” Ironically, in the 1940s, one Jesuit priest, Fr. Alexis Mei, SJ ’16, installed a seismograph in the basement of St. Ignatius Church, and it remained there until the 1960s recording the tremors that regularly jolted San Francisco over the years.

In the end, the Jesuits of San Francisco lost their residence, their church, and their college, including the most comprehensive ornithological collection west of the Mississippi, science laboratories that rivaled any in the country and the beautiful art that adorned the church. Miraculously, no one at SI died in the earthquake and fire — not one of the 44 Jesuits or teachers or students, though some suffered injury.5 With an indomitable spirit, the Jesuits went about rebuilding their home, their church and their school for the sake of their students and for the greater glory of God.