SI History: In Brief

From the Gold Rush to the New Millennium:

San Francisco’s Jesuit School Since 1855

It is hard to imagine a less auspicious start for St. Ignatius College Preparatory. When Fr. Anthony Maraschi, SJ, first opened the doors of the brand-new St. Ignatius Academy on San Francisco’s Market Street, expecting to see a crowd of Catholic boys eager for Jesuit education, only three small faces peered at him on that October day in 1855. As the day wore on, no one else came. When the term ended early in February, the school had managed to attract only 23 students in all.


Despite a slow start, St. Ignatius College took root in the shifting sands of Market Street and then transplanted itself five times before landing at the sixth and present site in the Sunset District.

The story of SI begins in 1849, when Fr. Michael Accolti, SJ, and Fr. John Nobili, SJ, both stationed in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, responded to a request for help from two brother Jesuits who had earlier left Oregon to minister to the gold miners.

Accolti and Nobili set sail on Dec. 3, 1849, on the O.C. Raymond, a lumber ship heading down the Columbia River for California. The two men arrived in San Francisco the night of Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In his memoirs, Fr. Accolti wrote that “the next day we were able to set foot on the longed for shores of what goes under the name of San Francisco, but which, whether it should be called a villa, a brothel, or Babylon, I am at a loss to determine, so great in those days was the disorder, the brawling, the open immorality, the reign of crime which brazen-faced triumphed on a soil not yet brought under the sway of human laws.”

These two priests saw a great need for a Jesuit presence in California. Two years later, Nobili founded Santa Clara College, and, in 1853, Accolti journeyed to Rome to ask for additional manpower.

Tensions in Europe would work to Accolti’s advantage. In the mid-1800s, Europe was rocked by revolutions, and the Church drew the enmity of an angry populace, weary of restoration monarchies. This was especially true during Italy’s Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement that sought freedom from foreign control, including from the Catholic Church.

As fate would have it, some of the best and brightest Italian Jesuits, including those in the Turin Province, were in exile or in hiding and needed to find safe harbor. Thanks to Accolti’s persistent requests, Fr. General Peter Beckx, SJ, put the California Mission of the Society of Jesus in the hands of the Turin Province. Turin would benefit by having a central place for its priests to gather, to teach and to train novices, and Santa Clara College (and soon St. Ignatius College) would have sorely needed teachers and world-class scholars.

The First Campus: 1855–1863

SI’s founder, Fr. Anthony Maraschi, SJ, arrived in San Francisco on Nov. 1, 1854, and sought an audience with Archbishop Joseph Alemany, who had earlier welcomed the Jesuits but later found reason to keep Maraschi at arms length. While he welcomed the idea of a Jesuit school in San Francisco, he was less eager for a Jesuit church, as it would not be under his control and would compete with the parish churches.

Finally, in April 1855, Maraschi managed to meet with Alemany. In his account of that meeting, Maraschi wrote that “His Grace pointed with the pen on the map of the city, just to the place where we are [on Market Street between 4th and 5th Streets], 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 to be an apt prophet, though in 1855, the site chosen by Alemany, was not a likely place for a school. Most San Franciscans lived in what is now the Financial District, and the paved portion of Market Street ended at 3rd Street, making for a difficult walk across the sand dunes to get to St. Ignatius Church and College. It is easy to speculate that Alemany’s primary desire in choosing SI’s location was to protect the parishes from competition with the Jesuits.

Marsaschi paid $11,000 for the property and quickly set to building the church, which opened on July 15, 1855. Three months later, on Oct. 15, the school opened its doors for the first time to find three pupils waiting for instruction. (SI’s first student was Richard McCabe who eventually became a “well-known professional man of San Francisco.”) Despite the slow start, the Jesuits soon prospered, receiving their state charter in 1859 and outgrowing their one-room schoolhouse.

The Second School: 1863–1880

Tensions with Archbishop Alemany flared again in 1861 with the arrival of Fr. James Bouchard, SJ, known as The Eloquent Indian. His mother, a French immigrant, was captured by Comanches as a youth. She later married a Delaware chief and bore a son whom she named Swift-Foot. He converted to Christianity, became a Jesuit and was known for his remarkable preaching. While he never taught at SI, he lived with the Jesuits and preached from St. Ignatius Church when he wasn’t ministering to the gold miners. His sermons drew crowds that spilled into the street outside the church. That popularity caused a problem for Alemany who was besieged by the complaints of many of his parish priests, already heavily in debt and losing parishioners to the Jesuits.

Because this tension had been brewing for years, the Jesuits decided not to replace their small church with a larger one, but to incorporate it into the new school building. Construction began right next door to the existing church in May 1862 and finished by Christmas.

SI marked a milestone on June 30, 1863, when it conferred, for the first time, the A.B. degree to August J. Bowie, who became the first graduate of the college (as distinct from the high school “preparatory department.”

Students at this second campus earned a reputation for themselves in both forensics and drama. On June 30, 1863, SI students staged Joseph and His Brethren, marking the beginning of the first and longest-running drama department west of the Mississippi.

The school also made a name for itself by attracting three world-class scholars: Frs. Joseph Bayma, SJ, Joseph Neri, SJ and Aloysius Varsi, SJ. Bayma, who taught and served as college president, authored a series of math books noted for their original proofs. Varsi studied astronomy at the University of Paris to prepare to work in the Imperial Observatory in China. Neri, an early experimenter of electricity, built and perfected his own electrical lighting system in 1869 to use during his lectures. San Franciscans saw their first electric arc light in 1871 when Fr. Neri illuminated a classroom facing Market Street. For the Centennial Celebration on July 4, 1876, Neri lit Market Street with the first exhibition of public arc lighting on the Pacific Coast.

One of Neri’s students, John Montgomery (SI 1878) would earn fame in his own right for his scientific achievements. On Aug. 28, 1883, at his family’s ranch near San Diego, he became the first person ever to fly a glider. He spent his life developing and perfecting a variety of gliders and took a job at Santa Clara College as a professor where he continued his experiments. He died in 1911 after a crash landing, and was memorialized in the 1946 movie Gallant Journey starring Glenn Ford.

Another distinguished alumnus was Matthew Sullivan (SI 1876) who was named chief justice of the California Supreme Court. His brother, Jeremiah, also served as a justice on that court.

The Third Campus: 1880–1906

The Jesuits, faced with steep property taxes on the Market Street campus, hoped to move a third time, yet were faced with opposition from Archbishop Alemany, who feared the proposed site for the new SI on Van Ness Avenue would be too near the Gough Street site of the cathedral. Varsi, knowing that the school, with its enormous debt, faced extinction unless it moved, traveled to Rome to appeal to Cardinal Franchi, Alemany’s superior. He received permission and one year later purchased property on Hayes and Van Ness, where the Louise Davies Symphony Hall now stands.

There the Jesuits built their jewel in the crown, a church and school to rival any on the West Coast. In 1883, with an enrollment of 704, SI became the largest Jesuit school in the nation.

Ten years later, SI began a new tradition when students from SI and Sacred Heart played a rugby game on St. Patrick’s Day, marking the start of the oldest high school rivalry west of the Rocky Mountains. The luck of the Irish was with SH that day, as it won the match 14–4. (Both schools celebrated the centenary of that first game in 1992 at Kezar, with SI proving the victor.)

The Great Earthquake & Fire

In 1905, when the SI community celebrated the school’s Golden Jubilee, they could not have foreseen what would befall them one year later. On 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 nearly the entire city. The earthquake caused major, but reparable, damage to the church and college. At first it looked as if the wide expanse of Van Ness Avenue would save the campus from the fire that raged throughout eastern part of the city, but a woman, not knowing her chimney had collapsed in the earthquake, started a fire to make breakfast and ignited what became known as the Ham and Eggs Fire. That blaze swept through the Western Addition and completely destroyed the school and church. Joseph Vaughan, 17, a student who would later become a Jesuit, watched as fire destroyed the statue of St. Ignatius high atop the church and later wrote that “all hell seemed dancing with joy, watching the fiery liquidation of the Jesuits in San Francisco, the cataclysmic termination of half a century of labor.”

The Shirt Factory: 1906–1929

The Jesuits did not have to think twice before deciding to rebuild. By September 1906, a new school rose on Hayes and Shrader Streets near Golden Gate Park. Because the school resembled the industrial buildings south of Market Street, students called their new home the Shirt Factory. From its halls would graduate men of distinction, including Admiral Daniel Callaghan ’07, who won the medal of honor posthumously for his valor in World War II as commander of Task Force Savo Sea at the Battle of Guadalcanal aboard the USS San Francisco.

Here, for the first time, the school began calling its preparatory department St. Ignatius High School in 1909 and began publishing the Ignatian, a yearbook and literary magazine in 1910. The Red and Blue, the school newspaper, made its first appearance in 1920. Jesuits at SI wrote and directed The Pageant of Youth in 1925, which featured 1,000 Catholic school students on a 120-foot stage in the Civic Auditorium.

The school joined the Academic Athletic League in 1910 to formalize competition for its track, basketball, rugby, tennis and baseball teams. SI became an athletic powerhouse during its time at the Shirt Factory, with the basketball team taking the state title in 1926.

The Stanyan Street Campus: 1929–1969

The high school and college made the first of two formal separations when the college moved to Campion Hall in 1927 on what is now the campus of USF. Two years later, SI left the drafty halls of the Shirt Factory for modern quarters at 222 Stanyan Street. James Phelan (SI 1881), a former US Senator and mayor, donated $100,000 to the Jesuits, nearly one-third of the cost of construction.

In these new quarters, students weathered the Depression and World War II. In the 1940s, they watched as graduates, alumni and teachers joined the military. More than 3,000 Ignatians fought for their country, and 96 lost their lives.

At Stanyan Street, SI achieved even greater academic and athletic success. Coaches such as Frank McGloin ’25, George Malley (and later his son Pat Malley), Louis Batmale, Alex Schwarz, Jim Keating, Rene Herrerias, Vince Tringali and Bob Drucker ’58 were the heroes of the day, as were athletes such as Kevin O’Shea ’43, Jack Grealish ’44, Charlie Silvera ’42 (who won six World Series rings playing catcher for the Yankees), Eddie Forrest ’39 (one of the original ’49ers), NFL Hall of Famer Dan Fouts ’69 and hoops stars Bob Portman ’65 and George Moscone ’47. SI gained national attention with undefeated football seasons in 1962 and 1963, earning a number-one national ranking.

In the first half of the century, SI graduates also gained fame in other venues. Richard Egan ’39 became a leading actor, Al Wilsey ’36 gained success in business, Alfred J. Cleary ’00 was named the city’s first chief administrative officer and Fr. Bernard Hubbard, SJ ’06, known as the Glacier Priest, drew national attention for his explorations of Alaska. Other prominent graduates include Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy ’48, composer Gordon Getty ’51, Dr. Peter Raven ’53 (the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden), Bishop Carlos Sevilla ’53, and Jerry Brown ’55 (California governor and Oakland mayor).

Many great teachers established their reputations at 222 Stanyan Street. These men included J.B. Murphy, “Uncle” Frank Corwin, William Morlock ’49, Fr. John Becker, SJ, Warren White ’39, and Fr. Richard Spohn, SJ — a masterful physics teacher.

In 1959, SI and USF made their final separation when the faculties and administrations of the two schools were made distinct. With this move, the school looked to migrate westward once again, this time to the Sunset District.

The Sunset District Campus: 1969–Present

In 1969, the high school moved to 2001 37th Avenue thanks to President Harry V. Carlin, SJ ’35, who, along with Principal Ed McFadden, SJ ’41, turned SI into a college preparatory worthy of the name. Later, President Anthony P. Sauer, SJ, and Principals Dick McCurdy, SJ, Mario Prietto, SJ, and Charlie Dullea ’65 (SI’s first lay principal) would make SI one of the strongest academic schools in the nation. In 1984, the US Department of Education named SI one of the top 60 prep schools in the country, and in the 1990s, SI ranked among the top 20 schools in the nation for its AP success. In 2004, a leading Catholic magazine placed SI among the top 12 schools in the nation for its work in professional development.

The school went coed in1989 when the first girls entered SI. That change, noted Fr. Prietto, made “a great school even better.”

SI also continued its athletic success with a national championship in crew in 1997, state championships in cross country, crew and lacrosse, and NorCal victories in girls’ golf and basketball in 1984.

Thanks to successful fund-raising campaigns, the school was able to update all of its facilities between 1989 and 1994, building a second gym, a pool and a new theatre as well as redesign its science labs. The Genesis IV campaign, scheduled to end one year early in December 2005, will bring the school’s endowment to $50 million, helping the school keep its promise not to turn away anyone for lack of funds. In the 2004–2005 academic year, the school awarded $1.3 million in financial aid to nearly 20 percent of the student body thanks to the generosity of the SI community.

For all its academic and athletic success, the heart of the school continues to be its commitment to Catholic education and the Jesuit ideal of forming men and women for and with others. Students learn these values through the Christian Service and Campus Ministry programs, by going on immersion experiences, and by learning Christian values in every aspect of their time at SI.

In short, since 1855, SI has worked to uphold the ideals of St. Ignatius of Loyola and turn boys and girls into men and women able to understand the world around them and to change it for the better.