The Changing Faces of St. Patrick's

by Nora Boyd

March 15, 1981

Every year about this time, Sexton Roger Chico carries from the rectory to the main altar of St. Patrick's Church between Third and Fourth on Mission a needlepoint picture of the Irish saint/ it was worked by a little girl in an orphanage in Virginia City, Nevada, 104 years ago. It's a fine piece of needlepoint, about thirty-six by thirty two inches, with St. Patrick in the foreground and Virginia City's church, St. Mary's in the Mountains, behind. Amidst the singing and the shamrocks, the bands and the parade, the little girl's picture holds the place of honor in the "most Irish Church in America."

Today is the Sexton Chico who carries the picture over, but before his time it was an Irishman, Sexton James Maher, who put it carefully in place.

James Maher, now ninety, came to St. Patrick's church as the "temporary" sexton in 1917 and stayed until 1972. Roger Chico came in 1969 to assist Maher, and is still on duty.

In the 1906 earthquake, most of Old St. Patrick's "tumbled to Mother Earth," as Maher says. The Irish residential area surrounding it was completely leveled; its home owners scattered, never to return. The church was rebuilt, more spectacular than before, in an industrial setting. The permanent parish dwindled from 30,000 Irishmen to a small, Latin speaking community, and finally to 300 faithful Filipino families.

Maker, now retired, lives out at St. Anne's Home on Lake Street. He remembers back to the years when St. Patrick's third pastor, Monsignor John Rogers, was rebuilding his Irish beauty ofa church.

Sexton Chico looks to the near future when St. Patrick's will come into its own again, as part of the Y erba Buena Redevelopment. St. Patrick's is meant to be the star attraction on the grassy concourse which will lead from the Market Street gateway across from Grant A venue, down to the George Moscone convention center south of Howard. Thousands will pass the church each day, or relax in the little plazas and seating areas. San Franciscans take the old church for granted, but it is a treasure house of Gallic are, a fine example of Victorian Gothic.

"I always take visitors from Ireland to see the church," says Father Cuchulain Moriarity of Holy Redeemer Parish. "They are impressed." With the thousands of tourists passing the church, it is easy to imagine that there may be guided tours, with trained docents lecturing on the legends and history of Ireland, as they are related in the art of the church. They might interweave the history of San Francisco, there in Happy Valley, the little depression between the sand hills of Market and Howard, where it all began.

The very first mass celebrated in St. Patrick's name was said by Father John in a hall at Fourth and Jessie Street, June 9th, 1851. The gold miners were returning in droves, a bigger church was needed and a frame church was built on the site of the present Sheraton Palace. That little white church sits today on a vacant lot on Eddy near Divisadero, a bronze plaque designating it "San Francisco's oldest frame building." With the surge of population after the Civil War, a bigger church was needed. Father Peter Grey, pastor at the time, bought the site of the Grand Opera House on third and Mission, and built the original brick Gothic church.

In 1905 Monsignor John Rogers arrived to become its pastor. He was a handsome, persuasive Wexford-born clergyman, educated in Dublin. He was delighted with his assignment, shepherding the largest flock of Irish on the West Coast. But before the monsignor was in town a year the earthquake hit and the church was in shambles, his parish dispersed.

Rogers did what the times called for: he said mass in the sand lots between Third and Fourth on Folsom and he tended to the needs of the impoverished, transient population. This role was to become second nature to St, Patrick's He also founded Tir-Na-Nong (Gallic for "Land of Youth"), which came to be known as St. Patrick's shelter. But he never gave up the idea of rebuilding the church. When he went to Europe for a Eucharistic Congress in 1908, he carried a shopping list with him. He wanted marble to represent the three colors oflreland: green, white, and gold. The green came from Connemara in Galway, the gold and white from Italy.

He commissioned Mia Caldwell, an Irish artist, to fashion the Celtic-style monstrance, processional cross, tabernacle lamp, chalice and vestments. When they were completed, they were displayed in the Dial, seat of government in Dublin; the Irish press proclaimed them "the finest examples of Celtic art to leave Ireland in centuries." Today, all but the vestments remain.

The monsignor carried gold and silver from the Sierra mines to Dublin, where they were used to create exquisite lettering on the handsome Mass Cords, which are still in existence.

In Birmingham, England, he ordered the Tiffany glass windows for the clerestory. Sixteen windows tell the story of pre-Christian Ireland, beginning with Macha, the first Queen, laying the foundation ofEmania. The legendary starting point of Irish history.

For the lower windows, he chose the thirty-two saints of each county oflreland, from St. Mae Nissi of County Antrim to St. Kevin of County Wicklow.

The new church was built on the old foundation, using what could be used. The original granite steps were hauled to San Jose to be part of the Calvary cemetery there. The original bricks were cleaned and re-layed; the stain of the fire can still be seen on them. Even the bronze of the bells was re-used.

Maher arrived when the church was still "abuilding." He came from a farm outside Callan in County Kilkenny, a huge eighteen-year-old. He worked first for the railroads, then five years in the mines in Montana. When he was on a visit to San Francisco, Rogers convinced him