A History & Tour of St. Dominic's Catholic Church
San Francisco, California
In 1850, Fr. Sadoc Vilarrasa, Most Reverend Joseph Alemany, and Mother Mary Goemere arrived in the United States from Spain. Bishop Alemany had been appointed bishop of Monterey, CA, and invited Fr. Vilarrasa and Mother Goemere to join him. In 1853, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was founded and bishop Alemany was its first bishop.
In 1863, the Dominican order paid $6,000 for an entire city block in San Francisco, California. A few short years later, Fr. Vilarrasa the Provincial Council spent $25,000 to build a priory and a church. The first installment of St. Dominic's Church, a very small church on the corner of Bush and Steiner Streets, was completed and blessed on June 29, 1873.
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As time went on and the congregation grew, the small St. Dominic's was clearly not large enough. A brick church was then constructed and completed in 1887. In 1906, however, this church was destroyed by the Great Earthquake. The Great Earthquake of 1906 caused devastating fires throughout San Francisco nearly destroying the entire city and killing thousands of people. A temporary wooden church was constructed for the time being. It was then used as a parish hall before being demolished in the 1960s.
The final St. Dominic's Church was begun in 1923 and was not completed until 1928. Although the building itself was completed, many additions were made and the church that is seen today was finished in 1973.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the lantern atop the tower on St. Dominic’s. The tower was also partly destroyed as well. The parish closed for a couple of months as repairs were made to the tower. Some of the decorative work on the ceilings and beams were removed for the safety of the parishioners. With all the many constructions and repairs, the church was officially dedicated by Bishop John Quinn of San Francisco, on August 1, 1992
Throughout the church, one will find the many hand-crafted scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. In fact, everything made in the church was hand-crafted, nothing in it was mass-produced by factories. Much of the oak wood carvings of Biblical scenes come from the Edmund Schmid Woodcarving Studio of Oberammergau in Germany. Oberammergau is famous for its Passion Play put on by the family that runs and owns the Edmund Scmid Woodcarving Studio.
St. Dominic's Church is a prime example of Gothic church architecture. There are a few key distinguishing marks of Gothic-style churches. The first is pointed arches. Pointed arches allowed the church building to be built even taller than most by supporting the sheer structural weight.
The arches were then reinforced with the second hallmark of Gothic churches: flying buttresses. Flying buttresses resist the lateral thrust put on the arches by the roof of the building. The weight of the church’s roof causes the walls to push out. The flying buttresses prevent this from happening. The flying buttresses on St. Dominic’s were added in 1984 after engineers declared that the church was unstable from seismic activity.
A third hallmark is stained glass windows. Stained glass windows in churches are supposed to represent the gems lining the Heavenly Jerusalem in the book of Revelation: “The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel.” (Revelation 21:19)
Abbot Suger (1080-1151) is considered the founder of Gothic architecture with his construction of St. Denis in Paris. When he was praying in the church, he felt as if he had entered the Heavenly Jerusalem described by St. John in the book of Revelation. The architecture of a church can greatly add to or detract from one's active participation in the Liturgy.
Another common hallmark of Gothic churches is anthropomorphic columns. Since columns represented people, Gothic architects simply added statues of people (usually the twelve Apostles) into their columns for their churches. St. Dominic's Cathedral has numerous anthropomorphic columns surrounding the sanctuary.
St. Dominic’s Church is also a place of prayer and pilgrimage for those with a devotion to St. Jude. In one of the side chapels, there is a small shrine in honor of St. Jude that was founded in 1935. According to tradition, St. Jude is said to have brought an image of Jesus from Jerusalem to King Abgar of Edessa and healed him of a type of skin disease.
Once St. Dominic had founded the Order of Preachers in 1216, the Dominicans soon began to preach and teach in Armenia where there was a strong devotion to St. Jude. As the Order became larger, and the Dominicans spread, they brought devotion to St. Jude with them to the United States. To this day, thousands of pilgrims continue to visit the small shrine and ask the Patron of Hopeless Causes for aid.
St. Dominic’s Cathedral is a true jewel of Gothic church architecture and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful churches west of the Mississippi.1
All photos were taken by the author.