Noe Valley Voice June 1997

St. Paul's at the Millennium

By Joseph Metzgar

Noe Valley has a treasure, something precious, something priceless. Noe Valley has St. Paul's.

St. Paul's Church, the twin-spired wonder at Church and Valley streets, is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture on the Pacific Coast. When Father Michael Connolly began construction of St. Paul's in 1897, he and his parishioners probably never realized how enchanting and enduring a church they would bequeath future generations.

The architect Frank T. Shea, the "Church Builder of San Francisco," supplied the plans and architectural expertise. Father Connolly, in turn, assumed the role of contractor. Connolly considered bids, studied estimates, oversaw purchases, supervised construction, and got his hands dirty with the rest of the crew. Nearly every able-bodied man in the parish contributed his labor.

Connolly also adopted a pay-as-you-go policy, based on fundraising efforts such as contests, raffles, and bazaars. Those efforts assured that the church would be debt-free upon its completion. Indeed, the construction took well over a decade to complete, but when St. Paul's was dedicated on May 29, 1911, Noe Valley and San Francisco had acquired a Gothic masterpiece.

St. Paul's is built of granite taken from a one-time quarry near 30th and Castro, plus some rubble and curbstones from the 1906 Earthquake. The granite, chipped and hewn into blocks by workers at the building site, gives the church a solid monumental appearance.

The church represents the American Gothic revival of the late 19th century. It was built with a traditional cruciform layout (based on the Christian cross) and has certain distinctive features such as an outside porch with heavy pillar supports. A statue of St. Paul -- the traveling "Apostle to the Gentiles" -- stands in a recess at the apex of the facade. There are dormers jutting from the sloping roof and a pinnacled turret at the crossing.

St. Paul's two unequal spires, which can be seen from almost any part of the neighborhood, are made of complex frames of wood covered with slate. Orna-mental buds called "crockets," typical of the English decorated style, adorn the spires, giving them a more natural, budding-of-spring look. Another typical feature is the Gothic arch, which graces both the exterior and interior.

In contrast to the rather cold stone facade, the interior of the building, which is predominantly wood, elicits feelings of warmth and spirituality. It welcomes worshippers and visitors as if to the womb of "Mother Church."

When you enter from the vestibule, you see the main altar directly ahead. The vertical lines of the surrounding architecture then lead your eyes upwards, ever upwards. Wooden ribs stretch from the capitals of several bundled piers rising from the floor and reach to the soaring ridges of the vaulted ceiling at the top. Finally, the tall, colorful stained-glass windows suffuse the interior with a warm soft light.

The main altar, sculpted in Carrara marble, was imported from Italy. The arched stained-glass windows, many with decorative bar tracery, came from Munich, Germany. The fine wood pulpit, imported from Germany as well, repeats the budded crocket design on its own miniature pinnacles. It also is encircled with sculptures of prelates, including St. Peter carrying the "Keys of the Kingdom."

Above the choir loft and the main entrance, the church boasts a magnificent rose window. Two smaller rose windows grace the far ends of each arm of the transept.

According to a 1980 history written by John H. McGuckin Jr., the total cost of the original construction was $260,000 -- a figure that would translate roughly into $5 million today.

By the time Father Mario Farana became pastor of St. Paul's in the summer of 1993, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was threatening to close the church and sell off its satellite school and convent buildings. The church had been ordered to retrofit all of its buildings, to meet new seismic standards following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earth- quake. But the high costs of renovation were causing the whole parish to shake.

(Interestingly, the church building survived both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes with minor damage, mostly of a cosmetic nature. Perhaps this was due to the "iron core" reinforcement of the interior pillars, described in one early print source.)

In any case, in 1994 Father Mario initiated efforts to save the church. Eventually -- after many consultations with the archbishop and with the architect hired to do the work -- the parish decided to demolish the old elementary school at the corner of 29th and Church streets and construct a new school building at the same site, while at the same time retrofitting its jewel, St. Paul's church.

Architect Michael Stanton met personally with parishioners to discuss the new plans. Consultant Christine Dohrmann came on board to help raise the necessary funds. Meanwhile, Sister Maureen O'Brien, a nun who taught at St. Paul's High School for many years, launched the on-site campaign.

Nowadays, Sister Maureen reports St. Paul's is halfway toward its goal of $7.8 million, which includes $4.6 million for the school and $3.2 million for the church. The money has come from gifts, pledges, the sale of parish property, and a grant from the archdiocese. A lot more must be raised, however. "Yes," Sister Maureen says, "we do need additional support. You've heard the old saying that the first million is the hardest to raise. I say the last $2.5 are the hardest."

In 1897, Father Connolly, Frank Shea, and Noe Valley workers and parishioners began construction of St. Paul's church. Today, a hundred years later, Father Mario Farana, Sister Maureen O'Brien, the architect Michael Stanton, parishioners, and neighborhood contributors will soon begin "reconstruction" of St. Paul's.

To be a part of history, call Sister Maureen at 648-0442.

Noe Valley writer Joseph Metzgar is a former professor of American cultural history at the University of Nevada, Reno.