Noe Valley Voice June 2010

Let Bylines Be Bylines: The Spires Are Back

By Judy Vaughn

When you've lived in Noe Valley 47 years and you regularly walk the hills from 24th Street to the Mission, you sense the rhythm of the landscape, how it often changes and sometimes how it never changes at all.

You notice when the leaves turn red and fall off the trees at your feet.

You look to the Oakland skyline in the distance and say, Wow! how great it is to live on these hills.

You wonder what the neighborhood was like when there were only cows from Mitchell Dairy Farm grazing on the slopes beyond 29th Street.

The twin spires of St. Paul's Catholic Church, newly tiled and whitewashed, are a reminder of how things used to be. And after months of being shrouded in black netting, they're finally in full view again.

From September 2009 until April 2010, parishioners walked through two-story scaffolding to attend services. Outside, waiting for the J-Church streetcar, sidewalk superintendents watched workmen scale the heights, hoisting up planks one at a time until they reached the golden orbs and seven-foot crosses. Cab drivers took note of the spectacle. Out-of-town visitors craned their necks to see the top of the spires.

People who live in the valley, even non-Catholics who may never actually go inside the church, have always known that St. Paul's steeples dominate the neighborhood. They can be seen from every direction--from Potrero Hill and Bernal Heights to Diamond Heights.

Construction work, which began because a few tiles had come loose, ultimately became a production of major proportions, says Katy O'Shea, who chairs the church's capital campaign.

"The slate had been there almost a hundred years. We couldn't afford to take a chance more would fall."

Was the work disruptive? Not really, she says. Some brides may have been unhappy they couldn't have their pictures taken on the front steps, but vows were said, services were held, and the congregation worked around it.

Early History

Demographics have shifted over the years, but there's a tangible cultural dynamic in Noe Valley that defies country of origin.

After Native Americans came the Spanish and Mexicans, like Jose Cornelio de Bernal and Jose de Jesus Noe, the future alcalde (mayor) of Yerba Buena. Finally, there was John Horner, among the 235 Mormons who sailed around the Horn in 1846 looking for new land to settle. But those are tales for another time.

For St. Paul's, the story starts with the next wave of immigrants--the Irish.

When you're out walking the hills of Noe Valley, picture an earnest young priest from County Cork, Ireland, riding through the sand and mud on horseback in the early 1880s. One of more than a thousand missionaries sent throughout the world from All Hallows College in Dublin, Fr. Lawrence Breslin tended to 200 families in the southwestern part of the city. And on Sundays he celebrated mass at the corner of Noe and Valley streets.

The building he used, which is still standing, was a hospital erected and later abandoned by the Italian Benevolent Society. Evidently, the hospital had hoped to offer recuperative care "out in the country" for people from town. But let's face it, town was four miles away, and in those days getting out to this valley was a daunting trek. Twenty-eighth Street was called Dale, and 29th was Vale. And then, like now, the building was uphill from almost any direction.

The First Church

To imagine the church Breslin eventually built in 1897, go to the corner of 29th and Church streets and envision a modified Gothic-style wooden building on the northwest corner. Think of a gaslight fixture out front, with a lamplighter. Stellings Grocery was nearby and the Fairmount Market, now Drewes Brothers Meat Market (note the sign on the storefront).

Donovan's coal and wood yard was next, with a saloon at Day and Church and a Methodist church down the street. And let's have a tip of the hat, if you please, to Mrs. Kelly, "the genial Irish lady" who lived in one of the small cottages next door.


Resilience is a handy word for the folks at St. Paul's. Remember, this is a congregation whose forbears reputedly hauled down rocks from the Castro Street quarry at the top end of 29th Street to build the present church, which was dedicated in 1911.

These were the folks who salvaged cobblestones for the church's façade from the infamous rubble of City Hall, after the 1906 earthquake destroyed it in 46 seconds.

These were the plucky Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs), who had come out to teach from Dubuque, Iowa, and during the 1918 influenza outbreak, canceled classes to minister to the sick and dying. Picture mass funerals held in the school courtyard as the church bells tolled from six in the morning until two in the afternoon.

This is the church that invited Whoopi Goldberg and the Disney crew to film onsite for a couple of months in 1991 and rearranged their schedules to accommodate the studio. They also agreed to let the family of one prospective bride paint over the film's graffiti so their daughter's big day could be photographed...on the front steps, of course!

And Rebuilding

These are the people who--after the Loma Prieta earthquake and after the passage of a law restricting unreinforced masonry buildings--found the cost of retrofitting their buildings so steep they had to come out fighting for their very life to save the parish.

It was painful, but the people of St. Paul's accepted the challenge. They sold the primary and high school buildings (they're condos now). They rebuilt the grade school from scratch.

Today, the BVMs are gone, replaced by secular teachers. But you can often see Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity, two by two, on the J streetcar and the 24-Divisadero bus saying their beads on the way to serving the homeless downtown. Look to the rooftop of the old grammar school convent adjoining the church. On laundry day, their clean white robes and bedclothes flutter in the fresh air.

Loyalty and Longevity

Families who were helped by the church during the Great Depression remain on the rolls. Graduates from the high school turn up in enthusiastic numbers for class reunions. Many, in fact, still live in the immediate neighborhood.

To describe the loyalty and longevity of old-timers, O'Shea points out that Father Kevin Gaffey, himself baptized and brought up in St. Paul's Parish, married three generations of one family. Think of the changes he would have seen during that time. In the early days, he would have sung the mass in Latin. By the 1960s, through the innovations of Vatican II, the words he and other priests said were in the vernacular--now English and Spanish.

Ask a neighbor about the history of St. Paul's and she's quick to pay respect to the past. "We're late to the parish," she demurs. "We've only been here 20 years...."

Even in those 20 years, there have been changes. Today, music at Sunday mass comes from contemporary musicians playing with contemporary enthusiasm, a far cry from the Ave Marias of a century ago. After serving as extras in Whoopi's Sister Act, this congregation has never been quite the same! As Google buses glide silently through the streets, it's likely that even techies with laptops have found their way into St. Paul's nave.

And Memories Remain

When there's a hearse parked in front of the church, you can pretty well assume it carries the body of an old-time parishioner who worshipped there for many years.

When 12 bridesmaids show up on the sidewalk outside, you might not be wrong to guess the families have deep emotional ties to the building and the neighborhood.

When your family has second- and third-generation bonds to a church like this, when reunions include the Murphys, the Ryans, and the Lyons, when your dad's dad grew up around the corner off Castro, and your great-grandma used to walk your grandpa and his brother to school from 27th Street..., such a church has special meaning.

Last year, the Murphy family--preparing for the wedding of their son and future daughter-in-law this summer--purchased a print of Royce Vaughn's painting of the church as an engagement gift, a reminder of the family's ties to the parish.

That gift, the newly tiled spires, and years of walking the hills surrounding this lovely valley prompted me to write this story.

Judy Vaughn is a docent at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, a San Francisco City Guide, and an inveterate walker in Noe Valley. She and her husband, artist Royce Vaughn, live on Valley Street.

Let Bylines Be Bylines

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