Noe Valley Voice February 2001

Earthquake Repairs Give a Lift to St. Paul's

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

In the late afternoon of a crisp, sunny Christmas Eve 2000, more than 1,200 worshippers gathered inside St. Paul's Church for the first time in 11 months. The 90-year-old edifice on Church Street closed last Jan. 30 for a $3.4 million seismic retrofit. But, as parishioners had hoped and prayed, the newly restored, twin-spired building reopened just in time for the Christmas holiday.

As Father Mario Farana walked down the newly carpeted main aisle of the Gothic building toward the white marble altar, a children's choir singing in the background, his eyes grew misty.

"My Sicilian nature got the best of me," says Farana, pastor of St. Paul's since 1993. "I was processing everything--the music, the beautiful altar before me, the church filled to standing-room-only--and I became overcome with emotion.

"It's just so wonderful to be back in the church. The building means so much to so many people. It's not only a historical landmark, but a landmark in people's hearts and minds and a symbol of what their faith means to them."

Earlier in the day, about 50 parishioners had turned out to put the finishing touches on the renovation. They'd polished and dusted benches, swept and mopped the vestibules, strung lights on two Christmas trees, brought in fresh poinsettias, and set up the nativity scene.

Like Farana, Noe Valley resident Eloice Marie Helms, who attended the 4:30 p.m. mass with her husband and two children, confessed to "getting teary-eyed" during the ceremony. "Everything in the church looked so beautiful, especially with all the children performing the Christmas pageant at the main altar."

The media also recognized the significance of the event. Both Channels 7 and 4 ran stories about the church's reopening, during their Christmas Eve newscasts.

The next monumental event for the parish will take place on Sunday, Feb. 4, when a special 12:15 p.m. rededication mass will be celebrated by Farana; William Levada, archbishop of San Francisco; and Carlos Sevilla, a former St. Paul's parishioner who is now bishop of Yakima, Wash. More than 1,500 people are expected to attend, including many students, parents, and alumni of St. Paul's, and nuns and priests affiliated with the church over the years.

After the mass, a reception with be held in the Parish Center and lower schoolyard. Sandwiches and beverages will be served, and St. Paul's memorabilia will be on display. The church will also hold its fifth annual raffle, with prizes totaling $20,000. (Tickets are $100 apiece, or three for $200, and may be purchased by calling the rectory at 648-7538.)

The Feb. 4 mass and reception will culminate six years of hard work and struggle for the St. Paul's community. It's been more than seven years since the San Francisco Archdiocese threatened to close St. Paul's Parish altogether, citing a lack of funds to bring the parish's convent, schools, and church buildings up to earthquake safety standards. But with parishioners and Noe Valley residents protesting strongly, the archdiocese had a change of heart and reversed its decision.

Since then, the Missionaries of Charity convent, occupied by the white-robed Mother Teresa nuns, has been retrofitted. And St. Paul's former high school on 29th Street and primary school on Valley Street have been sold to developers who converted them to high-priced condominiums. Much of the money from the sale of these properties went toward the $5.1 million construction of St. Paul's Elementary School, which opened in 1999.

Retrofitting the church itself was seen as the last hurdle the parish had to face, and Farana gives credit to the project's contractor, Nibbi Brothers, for finishing on schedule and $400,000 under budget.

"Nibbi Brothers worked very hard to make this happen on time," says Farana. "They worked on weekends and after hours. They put in much more than eight-hour days on this project."

Under the supervision of architect Michael Stanton, a St. Paul's parishioner and Church Street resident, the seismic upgrade included strengthening the church building's two towers, bracing existing steel trusses, and installing concrete sheer walls. "The building is very safe now," says Stanton. "Prior to the renovation, the church was quite unsafe because it was supported entirely by unreinforced masonry walls."

A new roof has been added over the side aisles of the church, along with a disabled-accessible entrance on Valley Street. The retrofitted church also has a new bathroom on the main floor and a wheelchair ramp leading into the sanctuary. In addition, the north and south vestibules were rebuilt to cut down on wind drafts and to accommodate the new entrance on Valley Street.

A prayer chapel has been installed near the front entrance of the church, and soon its walls will be inscribed with the names of 200 priests and nuns who have served or attended St. Paul's. The names of 2,000 donors to St. Paul's capital fundraising campaign will be inscribed in the two new vestibules.

Sections of the interior have been repainted, and a plush green carpet, which highlights the gold-leaf trim around the altar and ceiling, has replaced the shabby red indoor-outdoor carpet that once ran down the main aisle.

The carpet, according to Farana, is a close approximation of the carpet in the building when it opened in 1911.

"We're going back to our roots in a sense," explains Farana. "We want the building to appear as fresh and new as it was when it opened 90 years ago."

Still, he laughs, "some old-timers have had a hard time seeing what the difference is, what $3 million bought. But in essence what we have is a new building. There are new roofs, drains, reglazed windows, painting. The systems are now up to date."

Adds parish secretary Ruth Tortorelli, "Some parishioners have asked, 'Show me the $3.4 million,' and I say, 'Have you ever seen a woman who's had a really good facelift, so good you can't even tell she's had a facelift? Well, that's what we have here.'"

To finance the project, St. Paul's relied on its low-key Capital Campaign Drive, which began in 1994. Proceeds from raffles, Friday-night bingo, greeting card sales, dances, and auctions were earmarked for the earthquake repairs. In addition, since early last year, St. Paul's has conducted a special collection for the ret-rofit at each of its masses on the first Sunday of every month. The collection brings in about $3,000 a month, according to Katy O'Shea, director of the campaign.

St. Paul's also obtained a $1.8 million loan from the Archdiocese of San Francisco, plus a $1 million grant. Beginning in February, the parish will start paying back the principal on the loan in $12,000 monthly installments.

"We're in good shape financially," O'Shea says. "We should only be incurring minor expenses regarding the retrofit from now on. Everything major has been taken care of."

O'Shea is especially grateful for the neighborhood's support. "People have been very generous throughout Noe Valley. People who are not part of the parish have made donations. Merchants have made donations for our silent auctions. One man called up and asked if he could make a donation for the retrofit even though he wasn't Catholic. We are so thankful to all the parishioners, neighbors, and merchants who have contributed."

With the retrofit complete, O'Shea and Farana are now looking to the future for the parish--how they can keep it viable, particularly with the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Later this month, Farana hopes to begin holding meetings in parishioners' homes to discuss what the goals for the parish should be over the next five years.

With these efforts and in the glow of the newly retrofitted church, Farana also hopes to reach out to Catholics who are not currently attending church.

"When you enter St. Paul's Church, a real sense of peace overcomes you," says Farana. "I can't explain it. Maybe it's about prayer. Maybe it's about the presence of Christ, but I just get an overwhelming sense of peace inside this building."