History: From the ruins

A new concept, a new cathedral

Standing in the charred ruins of the church in which he had recently been installed as the fifth archbishop of San Francisco on the morning of Sept. 8, 1962, Joseph T. McGucken announced that we would build a new cathedral. The moment was providential. There was a spirit of confident optimism in the air: parishes and schools were being built, seminaries and novitiates were overflowing, “Good Pope John” was admired and loved by the whole world, and for the first time in history a Catholic was living in the White House. One month after this announcement, the new archbishop went to Rome for the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The first document approved by the council fathers was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, and the Catholic Church of San Francisco had the opportunity to build the first cathedral in the United States inspired by the liturgical vision of the council.

Three local architects were appointed to undertake the design of the new St. Mary’s Cathedral. Paul Ryan, Angus McSweeney and John Michael Lee went to work, but their plans (constrained by the long, narrow site of the old cathedral) were rather tame. Voices were raised (both within and outside the Catholic community) that the times called for something more daring. The archbishop listened to these voices and invited Pietro Belluschi in as a consulting architect.

From left, Pietro Belluschi, dean of School of Architecture, MIT; Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken; Justin Herman, director of San Francisco Redevelopment Agency; and Msgr. Thomas J. Bowe, pastor of the new cathedral, present a model of new St. Mary’s Cathedral to members of the press at a news conference held in the chancery office on Jan. 24, 1964.

Belluschi was reluctant to accept. He had designed small churches and synagogues, but never a cathedral for a major city … and a city prone to earthquakes. He acquiesced, and Archbishop McGucken asked him for three things:

1. The cathedral should accommodate a large number of people;

2. It should be designed in such a way that this large community would feel closely connected to Eucharistic celebration at the altar;

3. The building should proclaim the presence of a living Christian community worshipping in the midst of the modern city.

Other providential movements were at work: the neighborhood around the old cathedral was being cleared for redevelopment. Could the church obtain two city blocks in the middle of San Francisco to make the dream a reality? The pastor responsible for the actual building of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Msgr. Thomas J. Bowe, planted a medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the desired property and vowed that her shrine would have an honored place in the new church. This property provided the space needed for the cathedral, and for a large conference center, a new high school and parking for 250 automobiles.

Belluschi’s plans took shape. He envisioned the new St. Mary’s as “a luminous tent” (a fitting image for the pilgrim people of God), which would rise up 20 stories to form a cross over the people gathered for worship. He in turn enlisted the assistance of a genius in the art of designing with reinforced concrete, Pier Luigi Nervi. The entire soaring structure would be supported only by four massive pylons.

Archbishop McGucken at the groundbreaking of the new cathedral.

The architect gave the archbishop what he asked for. The new St. Mary’s seats 2,400, with standing room for 1,500 more. The farthest pew is only 75 feet from the altar, with no pillars or columns blocking the view. And the building proclaims our timeless Catholic faith in a modern idiom. Only 20th-century engineering could produce such a vast, open space for the community to gather. The Eucharist is what makes the church, so, in keeping with the directives of the council, there is only one permanent altar, around which the entire worshipping community gathers. The stained-glass windows (representing the four elements of earth, air, fire and water) reach up to form a magnificent, glowing cross. But the windows at ground level are clear, reminding us that we are the church in the modern world, praying for the city around us and inviting it to join our praise of God.

It was a historic moment when the new archbishop made his bold pronouncement. But history has a way of changing. If 1962 could be considered a high-water mark of American Catholic optimism, very soon “the ’60s” unfolded: an era of assassinations, war protests and unrest here and abroad. And so by the time the new St. Mary’s opened at the end of 1970, it was floating in a tempestuous sea of controversy. Conservative Catholics were uncomfortable with a building so unlike a traditional Gothic or Spanish colonial design; liberal Catholics were uncomfortable with the idea of building a church at all.

Over the past 50 years St. Mary’s has found its place as the heart of Catholic life in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, as well as serving as a venue for countless civic and cultural events, and has provided food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless. Our cathedral has welcomed celebrated figures – Pope St. John Paul, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Fulton Sheen among them – but it also has offered spiritual refreshment and charitable assistance to thousands who have crossed its threshold. The world today can sometimes seem a darker place than it was in 1962, the time of Kennedy’s “Camelot” and the excitement felt at the calling of an ecumenical council. All the more needed, then, is our cathedral’s message of confidence in the Church’s ability to speak to the modern world of courage, imagination and hope for the future.